Creating a New Bible
Written by: Joel Cabrita
Nazaretha Christians in Southern Africa
Joel Cabrita, the author of Text and Authority in the South African Nazaretha Church, explains the Nazaretha Christians of Southern Africa and the eclectic influences that helped them build their church.
My book tells the story of how twentieth-century members of the Zulu-speaking South African Nazaretha church wrote a new Bible. Today, there are approximately four million ‘Nazaretha’ believers in Southern Africa, making it one of the largest black African religious organizations in the region. Politicians, community leaders and well-known musicians – amongst other prominent figures in the country – belong to this church, and the affairs of the Nazaretha people are often featured in the local news media: the church has become a significant cultural presence in the landscape of contemporary South Africa.
Scholars have largely interpreted this influential group as an indigenous African appropriation of Christianity, invested in regional oral traditions. It is thought that Nazaretha Christians – with their use of local beadwork, their espousal of Zulu custom and tradition, and their conservative sexual politics – demonstrate a uniquely ‘African’ form of Christianity. My new book with CUP – Text and Authority in the South African Nazaretha Church – challenges this tendency to analyze South African Christianity through exclusively local concerns. Instead, I emphasize Nazaretha members’ engagement with wider transnational Protestant literary cultures, and especially with North American Pentecostal scriptural exegesis, newly arrived in South Africa in the early twentieth century. In this way, I seek to explore the eclectic influences that informed the still little-understood production of popular religious texts by black Christians of this period.
In particular, I chart how largely uneducated Nazaretha collaborated with a class of scribes within the church to write a supplement to the Christian Bible, a text they called the ‘Third Testament’, building upon the existing Old and New Testaments. Drawing upon Nazaretha texts, government archives and ethnographic research, I demonstrate that church members used print and the power of the written word to argue that their founding prophet – Isaiah Shembe – was the reincarnation of Christ, and they were latter-day biblical characters, reenacting the story of salvation on African soil. Amidst official hostility, and rivalries from other Christians, Nazaretha members recorded, edited and canonized their identity as God’s people. In doing so, they demonstrated the power of evangelical-style Christianity to permeate local religious politics.
However, Nazaretha believers’ codification of new scriptures was contentious. It provoked existing tensions between clergy and laity, men and women, elders and youths, as each attempted to assert authority by capturing production and exegesis of holy books. In unravelling these print-mediated tensions, I attempt to break new ground in our understanding of Christianity’s role in the tumultuous social changes of twentieth-century South Africa.