Is the Ethiopian eunuch the first Gentile convert in Acts?
This is the twenty-fifth entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. This entry deals with the Philip’s continuing his mission to Samaria and encountering a marginalized person with respect to Israel, an Ethiopian eunuch.
D) Persecutions of the “Hellenist” Jewish Christians and the First Mission outside of Jerusalem (6:1-8:40): Philip the evangelist and an Ethiopian eunuch (8:26-40):
26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it." 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" 31 He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth." 34 The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" 37 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. (NRSV)
The last scene in the Samaria narrative, as well as the last portion of Acts 8, finds the evangelist Philip continuing his successful missionary activity which was interrupted by Peter and John in the previous scene. The presence and power of the Holy Spirit is present at the beginning and at the end of this scene. At the beginning of the scene it is actually “an angel of the Lord” who directs Philip, telling him to “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza” (Acts 8:26). At the end of the scene the Spirit acts even more directly, as it “snatched Philip away” and he “found himself at Azotus” (Acts 8:39-40), a distance difficult to determine with precision, since we do not know exactly where Philip was, but a distance of many miles or kilometers. We are, quite obviously, meant to understand Philip’s travel away from Gaza as instantaneous and miraculous. Almost as miraculous, it seems, is his encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch, whom he meets somewhere along the road between Jerusalem and Gaza (Acts 8:26-28).
There are a few things which need to be sorted out to understand the eunuch and the significance of his presence in this account. He was “a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah” (Acts 8:27-28). Among the things to sort out are who is the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, what did it mean that the eunuch was “in charge of her entire treasury,” and why had he “come to Jerusalem to worship” and “reading the prophet Isaiah” if he was not Jewish? But before these questions are considered, what is a eunuch?
The most common type of eunuch in antiquity was a boy or man, often slaves or prisoners of war, whose testicles had been crushed or whose penis has been cut off. Oxford Biblical Studies online defines eunuchsas “castrated males abhorred by Jews (Josephus, Apion 2.270–71).” There are regulations regarding such eunuchs in Deuteronomy 23:1, where it states that “no one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord,” that is, as proselytes among the people of Israel, and in Leviticus 21:20, which bars such eunuchs from participation in Temple rituals. These eunuchs could not participate in the life of the Jewish community due to the injuries imposed on them.
Jesus also describes another class of “eunuchs who have been so from birth” (Mt 19:11-12). Born eunuchs are also discussed in Mishnah Yebamoth 8:6 in the context of marriage and whether a born eunuch (sarischamah), literally a “sun eunuch,” can marry.
If a priest were a born eunuch (sarischamah) and he married the daughter of an Israelite, he renders her eligible to eat the priest’s-due. R. Jose and R. Simon say, if an hermaphrodite (androgonos) priest wed the daughter of an Israelite, he endows her with the right to eat of priest’s-due. R. Judah says, if one whose sex were indeterminate were operated on and was found to be a male, he must not submit to chalitzah because he is considered as a eunuch (saris). An hermaphrodite (androgonos) may marry but he may not be married. R. Eliezer says, an hermaphrodite (androgonos), one (a male) incurs because of him the penalty of stoning as with a male.
A born eunuch is one who has not developed sexually, for the rabbis by the age of twenty, or one whose genitalia is both male and female (androgonos). A born eunuch (sarischamah) could marry in some situations, since his issues are developmental not the result of injury. And the born eunuch considered an androgonos may marry a woman as a man, but not be married as a female by another man.
The strong possibility is that the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 is a castrated male and a slave, since these eunuchs were often made so in order to serve in royal courts without suspicion of sexual infelicities (Johnson, Acts, 155). Since the eunuch serves the Candace, a royal title of Ethiopian queens, not a personal name, he might have been made a eunuch, even as a boy, to serve in her court. Whether he was a slave cannot be determined definitively, but eunuchs often were, and it was not unusual for such a slave to have a high-ranking position in a royal court, such as the chief of the treasury (Page, Acts, 134).
As to why had he had “come to Jerusalem to worship” and was found “reading the prophet Isaiah” if he was not Jewish is a fascinating question, whether an actual historical event is described here or not (Johnson, Acts, 159), since the import of the scene is the opening up of the people of God to all, even those previously excluded. As noted above, Leviticus 21:20 and Deuteronomy 23:1 would exclude a eunuch from the people of God, even if he had been born a Jew and later enslaved and castrated. Yet, there are also passages in the Old Testament which look forward to a time of entry, both of Gentiles and eunuchs, into the people of God (Johnson, Acts, 159).
As Gary Gilbert points out, Psalm 68:31 looked forward to Ethiopia “reaching out to God” and more significantly for our purposes Isaiah 56:4-5 foresees a time when eunuchs would be included among the people of God (Gilbert, “Acts” in JANT, 216): “4 For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5 I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” The whole point of this scene is that what was promised to the prophet Isaiah is now coming to pass in the life of the Church. A Gentile and a eunuch is welcomed among God’s people.
The Spirit directed Philip to “Go over to this chariot and join it” (Acts 8:29). When Philip comes to the Ethiopian eunuch he “heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him” (Acts 8:30-31). The scene progresses quickly, Philip and the eunuch being guided by the Spirit and by Scripture. The significance of Isaiah 56:4-5 is confirmed when we learn that the eunuch is actually reading another passage from the prophet Isaiah.
Indeed, the eunuch is reading from Isaiah 53:7-8, the suffering servant song: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth” (Acts 8:32-33). The fact that the eunuch can read and that he has a copy of Isaiah might be seen as odd, but it does indicate both his wealth and his education as well as his interest. We are told, after all, that “he had come to Jerusalem to worship” (Acts 8:27), though he would not have been able to go to the Temple, at least not licitly, and we do not know of what his worship consisted or with whom, if anyone, he worshipped.
He has been studying Isaiah, however, because he wants to know the identity of the suffering servant in Isaiah 52-53, a question scholars, if not Christians, still debate today: “the eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:34-35). Isaiah 52-53 is the most significant prophetic passage which was applied to Jesus and his passion for the early Christians and it is the entrée for Philip’s evangelization.
For the early Christians, only they had the key for proper exegesis of this passage, a belief maintained by other Jewish groups of the time and frankly by many religious groups throughout the ages. “As Jesus on the road to Emmaus opened the meaning of the Scripture concerning himself, so does Philip on the road to Gaza open the text of Isaiah to the Ethiopian, showing how it speaks of Jesus” (Johnson, Acts, 160). Clearly, Philip’s exegesis has convinced the eunuch, for when they arrive at “some water” the eunuch wants to be baptized. He asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36) and instead of answering, Philip simply baptizes him (Acts 8:36-38). The scene is presented so matter-of-factly when it is in fact momentous, even earth-shattering, for the Christians. It is the first step to bringing Gentiles into the Church and into, as they understand it, the people of God. Ricard Dillon, in fact, understands this as an “account of the first Gentile conversion, told in Hellenistic circles and rival to the Cornelius story (chap. 10)” (Dillon, “Acts,” in NJBC, 743). Dillon believes that Luke has left the story vague as to whether the eunuch is a Gentile to make certain not to distract from the Cornelius story which has Peter, not the evangelist Philip, at the heart of the Gentile conversion (Dillon, “Acts,” in NJBC, 743).
The story also indicates how rapidly such missionary activity progresses, both in terms of witness, but also in terms of the actual performance of the ritual. We will see this rapidity in evangelization throughout the Gentile mission presented in Acts. Even allowing for literary license and historical imprecision, this must reflect the practice of the earliest Christians.
The passage ends as abruptly as it began and with a miracle performed directly by the Holy Spirit, who clearly has been directing all of the events up to this point (Dillon, “Acts,” in NJBC, 743; Johnson, Acts, 151). “When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea” (Acts 8:39-40). The catechesis of the Ethiopian eunuch has ended as quickly as it began; Philip has been spirited away, literally, and finds himself miles away. The language of “caught up” reflects the tradition of heavenly assumptions found in the biblical tradition, such as Enoch in Genesis 5:24 and Elijah in 2 Kings 2:16. The eunuch, thank goodness, is not troubled by this absence and rejoices. Philip just continues his evangelization, he, too, untroubled by his heavenly journey. After all, in Acts the Holy Spirit takes all of the initiative and here the initiative is direct.
Next entry, Saul is blinded by the light.
John W. Martens
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 Jesus also describes a third class, “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” but this is not relevant for this discussion.
 Philip Blackman translation from Mishnayoth. New York: Judaica Press, 1965.
 Other ancient manuscripts add all or most of verse 37, “And Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he replied, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’”