Acts 8 – Philip And The Ethiopian

Lambert Sustris - Ethiopian Eunuch 1After a period of ministry in Samaria, Philip is lead by the Spirit to a road heading from Jerusalem to Gaza, where he encounters an Eunuch from Ethiopia.

That this man was in Jerusalem and is reading a scroll of Isaiah indicates that he is a Jew, despite the fact that he is living in Ethiopia. Some (older) commentaries argue that the Ethiopian was a Gentile. Since there is no church that develops from his conversion, there is not a problem integrating him into Israel as a convert to “Jewish Christianity.” Most important, the conversion of Saul in the next chapter heralds the beginning of Gentile mission.

But as Darrell Bock points out, Luke makes Cornelius significant as the first Gentile convert, albeit as a God-Fearer (Acts, 338). As with the Samaritans, we are geographically moving outward from Jerusalem, but also culturally. If the Samaritans are the fringe of Judaism, so too would be a Gentile convert from Ethiopia, a land that was considered to be the very “ends of the earth” (Witherington, Acts, 290, citing Herodotus, Hist 3.25.114, Strabo, Geog. 1.1.6).

The fact he is reading from Isaiah is an indication that the man is at least a Jewish convert.  A scroll of Isaiah would have been a costly book and quite large. Either this is a purchase for his synagogue, or he is reading and extract from a larger scroll. In addition, he is reading aloud, often associated with memorization of the text (m.Aboth 6.5). The scroll could be in Hebrew or Greek, the text as cited in Acts follows the LXX, but the sense is the same in the Hebrew.  If he were reading a section of Isaiah in Hebrew, then this is confirmation that the Ethiopian was a Jew (although the language of the scroll does not matter)

He is described as a Eunuch and in charge of the treasury of Candace, queen of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is not the same as the modern country, but biblical “Cush,” south of Egypt, in the central Sudan. It is a five month journey from Jerusalem to Cush through inhospitable desert. Presumably he was either in Jerusalem from Passover, stayed through Pentecost and is only now returning home to Ethiopia. He is traveling south to the coast. Gaza is the last place to stop for water before the road turns south for the Egyptian desert (Bock, Acts, 341).

The Eunuch is reading from Isaiah 53, the great servant song.  The identity of the servant was an open question in the first century, but few would have identified the servant as the Messiah.  Philip uses the ambiguity of the text as an opportunity to explain that Jesus of Nazareth is the suffering servant.

When Philip approaches the Ethiopian, he asks if he understands the text. The Ethiopian states humbly that he cannot understand unless he has a guide – the purpose Philip has been brought to the place. The question the man concerns the subject of Isaiah 53. Jews in the Second Temple period would have that the passage described either Isaiah or some other person (like a new Elijah); if the messiah was in view, it was not a suffering messiah at all.

Philip “begins with that very passage” to explain the gospel with the Ethiopian. Philip identifies Jesus as the innocent sufferer of Isaiah 53, making it clear that the new age described in Isaiah 56 has begun – that even Eunuchs may enter into complete fellowship with God in worship.

If the Eunuch is in fact from an Ethiopian family of Jewish proselytes, then Philip is extending the Gospel into new a social and cultural context, but he is not yet reaching out to the Gentiles. But he is doing ministry like Jesus did, finding Jews who were on the margins of what it meant to be Jewish from the perspective of the Temple aristocracy, the Pharisees and others at the center of Jewish faith in Jerusalem.

12 thoughts on “Acts 8 – Philip And The Ethiopian

  1. This is a great account of the standard view, Philip, and it’s all very glorious, but I happen to think it misses the central point of Luke’s telling, which is in line with Luke’s larger narrative around this passage, which is that controversy was brewing about whether uncircumcised peoples could receive the Holy Spirit.

    The eunuch was, by definition, not circumcised. And Philip does not provide him with the Holy Spirit. The way I read this, Luke is making an oblique indictment of the apostles’ teaching up to that point.

    This, also, comes right after Philip tried to deny HS in Samaria, but Peter and John arrived. Presumbaly, Peter & John knew that Samaritans were circumcised children of Abraham, whereas Philip had not known. In both cases, however, Luke shows Philip as one who had been ignorant of what Peter learned at Cornelius’ house.

    As one of Luke’s ostensible sources from Caesarea, Philip evidently repented, and so the fact that Philip related these details to Luke further stresses that these details cannot be a coincidence.

    Sorry to go on so long, but I’d love to get your response, while on topic. Have you come across this line of thinking before? And do you see any problems with my reading? (I realize it’s a whole other angle, but I’m not sure whether my reading in any way contradicts your account. (?))

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    • I cannot say that I have read anything quite like this. If I am understanding you correctly, you would consider Philip not simply evangelizing to people on the fringe of what it means to be Jewish, but to people who would be considered “unable” to receive salvation (Samaritans and the Eunuch) because of their status as outside of God’s people by definition.

      Two things that immediately come to mind: In Luke 9:51-56, the Samaritans oppose Jesus and James and John want to call fire down from heaven on them. This would indicate to me that James and John (at least) thought Samaritans were like the Israelites of the OT and they wanted to function as an eschatological Elijah and render judgment. While it is possible that John “learned his lesson’ (and Jesus does rebuke him), there is a strong anti-Samaritan feeling among the 12, perhaps they did not consider them as “children of Abraham.”

      Second, it is at least possible that the Eunuch was one in name only, the word being a title by this time in history. It is also possible that a person could be a member of Israel even if he was mutilated, but he was prohibited from worshiping at the Temple. But then again, I think that the fact he was reading from a scroll which promised that Eunuchs could worship in the coming kingdom may indicate that he was in fact a “real” enunuch.

      I like this, actually, and think that my presentation here is not far from your suggestion. Again, if I read you right, then Philip was “doing something wrong” which later needed repentance? (” Philip evidently repented”). We have interacted on this sort of thing before, I do think that there were bigger divisions within that early form of Christianity that are under the surface in Luke/Acts.

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  2. I see Philip passionately reaching out to the uncircumcised (Samaritans, the eunuch) but not yet being able to see beyond the teaching of Peter (& the 12). Philip wanted to share as much of the Gospel as he thought they could hear, but Philip had bought into Peter’s teaching [pre-Cornelius] that *Holy* Spirit could not *touch* an uncircumcised gentile.

    Note: when I say the Samaritans were “children of Abraham”, I mean they were biologically descended, and cultural cousins to Jews (ie, practicing circumcision). My suggestion is that Philip saw their ostracism and assumed they were uncircumcised; but Peter knew better. The fact that Peter & John had not themselves initiated the Samaritan mission suggests that Peter was being gracious here; perhaps not thrilled about it, but once they’d believed there was nothing in Peter’s theology that allowed him to deny them HS.

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  3. If we follow and understand the function of the holy spirit we would know that the ethiopian for real was an african and was able to know about christianity because he had the link already since he had a relationship with queen of sheba,remember centuries ago that the queen of sheba visited jerusalem to meet with king Solomon.the eunuch was busy with the recitations and memorisation of the scroll without understanding and God knows this is a great privilage to capture africa using this devoted man hence he sent Philip to go and interprete the words in the language of the man.the holy spirit Jesus says teaches all things,i can also associate this act to speaking in tongues in a broad exposition because it had to do with the message(word),new tongue(the language),interpreter(Philip),the messenger(Philip) and the sender(God). the ethiopian eunuch was not a jew but an african.

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    • Thanks for the comment. It is possible the man was Ethiopian (hence African by race) and Jewish (by religion). My point in the original post was that he was Jewish, not Gentile.

      I am not sure how tongues is a factor, since there is no reference to it in Acts 8:26-40, the Ethiopian is reading a text (probably in Hebrew) and needs help understanding it (v. 31). He is asking about the meaning of Isaiah 53:7-8, and it appears he understands the words, just to whom they refer. Philip offers an explanation (Jesus is the suffering servant). Philip was led there by the Holy Spirit, and I will assume the Spirit led him to answer int he way he did, but there is nothing hinting at tongues here.

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  4. Circumcision in the O.T means genital mutilation but in the new testament means repentance of heart.so far as you have accepted The Christ you are circumsized irrespective of where you came from and the status of you genital mutilation.

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  5. Thank you brother Philip. Speaking in tongues is not twisting in tongues as a handful of christians teaches and believe. Tongue speaking means saying something in the language that the listener will understand for his benefit just as the apostles did at pentecost in acts 2:1-18. Philip also acted under this influence because the eunuch was reading but not in his own language.You can understand where tongues speaking came in in my previouse analysis

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  6. This is a passage I have heard and read many times, and it is beneficial to understand the greater depth in this text. Understanding the O.T. and How the nation of Israel was developed enables us to see how the gospel was supposed to spread. Israel was meant to be the city on a hill to the rest of the nations. The problem we have with that, is Israel failed to show the nations the one true God. Instead, they married with those in the land, and worshiped other gods. Israel clearly fails the spreading of the one true God.
    Jesus comes to the scene and fulfills the prophecies. The gospel starts in the Jerusalem community, and is strongly focused on the Jews. However, the leaders reject the message multiple times and thus the gospel starts to spread to the nations as was originally intended in the O.T. I think this is an explain of the gospel going out to the nations, although we are not quite to the gentiles yet. We see that this is a Jewish convert, or at least a proselyte. When thinking about the spread of the gospel, we see that the Jew first, then the gentile. In between those are the God fearing gentiles, or proselytes. Thinking about the martyr of Stephen, the result of the death sent people to the surrounding regions such as the Samaritans. Thus, this is an example of the gospel reaching the “next in line”. A way of understanding this is the gospel goes out to the Jews first, the God fears/proselytes second, and the gentiles third.

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  7. The shift from the gospel being preached only to Jews in Jerusalem, to possible Jews living in “the ends of the earth” is well seen here. The Ethiopian Eunuch is certainly an educated man, reading from Isaiah. However, even with his education, there is something lacking in his understanding when he reads the passage. By realizing this, he opens the door for Phillip to explain how this passage is speaking about the Messiah Jesus Christ. While we cannot know for sure, it seems likely that this encounter took place shortly after Phillip’s encounter with Simon the Magician in Samaria. If this encounter is taking place a short time after Simon’s baptism, it makes this encounter important for both the Eunuch and for Phillip. Phillip’s last baptism could have possibly been Simon the Magician. At this point, the apostles were probably becoming warier of people like Simon; that is, people who were getting baptized without the confirmation of the Holy Spirit. Because of this, Phillip is probably unsure of how to respond to the Eunuch when he requests to be baptized. Phillip doesn’t want to baptize another person, only to find out later that they don’t really believe. However, Phillip does not let this fear stop him from following through on the leading of the Spirit as he baptizes the Eunuch right where they are. This shows an interesting development of fear among those in the church. In the next chapters, we see another apostle fear what might happen if he is to share the gospel with Saul, following his encounter with Christ. In the end, the church is not only handling the shift of where to preach the gospel but also handling the risks that accompany said preaching outside of Jerusalem.

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  8. I agree that it seems like the Ethiopian is not Gentile, but some form of Jew. Whether that be proselyte or some long removed Jewish family that wound up in Cush some how, I don’t know that that particular detail is of great importance. We see here that Philip was directed by The Spirit to this particular person, in this particular time. The command given to the early Christians was to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. You yourself said that it was “a five month journey from Jerusalem to Cush through inhospitable desert.” It may not have been in the realm of possibilities for the early Christians to make that treacherous journey to Cush, which was obviously inhabited. But, through the works of The Spirit, Philip chanced upon this Eunuch, who just happened to be reading a portion of the Jewish scripture about the servant. And Philip with his knowledge of Jesus related that scripture to Jesus and was able to bring that Eunuch into a relationship with Jesus Christ. Since that Eunuch was already headed back to Cush, this provided a way for the good news of Jesus Christ to travel further than what had previously been considered as possible.

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  9. I have always wanted to know more about the Ethiopian in this story. I thought that he such a unique character. My original thoughts about him were that he was not a believer, but he was reading Isaiah to try and come to an understanding of who the Jewish God was. I had not realized or put much thought into the fact that those scrolls would have been very expensive, or why he would have been traveling with one. It is just a normal concept for me to be able to carry around my Bible, seeing it in cultural context, it is out of the ordinary for this to take place. I had never thought that he might be a believer who just needed clarification or a guide to gain a better understanding of what he is reading. Another insight that I had not thought of was that because of Philip helping to clarify things, the Ethiopian is then able to go back to his home town and share that knowledge with those around him. This brings the Gospel to a whole new group of people, and either allows them to come to a saving knowledge or just gain a better understanding of what the passage is really saying. This is just one more way that the Gospel is being brought to the ends of the earth.

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