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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.

Acts 6-8 describe the activities of two non-apostles, Stephen and Philip. Both are Hellenistic Jews and neither is numbered among the 12.  Yet Stephen is the first martyr and his speech summarizing some important theological points in the transition between Peter’s ministry in Jerusalem and Paul’s mission in Acts 13.  Philip is the evangelist who brings the Gospel to Samaria and to an Ethiopian, perhaps fulfilling the commission in Acts 1 to go to Samaria and the “ends of the earth.”

Acts 6:1 says that there was a problem between “Hebraic” and “Hellenistic” Jews. (See this post on the Hellenists.)This needs to be explained carefully, since the word “Jew” does not appear in the text (although English translations regularly include it). Obviously these are all Jews, but there seems to be problem between the Jews who are in Jerusalem from “outside” and those Jews who remained on “the inside.” Chapters 6-8 concern the activities of two Hellenistic Jews and their ministry outside of the circle of the apostles in Jerusalem. I would suggest here that Luke has intentionally arranged several stories concerning Peter and John in chapters 2-4, and several stories concerning Stephen and Philip in chapters 6-8.

08-04-05/46This is not necessarily a geographical division, although doubtless it often was. To be a “Hellenist” was to adopt the language and culture of the Greeks, while to be a “Hebrew” was to adopt a more tradition Jewish language and lifestyle. For Ben Witherington, language is the main issue (see Acts 240-247, for an excellent excursus on the Hellenists). Bock, on the other hand, agrees more with my sketch of the Hellenists (Acts, 258-9). Language is an important issue, but it is not the only issue separating the Greek from Judean Jew.

We cannot make a general judgment like “all Jews from the Diaspora were more liberal” or that “all Jews from Jerusalem were more conservative.”  These categories are derived from modern, western ways of dividing an issue into opposing, black and white categories and highlighting the contrasts.  It is entirely possible a Jew living in a Roman city was very conservative on some aspects of the Law even though he lived and worked along side Gentiles.

Paul is the best example of this since he was a Jew from Tarsus, fluent in Greek but also able to call himself a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” in Philippians 3. He was certainly quite conservative with respect to keeping the law and traditions of the people.  Yet he was a Roman citizen and seems to have had little problem functioning in the Greco-Roman world.  On the other hand, The High Priest, the Sadducees and Herodians appear to have been more relaxed  concerning some aspects of the Law and had no real problem ruling alongside of the Romans. But they were still concerned with keeping the Law and maintaining the Temple.  It was therefore possible to be “extremely zealous” in the Diaspora and extremely lax while worshiping in the Temple regularly.

Some in the Jerusalem community in Acts 6 are more committed to a Jewish Christianity and are finding differences with the Jews who are more Hellenistic in attitude. This leads to the appointment of the deacons, but does not solve the ultimate problem. By Acts 11 Jews living in Antioch are willing to not only accept Gentiles as converts Christianity, by Acts 13 Paul is preaching the gospel to Gentiles who are not even a part of a synagogue!

Since these Hellenistic Jews are more open to Gentiles in the fellowship, the more conservative Jews in Jerusalem begin to persecute the apostolic community even more harshly, leading to the death of Stephen and the dispersion of the Hellenistic Jews.

The text in Acts 6 does not imply that the problem was theological – it was entirely social (Witherington, Acts, 250). Some of the Hellenists felt slighted because their poor were not supported at the same level as the non-Hellenists. The word Luke uses (παραθεωρέω) in Acts 6:1 means that one “overlooks something due to insufficient attention” (BDAG).  The neglect may not be intentional, but it was a very real problem which the Apostles needed to deal with quickly.

As we read Acts 6, how deep is the divide between these two groups?  Looking ahead at what happens in Antioch, in Galatia, and in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), does this “Hebrew” vs. “Hellenist” divide foreshadow bigger problems?

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Christian Theology

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