Philip establishes a wildly successful ministry in Samaria (Acts 8:4-8). Incredibly, later in the very same chapter, an angel of the Lord abruptly instructs him to leave the thriving Samaritan mission and relocate south to a desert road descending from Jerusalem to Gaza (Acts 8:26). (Contrary to popular belief, God can call a minister to a less prominent position.) Philip accepts his assignment and while en route encounters a man by the side of the road. (Acts 8:27).
So he got up and went; and there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure; and he had come to Jerusalem to worship, (Acts 8:27 NASB)
In context, the account reads like a non sequitur as it does not flow from the story that precedes it nor does it advance the subsequent narrative. Its subject, the Ethiopian eunuch, will play no role in the remainder of the book.
James M. Scott (b. 1955) situates:
As it stands, Acts 8:26-40 is isolated in the narrative of Acts and not immediately connected with anything that precedes or follows it. Having finished the story of Peter and John among the Samaritans (Acts 8:14-25), Luke abruptly begins the account of the Ethiopian eunuch with the angel of the Lord instructing Philip to go from Jerusalem to Gaza (Acts 8:26), and he also ends it abruptly with Philip being caught up by the Spirit and taken to other regions (Acts 8:39-40). Therefore, the text gives the impression of being a separate section in the narrative structure of Acts. (David W.J. Gill [b. 1946] and Conrad Gempf [b. 1955], “Luke’s Geographical Horizon”, The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting, 533)Gerd Lüdemann (b. 1946) speculates:
The story circulated independently because it played no role in the rest of Acts. (Lüdemann, The Acts Of The Apostles: What Really Happened In The Earliest Days Of The Church, 122)Connected or not, the providential encounter results in the New Testament’s first example of one-on-one evangelism.
Acts accents the introduction of its newest character. Beverly Roberts Gaventa (b. 1948) observes:
The word “behold” (idou; NRSV: Now), as often in biblical narrative, commands attention for what follows (e.g. Acts 1:10, 5:9, 7:56). Precisely here Luke introduces a dramatic figure he identifies as “an Ethiopian male, a eunuch, treasurer of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was over all her treasury” (author’s translation). (Gaventa, Acts (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 141)More translations omit the antiquated particle “behold” (CEV, ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NLT, NRSV) than retain it (ASV, KJV, NKJV, RSV).
The man is depicted at length with five descriptors. He is: 1. a man, 2. an Ethiopian, 3. a eunuch, 4. employed as a court official; 5. a worshiper.
The traveler is identified as an “Ethiopian”(ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, KJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV). While this moniker refers to a well-established country, David Tuesday Adamo (b. 1949) suggests that the word is best translated by the broader “African” (Adamo, Africa and Africans in the New Testament, 89–91).
Αἰθίοψ...The kingdom of Ethiopia, south of Aswan, had existed since the eighth century B.C. Its two chief cities were Meroe and Napata. In the conversion of this Ethiopian Luke or some of his readers may have seen a fulfillment of the promises of Psalm 68:31; Zephaniah 3:10 (see Eusebius [263-339] Historia Ecclesiastica 2.1.13). Since Homer [800-701 BCE]’s time the Ethiopians (Odyssey 1.23)...were regarded as living on the edge of the world (cf. Acts 1:8). (Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 225)Jews had a long history with Ethiopia, known as Cush in the Old Testament (Genesis 2:13; Psalm 68:31; Jeremiah 38:7). Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) canvasses:
The biblical tradition gives a certain picture of the place. Ethiopia was a remote and distant land (Ezekiel 29:10; Esther 1:1, 8:9), renowned for its wealth (Job 28:19, Isaiah 45:14) and its military prowess (II Kings 19:9; II Chronicles 14:9-13; Isaiah 37:9; Jeremiah 46:9). The Ethiopians were a dark complexioned people (Jeremiah 13:23; cf. Herodotus [484-425 BCE] 3.20; Philostratus [170-247], Life of Apollonius 6:1), one of the wicked nations of the world (Isaiah 20:3-5, 43:3; Ezekiel 30:1-9; Nahum 3:9; Zephaniah 2:11-12), who were to be among those foreigners who would be converted and acknowledge the true God of Israel (Psalm 68:31-32; Zephaniah 3:9-10). The curiosity of the educated classes of the Mediterranean world in Ethiopia was aroused by two Roman expeditions into the region, one military in 23 BC, and one scientific in AD 62 (Dio Cassius [155-235] 54.5; Pliny [23-79], Natural History 6.35; Seneca [4 BCE-65 CE], Natural Questions 6.8.3). The stereotyped image of Ethiopia and its people from antiquity is reflected in Heliodorus’s romance An Ethiopian Story. (Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 75)As has been alluded, the reference to an Ethiopian likely piqued the curiosity of the original readers. J. Bradley Chance (b. 1954) apprises:
The civilization of Cush lasted until c. AD 350. The culture was a source of fascination to the ancients. Pliny the Elder [23-79] (Naturalis Historia VI.186-92) speaks of reports that certain regions of Ethiopia produced human monstrosities: people without noses, upper lips, or tongues. Some tribes were said to follow a dog as their king. Awareness of these popular stereotypes of Ethiopians makes God’s directing of Philip to invite an Ethiopian into the fold of God’s people especially provocative. The gospel really is for all types of people! (Chance, Acts (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 136)Beverly Roberts Gaventa (b. 1948) supports:
The description importantly plays on well-established interest in Ethiopians. Homer [800-701 BCE] speaks of the “far-off Ethiopians...the farthermost of men” (Odyssey 1.22-23), and Herodotus [484-425 BCE] describes them as the tallest and most handsome of all the peoples (3.20). Strabo [64 BCE-24 CE] remarks that Ethiopians come from the extremities of the inhabited world (Geography 17.2.1; see also Diodorus Siculus [90 BCE-30 BCE] 3.1-37; Pliny [23-79], Natural History 6.35; Dio Cassius [155-235] 54.5.4). Old Testament and patristic texts also portray Ethiopia as the border of the known world (e.g., Esther 1:1, 8:9; Ezekiel 29:10; Zephaniah 3:10; see Frank M. Snowden, Jr. [1911-2007], 1970, 1983)...He [the Ethiopian eunuch] comes from Meroe, a kingdom established and powerful since before the time of Alexander the Great [356-323 BCE]...Recent events would have placed Meroe in the spotlight since Augustus [63 BCE-14 CE]’s general Gaius Petronius [b. 75 BCE] had led a military campaign against the Candace’s army when Ethiopians pushed into Elephantine. Scientific expeditions into Meroe were conducted under Nero [37-68] around 62 CE, and he had also planned, though never executed, a military campaign against Meroe (Dio Cassius 54.5.4; Strabo [64 BCE-24 CE], Geography 17.1.54; Pliny [23-79, Natural History 6.35; Erich Dinkler [1909-1981] 1975, 91). (Gaventa, Acts (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 141-42)In witnessing to an Ethiopian, Philip expands the gospel into new regions.
The Ethiopian also stretches the gospel’s racial boundaries. Ethiopians were phenotypically black and the ancient reader would have assumed that the eunuch was ebony. In fact, the name “Ethiopia” derives from a compound meaning “burnt face”. Some church fathers even made the appalling allegation that he was made white when he was baptized (Ephrem the Syrian [306-373], Hymn III “The Pearl, Seven Hymns on the Faith,”); Jerome [347-420], “The Letters of St Jerome: Letter 69, to Oceanus”).
Mikeal C. Parsons (b. 1957) notes:
In antiquity, skin color was an Ethiopian’s most distinctive feature (Homer [800-701 BCE], Odyssey. 19.244-248; Herodotus [484-425 BCE], Historiae 2.29-32, 3.17-24, 4.183, 197; and Seneca [4 BCE-65 CE], Naturales quaestiones 4A.218). What is the ethnographic significance of the Ethiopian’s conversion?...The allusion...may not have been altogether positive; it certainly was not in the physiognomic handbooks. About Ethiopians, pseudo-Aristotle says, “Those who are too swarthy are cowardly; this applies to Egyptians and Ethiopians” (Physiognomia 812a12-13). If this negative view of Ethiopia/Ethiopians is in the cultural repertoire of Luke’s audience, Luke encourages the setting aside of those prejudices. (Parsons, Acts (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 119)Analysis of the Ethiopian eunuch in relation to race has escalated in recent times. F. Scott Spencer (b. 1956) surveys:
Recently African-American scholars have called attention to this man’s identity as a black-skinned, African official (Cain Hope Felder [b. 1943], pp. 182-86; Clarice J. Martin [b. 1952] pp. 791-94; Abraham Smith [b. 1957]). In marked contrast to the tragic oppression and vilification of black Africans in modern Western history, Ethiopians in particular were idealized in ancient classical writings as people of great piety and beauty. Homer [800-701 BCE] spoke of ‘blameless Ethiopians’ (Iliad 1.423-34); Herodotus [484-425 BCE] extolled the ‘burnt-skinned’ Ethiopians as the tallest and most handsome of all humankind (History 3.20); and Diodorus of Sicily [90-30 BCE] commented that ‘it is generally held that the sacrifices practiced among the Ethiopians are those which are most pleasing to heaven’ (3.3.1). (Spencer, Acts (Readings: A New Biblical Commentary), 91)Eric D. Barreto (b. 1980) examines:
Clarice J. Martin [b. 1952] outlines three basic approaches to the eunuch’s race. “Uncertainty” is the first interpretive strategy. Unsure and perhaps even uncomfortable with questions of ethnicity, some scholars argue for the eunuch’s ethnic ambiguity and, more important, question, whether his ethnicity has any function in the narrative. In the end, “uncertainty” resembles neglect. A second kind of effort acknowledges the eunuch’s ethnic provenance “but usually with only a cursory discussion of Nubia, and rarely with any explicit identification of Nubians (or ‘Ethiopians’...as they were called in the Common Era) as black-skinned people.” Finally, the third overarching approach fully and explicitly acknowledges the eunuch’s ethnic identity and the various corresponding – especially physical – marks of Ethiopian ethnicity...Martin’s own approach falls within the third category, and she ultimately concludes “that the story of a black African Gentile from what would be perceived as a ‘distant nation’ to the south of the empire is consistent with the Lucan emphasis on ‘universalism,’ a recurrent motif in both Luke and Acts, and one that is well known.” Thus, the presence of a black person within the narrative of Acts is one way in which Luke indicted the universal reach of the gospel. No matter how exotic, there is no land or person that cannot come to know the goodness of God. (Barreto, Ethnic Negotiations: The Function of Race and Ethnicity in Acts 16, 9-10)Rodney S. Sadler, Jr. (b. 1967) pronounces:
That he was converted indicates that black Africans were never excluded from full participation in the promises of Christianity because of their supposed “racial” designation. (Brian K. Blount [b. 1956], “The Place and Role of Africa and African Imagery in the Bible”, True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, 28)Gay L. Byron (b. 1961) echoes:
The Ethiopian eunuch was used by Luke to indicate that salvation could extend even to Ethiopians and Blacks. (Byron, Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature, 105)While the Ethiopian’s race is only implied, careful attention is paid to the eunuch’s social status. He is in the employ of Candace, queen of Ethiopia. Candace (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NKJV, NRSV) or Canda’ce (RSV) or Kandake (NIV, NLT) is a hereditary dynastic title (Pliny the Elder [23-79], Naturalis Historia 6.186; Pseudo-Callisthenes, Life of Alexander of Macedon 3.18). This is the only occurrence of this name in the Bible. Kandakē is a more accurate rendering of the name than the modern sounding Candace.
The Kandakē was the ruler of the country. Eusebius (263-339) mentions that Ethiopia was still governed by a woman in his era (Historia Ecclesiastica 2.1.13). F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) explores:
Κανδάχης Βασιλίσσης...Candace was a hereditary title of the Ethiopian queen mothers, who reigned in Meroe. An inscription from Pselchis (Dekkeh) in Nubia (13 B.C.) calls an earlier Candace τὴν χυρίαν Βασιλίσσαν (Gustav Adolf Deissmann [1866-1937], Light from the Ancient East, p. 352). The queen mother was the effective head of government; the king her son was regarded as a divine personage, the child of the sun-god. So Bion of Soli, Aethiopica 1. (Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 226)C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) deliberates:
Luke seems to have taken Candace as a personal name; in fact it appears to transliterate the title that appears in Ethiopic inscriptions as k(e)ut(e)ky, and to be reduplicated by Βασίλισσα. (Barrett, Acts: Volume 1: 1-14 (International Critical Commentary), 425)Jo Ann H. Seely (b. 1958) denotes:
According to Bion of Soli (Aethiopica 1, ca. 2nd century B.C.E.), the Candace was the head of the government in the Nubian kingdom of Meroe (located in modern Sudan). The title Candace is also attested in several classical sources (cf. Strabo [64 BCE-24 CE] Geographica 17.154; Dio Cassius [155-235] Historia Romana 54.5.4-5; Naturalis Historia 6.35.186; Pseudo-Callistus 3.18). (David Noel Freedman [1922-2008], Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 215)Mal Couch (1938-2013) relates:
The name means “Queen or Ruler of Children.” Candace is not a proper name. It is a title once assumed by the dynasty of the royal family of the Ethiopians, much as pharaoh was the title of the Egyptian king and caesar was the title of Roman emperors...George Reisner [1867-1942] has identified pyramid tombs of the Candaces of Ethiopia constructed from c. 300 B.C. to A.D. 300. (Mal Couch, A Bible Handbook to the Acts of the Apostles, 268)William J. Larkin, Jr. (b. 1945) identifies:
Candace, queen of the Ethiopians (better “Queen Mother, ruling monarch of the Ethiopians,” since candace is a title, not a proper name), cared for the duties of state. The king was regarded as a god, “child of the sun,” to sacred to engage in administration. The candace in this instance was Amanitare (A.D. 25-41; David W. Wead [b. 1936] 1982:197; Piers T. Crocker 1986:67). (Larkin, Acts (IVP New Testament Commentary Series), 132-33)The Ethiopian eunuch is a foreign dignitary. He is described as a dynástēs, translated variously as one with “great authority” (ASV, KJV, NKJV, NLT), a “court official” (ESV, NASB, NRSV),“minister” (MSG, RSV), “chief treasurer” (CEV), “high official” (HCSB) or “important official” (NIV).
C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) details:
As a δυνάστης he was a leading man, a man of power, in his own country. The word has in itself no precise meaning, and translates a number of Hebrew words in the Old Testament. He had power as an agent. (Barrett, Acts: Volume 1: 1-14 (International Critical Commentary), 425)Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) adds:
It was not uncommon for castrated males to hold positions of importance in oriental courts (see Herodotus [484-425 BCE], Persian Wars 8:105; Philostratus [170-247], Life of Apollonius of Tyana 1:33-36). Indeed, in the Septuagint Jeremiah 41:19, the Hebrew term for eunuch is translated as dynastēs, the term here translated as “official.” (Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Sacra Pagina), 155)More specifically, the chamberlain’s function is defined as supervising the nation’s treasury. He is the minister of finance.
The Greek word for treasury is similar to the destination of the road where the eunuch is found. Gerhard A. Krodel (1926-2005) professes:
On the road to Gaza the official in charge of the queen’s treasure (Greek, gaza) will receive new treasures, the good news of Jesus, understanding the Scriptures, Baptism, and joy. (Krodel, Acts (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament), 168)F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) clarifies:
γάζης...“treasure,” “treasury,” [is] a loanword from Persian (not related to the place name Gaza). Cf. Plutarch [45-120], Demetrius 25.5. (Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 226)In his homeland, the eunuch is clearly well respected. His possessing a scroll (Acts 8:28) is likely an indication of his wealth. Given his standing, many imagine the eunuch as an older man. He is unquestionably a person of influence.
The Ethiopian is most famously characterized as a “eunuch” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, KJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV). Luke-Acts frequently notes the physical condition of those entering its text (Luke 5:12, 9:39, 13:11; Acts 3:2, 7, 28:8).
In today’s world, eunuchs are seldom discussed. They are no longer prevalent and not an especially pleasant topic. Darrell L. Bock (b. 1953) defines:
Eunuchs were castrated men who often served as keepers of harems (BAGD 323 § 1; BDAG 409; in the New Testament they appear only in this scene and in Matthew 19:12; Philostratus [170-247], Life of Apollonius of Tyana. 1.33-36; Jeremiah 48:16 LXX; Esther 2:14). They often served as treasurers (John B. Pohill [b. 1939] 1992: 223). His condition would not allow him full participation in Jewish worship (Deuteronomy 23:1; also 1 QSa 2.5-6). In the eschaton, eunuchs will be restored to full worship (Isaiah 56:3b-5). (Bock, Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 341)Barbara K. Lundblad (b. 1944) relays:
Luke presupposes that readers have a particular knowledge of eunuchs. I am indebted to New Testament scholar Cottrel Rick Carson [b. 1960] for his in-depth-study of eunuchs. His reading of primary sources on eunuches ranges widely among classical Greek and Latin texts, as well as the Septuagint. Two kinds of eunuchs are described in classical texts: those castrated from birth and those castrated after reaching physical manhood. Both ended up alienated from their birth families, making loyalty to the monarch a matter of life and death. Eunuchs were involved in three primary tasks: 1) personal domestic service, often tutoring royal children; 2) the military—what could be better, they could never covet hereditary power; and 3) positions in the bureaucracy. (Lundblad, Marking Time: Preaching Biblical Stories in Present Tense, 52)In biblical times it was not uncommon for boys to be sold for the purpose of being made into eunuchs. Derek W.H. Thomas (b. 1953) discusses:
In some countries a commoner might elect to become a eunuch (and therefore be surgically altered) in order to serve in the royal palace. The reason was that eunuchs ensured sexual fidelity. Sometimes there is the suggestion that such alteration enhanced single-hearted loyalty. Such men traded the hope of family for wealth, security, and a status among the elite. However, eunuchs could never attain the status of royalty and were always servants, even if wealthy ones. (Thomas, Acts (Reformed Expository Commentary), 238)The papal choir employed eunuchs or “castrati” as recent as the 19th century.
Being a eunuch would have engendered certain perceptions. The text itself alludes to the fact that the eunuch would have been humiliated without the prospect of descendants (Acts 8:33).
Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) portrays:
Eunuchs in antiquity were viewed in two different ways. On the one hand they were regarded positively. Herodotus [484-425 BCE] 8.105 says that among barbarians eunuchs were especially prized as servants because of their trustworthiness. Heliodorus [third century CE], An Ethiopian Story, connects eunuchs with Ethiopian royalty. On the other hand, there was also a negative view of eunuchs among some in antiquity. Lucian [second century CE], The Eunuch 6, tells a tale of a eunuch who applies for a chair of philosophy at Athens. His chief competitor says such people ought to be excluded not only from philosophy but also from temples and holy-water bowls and all places of public assembly. The Jewish Scriptures were hostile to such people (Leviticus 21:20, 22:24: an emasculated man is physically blemished and in a permanent state of ritual impurity; Deuteronomy 23:1: they are not to be admitted to the assembly of the Lord). This attitude was continued in postbiblical Judaism (Philo [20 BCE-50 CE], Special Laws 1.324-25, 3.41-42: they belong to the unworthy barred from entering the sacred congregation; Josephus [37-100], Antiquities 4.8.40 §§ 290-91: total separation from eunuchs is enjoined; Midrash Megillah 2:7; 1 QSa excludes those with physical defects from the assembly of God; 1 QM 7.3-6 also excludes the maimed). (Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 75)Mikeal C. Parsons (b. 1957) investigates:
Eunuchs in antiquity “belonged to the most despised and derided group of men” (F. Scott Spencer [b. 1956] 1992a, 156). This claim would certainly find support in the writings of Polemo [d. 270 BCE], who notes that “eunuchs are an evil people, and in them is greed and an assembly of various (evil) qualities” (Physiognomonica. 1.162F). This attitude was prevalent among Greek-speaking Jews of the first century as well (Josephus [37-100] Antiquities 4.290-291)...Why were eunuchs thus demonized and ostracized in antiquity? In part, the answer lies in their ambiguous sexual identity. Lucian of Samosata [second century CE] argued that a eunuch “was an ambiguous sort of creature like a crow, which cannot be reckoned either with doves or with ravens...neither man nor woman but something composite, hybrid and monstruous, alien to human nature” (Eunuch. 6-11; cf. Josephus [37-100], Antiquities. 4.291; cf. Philo [20 BCE-50 CE], De specialibus legibus. 1.324-325). In a culture in which honor was gender-based, to be sexually ambiguous was to blur clear-cut gender roles and expectations and thus to bring shame upon oneself and one’s community (see Spencer 1992a, 157)...Further, eunuchs, by belonging neither to the cultural expectations of male nor female, had violated purity codes. This was especially true in Judaism, which prohibited the physically defective, like eunuchs, from entering the temple and interacting with the larger social body. (Parsons, Acts (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 120)Though the eunuch’s bureaucratic position was often possessed by a castrated male, some have posited that in Greek writings “eunuch” may have been a governmental title and as such the holder may not necessarily be emasculated.
Mikeal C. Parsons (b. 1957) analyzes:
There is some evidence that the word functioned simply as an official title. Genesis 39:1 reports that “Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar an officer (Septuagint, εὐνουχός) of Pharaoh.” Since Potiphar was married, “eunuch” here probably refers to his standing in Pharaoh’s court. Some early Christian writings developed the notion of eunuch as a reference to those who remain celibate. Athenagorus [133-190] wrote in A Plea for Christians: “If to remain a virgin and abstain from sexual intercourse (εὐνουχία) brings us closer to God...” (33.3; cf. Clement of Alexandria [150-215], Stromata 3.1; Matthew 19:12). Nonetheless the overwhelming majority of instances of “eunuch” from the classical period to late antiquity refer to one who was sexually mutilated (see Philostratus [170-247], Vita Apollonii 6.42; Lucian [second century CE], Saturnalia, 12) or, much more rarely, born with a congenital defect (see Aristotle [384-322 BCE], De generatione animalium 2.7.25). (Parsons, Body and Character in Luke and Acts: The Subversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity, 133)Sean D. Burke (b. 1972) charts:
The first Christian interpreters to suggest that “eunuch” could function as a title of rank applied to persons who were not castrated were Theodore (c. 602-690), archbishop of Canterbury, and Hadrian (died 710), abbot of a monastery in Canterbury, although they noted that among the Persians and the Romans, all eunuchs were castrated. Later, based on his understanding of the three categories of eunuchs in Matthew 19:12, Nicholas of Lyra [1270-1349] argued that eunuchus in Acts 8:27 should not be understood with regard to genitals (membrorum genitalium) but rather with regard to chastity (casitate). In a reading that has profoundly influenced the rest of the history of interpretation, especially among Protestants, John Calvin [1509-1564] claimed that, because the terms man and eunuch are both used of this character, the latter must be a title, and he argued that the practice among ancient Near Eastern rulers of setting castrated males over important affairs resulted in the indiscriminate use of the title eunuch even for those who were actually men (that is, not castrated). In light of Nicholas of Lyra’s understanding of the eunuch as a model of chastity, it may be significant that Calvin’s interpretation, which reduced the term eunuch to a title, was produced in a context in which he and other reformers were challenging the enforced celibacy of clergy and the glorification of the voluntary celibacy of those in religious orders. (Burke, Queering the Ethiopian Eunuch: Strategies of Ambiguity in Acts, 10-11)William J. Larkin, Jr. (b. 1945) evaluates:
Eunuch in ancient times could mean a castrated male (Leviticus 21:20; Deuteronomy 23:1); a castrated male who served in high government office, particularly under a woman ruler or in duties involving women (such as oversight of a harem) or in a treasury (Plutarch [45-120], Vitae Parallelae: Demetrius 25:5); or any male high government official (Jeremiah 34:19). It is difficult to determine which use Luke is making here. I. Howard Marshall [b. 1934] (1980:162) says that the piling on of phrases, dynastēs immediately following eunouchos, renders the former redundant if it does not indicate the physical condition (compare Ernst Haenchen [1894-1975] 1971: 310). (Larkin, Acts (IVP New Testament Commentary Series), 132-33)Darrell L. Bock (b. 1953) determines:
Jacob Jervell [b. 1925] (1998: 270-71) questions whether this man in a high office should be seen as literally a eunuch. He suggests that the Ethiopian is one who by his position functions as a celibate and this symbolically a “eunuch.” In this case, however, there would be no need to call him a eunuch, as Acts 8:27 does. So a literal eunuch is likely in view (Gerd Petzke [b. 1940], EDNT 2:81). (Bock, Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 341)A literal reading of the text is most natural and less redundant. Further, the story highlights the expansion of the gospel, and including a eunuch breaks further boundaries. The Ethiopian eunuch is most likely a eunuch.
In spite of the other biographical details provided, when he is referred to elsewhere in the text, he will be known as “the eunuch”. He is not referred to as the court official or the Ethiopian. He is the eunuch. This designation defines him.
Keith H. Reeves (b. 1957) inspects:
The operative term that Luke uses to refer to this man is the word for eunuch. Luke uses the term fives times (Acts 8:27, 34, 36, 38, 39). In the Septuagint the term (used thirty-eight times overall) often refers to a high official (as in the case of Potiphar, Genesis 39:1), but it is equally used to refer to a castrated male, typically related to work in the harem. The only other occurrences of the term in the New Testament are three times in Matthew 19:12, where it clearly refers to a castrated male...The term here denotes a castrated male rather than merely an official, because he has already been adequately identified as a minister. Were “eunuch” simply understood as minister, it would be redundant. Indeed, the repetition of the term for eunuch emphasize’s the man’s physical defect. This is his dominant trait in the narrative. (Robert L. Gallagher [b. 1949] and Paul Hertig [b. 1955], “The Ethiopian Eunuch: A Key Transition from Hellenist to Gentile Mission”, Mission in Acts: Ancient Narratives in Contemporary Context, 117)The eunuch is not referred to by name, but is rather identified by his “deformity” or “impairment.” This is no different than the non-personal identities levied upon contemporary people who do not conform to societal norms. Academicians who refer to the eunuch otherwise in an effort to give him dignity the text does not afford mitigate the impact of his eventual inclusion in the Christian community.
In spite of the numerous details Acts provides, the eunuch’s religious standing remains murky. Philip discovers the eunuch contemplating a scroll (Acts 8:32-33), specifically Isaiah 53:7-8, on a road leading away from Jerusalem (Acts 8:28). Presumably the eunuch has gone on a pilgrimage to worship.
Richard N. Longenecker (b. 1930) confesses:
It is difficult to determine from the text itself how Luke wanted his readers to understand the Ethiopian eunuch’s relation to Judaism. Furthermore, it is uncertain how first-century Judaism would have viewed a eunuch coming to worship at Jerusalem. (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], Acts (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 158)S.G. Wilson (b. 1942) expounds:
Luke...intentionally leaves the man’s religious status obscure: he could not call him a proselyte, because his source said he was a Gentile; and he could not call him a Gentile without anticipating the theme of Acts 10-11. Also, in this way Luke could give the impression that the Church’s mission had taken a step beyond the Jews and Samaritans, but not quite to the Gentiles, with all the problems which that involves. It may well be that Ernst Haenchen [1894-1975] and Hans Conzelmann [1915-1989] are right in thinking that the original version made it clear that the eunuch was a Gentile. But it is unlikely that Luke knew this and deliberately covered it up, for it would have been a simple enough matter to position this narrative at a later point, after chapters 10-11, as he has done with Acts 11:19f. It is more likely that Luke did not realize that the eunuch was a Gentile, maybe because the tradition he received did not make this clear. If the eunuch was a Gentile, then this narrative affords yet one more example of the way in which Luke’s idealistic picture of the extension of the Church’s mission is betrayed by stories which he himself relates. For Luke the narrative has significance as the story of the conversion of a semi-Jew, a conversion in which God is the main actor. (Wilson, The Gentiles and the Gentile Mission in Luke-Acts (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series), 172)As Wilson alludes, there has been discussion as to whether the eunuch should be deemed a Gentile. If so he is a God-fearer, a Gentile sympathetic to the Jewish religion. If he qualifies, the eunuch is perhaps the first Gentile convert. And this might prove problematic.
Ernst Hanechen (1894-1975) asserts:
Luke cannot and did not say that the eunuch was a gentile; otherwise Philip would have forestalled Peter, the legitimate founder of the Gentile mission! [Acts 10:1-48] (Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary, 314)Some have suggested that the eunuch be considered a proselyte within Jewish religious milieu though Acts recognizes full proselytes (Acts 6:5).
Michael A. Salmeier (b. 1969) researches:
Ernst Haenchen [1894-1975], Acts, 314; Luke Timothy Johnson [b. 1943], Acts 150; Rudolf Pesch [1936-2011], Apostelgeschichte, I, 287-95; Gerhard Schneider [1926-2004], Apostelgeschichte, I, 498) indicate to varying degrees the possibility that the man was either Jewish or a proselyte. C.K. Barrett [1917-2011] (Acts, 420, 424-26) argues that neither conclusion is possible given that Luke’s characterization that he is Ethiopian and a eunuch. (Salmeier, Restoring the Kingdom: The Role of God as the Ordainer of Times and Seasons in the Acts of the Apostles, 119)Loveday Alexander characterizes:
On the mental map of the ancient Mediterranean world, Ethiopia is part of the ‘ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). But in religious terms, the Ethiopian is a figure of the borderlands, halfway between Jew and Gentile, either a God-fearer or (more likely) a full convert to Judaism. (Alexander, Acts (Daily Bible Commentary: A Guide for Reflection and Prayer), 74)Regardless of his technical status, the eunuch is an outsider. Fred B. Craddock (b. 1928) describes him as someone who would have been made “to stand outside the church looking in”. Eunuchs were indeed excluded from Jewish worship.
Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) informs:
It is best to consider the Ethiopian as one of the marginal among the people of Israel. He is so because, despite his wealth and exalted social position (in charge of the royal treasury), he is a eunuch. According to Deuteronomy 23:1, a condition of sexual mutilation precluded full participation in the life of the people, and this restriction was certainly practiced by the covenanters at Qumran as well...By indicating that the eunuch had “come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home” (Acts 8:27-28), Luke portrays him as a righteous man who affirmed the covenant of God with Israel — a fact confirmed by his sedulous reading of the prophet Isaiah as he rode in his chariot (Acts 8:28). (Johnson, Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church: The Challenge of Luke-Acts to Contemporary Christians, 152)Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) contends:
From the point of view of Judaism, this put this man permanently on the fringes of the religion in which he was showing great interest. Deuteronomy 23:1 was regularly interpreted to mean that eunuchs were to be excluded from God’s assembly, though Isaiah 56:3-5 held out promise of fuller participation in biblical religion in the future as a full member of Gods people. In view of the focus on the Servant Songs in this very passage, it may be that Luke wishes us to see this story as a whole being about the fulfillment of that promise in Isaiah 56. The point would be that nothing hindered the eunuch from being a full-fledged follower of the one in whom Isaiah’s promises were being fulfilled in the present, even though he could not be a full-fledged Jew. (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 296)The eunuch is one who has been “cut off” from the worshiping community (pun intended) leaving him to wonder if there is any god for him. His experience in Jerusalem has evidently left him unsatisfied as evidenced by his directionality.
F. Scott Spencer (b. 1956) highlights:
Significantly, the direction of his transforming trek through the desert is the reverse of the Israelites’ wilderness course: he is heading away from Judaism’s holy land back to his native African country (Acts 8:27-28). More specifically, he is returning from a worship pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The results of this visit are not detailed, but the thrust of the eunuch’s questions to Philip suggest a prior experience in the Jewish capital of receiving inadequate assistance in understanding the Jewish scriptures (‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ Acts 8:31) and of being denied full access into the fellowship of God’s people (‘What is to prevent me from being baptized?’, Acts 8:36). (Spencer, Acts (Readings: A New Biblical Commentary), 91)In Jesus, as interpreted through the lense of Isaiah 53, the eunuch found a savior to whom he could relate. They were both mutilated for someone else’s benefit. Both were humiliated in the midst of their mutilation. Both had given up a potential family to serve. The eunuch could not have been reading a more appropriate text. He responds by confessing Jesus as the “Son of God” and requests baptism (Acts 8:36-37). Philip consents (Acts 8:38).
David Seccombe assesses:
He is an Ethiopian...but has been to Jerusalem to worship, so is presumably a proselyte. However, his emasculate condition would have barred him from sharing fully in the worship of the temple. He stands next to the Samaritans in Acts representing the circumcised worshipper of Israel’s God who is nonetheless not fully acceptable. At the sight of water the eunuch asks the critical question, ‘What prevents me being baptised?’ [Acts 8:36] Luke employs such rhetorical questions to stir his readers to agreement with the divinely led expansion of the boundaries of the people of God. Had the eunuch asked what prevented him entering the temple, he would have been reminded of his physical imperfection. Nothing hinders his full inclusion amongst the people of Jesus and he goes on his way rejoicing. (I. Howard Marshall [b. 1934] and David Peterson (b. 1944), “The New People of God”, Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts, 360)David Schnasa Jacobsen (b. 1961) and Günter Wasserberg (b. 1953) reflect:
This Ethiopian eunuch is the first boundary dispute. In spite of his status as a castrated man, which would make it impossible for him to become a Jewish proselyte, he behaves like a God-fearing Gentile: he prays and worships in the temple, in the section reserved for non-Jews (Acts 8:27). This God-fearing habit suffices for him to be baptized and to become a believer in Christ. (Jacobsen and Wasserberg, Preaching Luke–Acts, 115)The Ethiopian eunuch continues to influence disputed boundaries. Given the eunuch’s rejection on the basis of his sexual orientation, many have seen an equivalency to the contemporary homosexual. Some have even speculated that the eunuch is a “natural” eunuch, i.e. a homosexual.
Some interpreters have viewed the eunuch’s inclusion as marking a paradigm shift in the Bible’s view of homosexuals. Philip is directed by the Holy Spirit to someone who is ostracized by the Old Testament regulations regarding sexuality and proceeds to include him in the Christian community on the basis of his profession in Christ. The argument is bolstered by its proximity to God’s similar updating of levitical dietary laws (Acts 10:9-16).
John J. McNeill (b. 1925) acknowledges:
Nowhere is this new attitude concerning human sexuality more evident than in the account of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 8:26-39). (McNeill, The Church and the Homosexual, Fourth Edition, 63)
Jack Rogers (b. 1934) implores:
The repeated and direct involvement of the Holy Spirit, the significant reference to the liberating prophecies of Isaiah, and the fact that the first Gentile convert to Christianity is from a sexual minority and a different race, ethnicity and nationality together form a clarion call for the inclusiveness, radical grace, and Christian welcome to all who show faith. (Rogers, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church, 135)The parallel between the eunuch and the homosexual is not universally accepted. Detractors note that the eunuch’s inclusion was prophesied (Isaiah 56:1-8) and that the prophecy was ratified by Jesus (Matthew 19:12). The same claim cannot be made of homosexuals.
Ronald J. Allen (b. 1949) cautions:
Preachers sometimes take the Ethiopian eunuch as a poster child for exclusion and inclusion. Preachers are wont to say Judaism excluded the eunuch whereas the church welcomed the eunuch. The sermon calls the church to include people today...in situations similar to that of the eunuch. Unfortunately, this approach oversimplifies attitudes towards eunuchs in ancient Judaism while buttressing anti-Jewish sentiments. A preacher needs to respect the fullness of Judaism’s concern around eunuchs and help the church recognize its own ambiguity and even faithlessness with respect to persons represented by the eunuch. (Allen, Acts of the Apostles (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries), 78)It cannot be argued that the Ethiopian eunuch represents an exotic convert and may correlate to Acts’ internal outline, Jesus’ admonition to spread the gospel “to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8 NASB), a phrase lifted from Isaiah 49:6.
Clinton E. Arnold (b. 1958) connects:
Before his ascension, Jesus said that the disciples would be witnesses to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The conversion of the Ethiopian marks an enormous stride toward fulfillment of this goal. To Greeks and Romans, Ethiopia was at the ends of the earth. In describing Poseidon’s trip to the Ethiopians, Homer [800-701 BCE] said that they lived “at the world’s end.” Herodotus [484-425 BCE] claimed that Ethiopia “stretches farthest of the inhabited lands in the direction of the sun’s decline.”...The conversion of the Ethiopian also represents the inaugural step of the gospel going out to the Gentiles. In many ways, this is a more radical step forward than the conversion of Cornelius and his household [Acts 10:1-48]. Not only is the Ethiopian a Gentile, but he is from a distant land and in some ways an outcast with respect to Judaism since, as a eunuch, he is regarded as in a constant state of ritual impurity. (Arnold, Acts (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 68)Richard I. Pervo (b. 1942) extols:
Not only does Ethiopia stand for “the ends of the earth”—note that a triumphant psalm summons God to conquer the nations: “Let bronze be brought from Egypt; let Ethiopia hasten to stretch out its hands to God” (Psalm 68:31)—but the eunuch carries symbolic weight. He is a great catch, both as a marginal figure (inasmuch as actual eunuchs were theoretically excluded from the people of God) and as a member of the ruling class. And his acceptance would fulfill his promise of Isaiah 56:3-7. To top all this off, Philip has converted a person of high social status. This is the kind of acquisition about which people will brag. (Pervo, Dating Acts: Between the Evangelists and the Apologists, 34)The Ethiopian breaks new ground as a man representing a new race, region and sexual classification is welcomed into the kingdom of God. The eunuch is emblematic of all who have had their vitality stripped and been forced to conform to another’s system. As such, his question reverberates through the centuries, “What prevents me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36 NASB)
How is the reader supposed to view the eunuch? Who do you refer to by an identifier rather than their name? What associations do you have with eunuchs? Why does Philip, who is credited with miracles (Acts 8:6-7), not “restore” the eunuch? Why was this passage, which presumably features a prominent black believer, not more prevalent in pulpits during the Civil Rights movement? Who today is like the Ethiopian eunuch socially, religiously? How is the ancient eunuch different and similar to the modern homosexual? Is this comparison fair? How are you similar to the eunuch? If you were described using only five facts, what would they be? What does this story teach about personal evangelism? What barriers, if any, did you overcome to join your church? Who today is cut off from the worshiping community? Should anyone be excluded from Christian fellowship?
The Ethiopian eunuch’s story is open ended (Acts 8:26-40). After his baptism, the eunuch “went on his way rejoicing.” (Acts 8:39 NASB) and is effectively written out of the text leaving the reader to about his fate and “the rest of the story”.
Loveday Alexander remarks:
Luke resists the temptation to take his primary narrative into these unexplored regions, though the episode of the Ethiopian eunuch allows the reader to feel that the narrative has touched the exotic at one remove (much as Chariton is able to bring a southern dimension into his tale through the secondary narrative of the Egyptian king). (Alexander, Acts in its Ancient Literary Context, 79-80)Leaving a character’s fate undetermined is not uncommon in Acts. Clare K. Rothschild (b. 1964) archives:
Even with its uncommonly frequent recourse to summaries, Acts’ narrative leaves much open-ended. The fates of Matthias (Acts 1:23, 26), of the eunuch on his return to Ethiopia (Acts 8:39), or of Cornelius (Acts 10:48), for example. (Luke-Acts and the Rhetoric of History, 235)Church tradition has filled in some of the gaps. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo tradition refers to the eunuch as Bachos while the Eastern Orthodox faith knows him as Simeon the Black (the same name appears in Acts 13:1), an Ethiopian Jew.
It is said that the eunuch became a missionary in his native Ethiopia. Irenaeus of Lyons (130-202) relays:
This man was also sent into the regions of Ethiopia, to preach what he had himself believed, that there was one God preached by the prophets, but that the Son of this [God] had already made [His] appearance in human nature (secundum hominem), and had been led as a sheep to the slaughter; and all the other statements which the prophets made regarding Him. (Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, 3.12.8)History confirms that Christianity entered Ethiopia at an early date. It would appear that the Ethiopian used his clout to share the inclusive gospel that enveloped him.
Who do you know with influence? With whom do you have influence? How do you use it? Have you ever introduced anyone to Christ?
He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
Edwin Markham (1852-1940), “Outwitted”, The Shoes of Happiness: And Other Poems (1913)