© 2002, R. Perkins. All rights reserved
The Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch is one of the most insightful conversions recorded in Scripture. It is also one seen by some to be a later addition to the text in order to show a more inclusive effort to evangelize the masses. F. F. Bruce suggests that if Acts 8:26-40 were removed, there would be nothing to indicate that anything of the kind had ever stood there.1 The goal of this essay is to examine the text so as to argue in favor of originality within the Lucan volume according to the prevailing themes employed by the author and to extract the theological significance of the text for ancient and modern Christianity. The text is as follows:
(26) Then the 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 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 generations? For his life was 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 in Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.2
The text above breaks down into five sections: The Sending of Philip (vss. 26-27a), The Introduction of the Eunuch (vss. 27b-28), Their Encounter and Conversation (vss. 29-35), The Conversion of the Eunuch (vss. 36-39a), and The Next Commission of Philip (vss. 39b-40). Within this composition these divisions will serve as a guide for the study of the text.
Dating the book of Acts, like a number of other New Testament books, is often a difficult task and finds scholars arriving at various conclusions. A post A.D. 70 date is strongly argued by some based on Luke 21:5-38, where it seems that Luke describes the destruction of Jerusalem as it actually took place.3 Others opt for a more conservative date prior to the destruction of Jerusalem.4 For the purpose of this essay a date in the early 60's will be assumed.
Authorship is another difficult subject, yet made somewhat easier in light of the Gospel of Luke. Few serious scholars doubt that the same person wrote Acts, as did Luke. The construction of the text contains the same smooth symmetry and polished Greek style. Both works are addressed in the same manner to the same recipient and are dependent upon one another as a seemingly fluid volume.5 In this exposition, Luke, the physician and Paul's companion, is presumed to be the author of both the Gospel of Luke and Acts.6
The text under consideration, Acts 8:26-40, falls into the middle of the overall theme of the book as a whole: the expansion of the Gospel according to the great commission given by Jesus in Acts 1:8.7 The Good News has been proclaimed in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) with tremendous results and has just recently begun to expand into Judea (Acts 8:1-4) and into Samaria (Acts 8:5-25). The conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch is followed by Paul's conversion in Acts 9, who would become the apostle to the Gentiles, and the beginning of the Gentile mission in Acts 10. Thus this incident serves as a bridge of sorts between the people of God and the uncircumcised world.
II. EXAMINATION OF THE TEXT
The Sending of Philip
After enjoying great results in Samaria, Philip is commanded by a messenger of God to leave that place. It is uncertain why an angel, aggelos, is used to issue this command and then relinquish control to the Spirit, pneuma, later on in the text. It may be a reflection upon the Old Testament narratives of Elijah, c.f. I Kings 18:12; II Kings 1:3; 2:16, yet a more probable reason would be a way to vividly denote Philip's divine guidance.8
One textual concern is in the author's usage of the Greek term mesembria, which carries two possible meanings: noon and south. This is derived from the word's association with the sun's position at noon, which would be in the Southern portion of the sky. In the context it is difficult to determine the correct application, yet it would seem redundant to order Philip South in the direction of Jerusalem to the road that goes South toward Gaza when no other viable direction is available from where he was currently located; Samaria. It seems obvious that Philip needed some clue about when he should be at the designated road. Logic rules that the word should be given its ordinary, everyday meaning - at noon - midday.9
The first sentence in verse 27 is reminiscent of the faith of Abraham in Genesis 22 where God told him to take his son Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering. There are no arguments offered from either faithful follower. In Philip's case he would be leaving a successful campaign in Samaria, but he goes where God sends him without a word.
The Introduction of the Eunuch
At the center of the theological controversy surrounding this event is the nationality of the Eunuch. Clearly in the text he is identified by the term aithiops, meaning Ethiopian, but scholarship is divided as to his ethnicity. In defense against Gentile ethnicity Dennis Gaertner states that Northern Africa contained a wealth of predominantly Jewish communities, and that the descriptive phrase fobouvmenos ton theon, meaning God-fearing, found in reference to Cornelius in Acts 10:2 is not found in the text of Acts 8.10 Others affirm a Gentile identity for the Eunuch and embrace a literal meaning identifying him as "black-skinned" citing the usage and understanding of the term Ethiopian in the Greco-Roman world.11
A definitive answer is not readily available, but it must be admitted that to claim a Gentile ethnicity for the Eunuch, in the strictest sense of the term, would in effect remove the importance of Cornelius' conversion and alter the course of Christianity's spread. Therefore, it is best to retain the assumption that the Eunuch was in some way an adherent of Judaism.12
Some consideration must be given to the Ethiopian's social and political status. In antiquity, eunuchs belonged to the most abhorred and ridiculed group of men, often being slaves who had been castrated to inflict punishment or enact servitude. If they did rise to a position of prominence they could not escape the stigma of their sexless condition.13 It can be argued that the term "eunuch" was merely a title. In ancient times eunuchs were commonly used in official roles to the extent that even those with a normal physical condition were frequently called "Eunuchs." Yet, in light of the man's identification in the text as a "court official" and a eunuch, it seems logical that he was a mutilated man in a position of authority.
Their Encounter and Conversation
After being commissioned by an angel of God, Philip is now urged by the Spirit to approach the Eunuch's chariot and "join it." A textual difficulty should not be seen here with Luke's switching of characters as God instructs Philip. It is not uncommon for God to use various messengers to accomplish His purposes and the reader must understand that this is nothing more than God directly guiding Philip.14
The instruction given here to "join" the chariot is from the Greek word kollao, the same term which has been hotly debated in the text of Acts 5:13 where it is supposed by some to create a textual contradiction. Simply translated is means to get close to, to attach, to glue oneself to. In obeying this command Philip finds himself in the correct proximity to overhear the Eunuch's reading from the prophet Isaiah. "It was customary in the ancient world to read aloud, even when alone; in Confessions 6:3, Augustine puzzles over bishop Ambrose's habit of silent reading, as though it were something genuinely odd."15 Thus the evangelist is provided the perfect opportunity to interject a question and open the door for a dialogue on religious matters.
The Eunuch's reply to Philip's question is evidentiary to the fact that he did not comprehend what he was reading and was open to assistance. Here the Greek term that is translated "guide" in its root form literally means a teacher of the ignorant and inexperienced. The LXX uses the same term to denote the leading of one in righteousness or wisdom.16 Therefore the Eunuch's statement can be understood as a plea for understanding and teaching, especially when coupled with the invitation for Philip to join him in his chariot. This Philip did.
The passage of Scripture which the Eunuch has read, and which Philip expounds upon, is Isaiah 53:7-8, a text taken from the fourth Servant Song in Isaiah. This quotation is taken directly from the LXX, which contains some questionable translations of Hebrew words and which might indicate Luke's choosing it as a source. Two Greek words that are of special interest: tapeinosis meaning humiliation or lowliness, and airo meaning to lift, to raise. The corresponding Hebrew terms nagas and gazar are defined as oppression and to cut off, respectively. The latter is a far greater deviation than the former, but it suits the Messianic message quite nicely. F. F. Bruce states, "There is no evidence that anyone before Jesus' time had identified the Isaianic Servant with the Davidic Messiah, but he seems to have identified them in his own person…when he insisted that it was written concerning the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt."17 This might explain the Eunuch's perplexity in verse 34, and within Luke's theme of Christianity's ever outwardly spreading efforts Philip is provided the perfect starting point to share the Gospel message.
The Conversion of the Eunuch
The content of Philip's discourse is not related in the text and it is possible that Luke was unaware of the actual words used by the evangelist. One can deduce from the text that it was at least the simple euaggelion, Good News, Gospel, that the Eunuch heard based on the Greek terms included and the Eunuch's response in verse 36. It has been suggested that the message was similar to Peter's found in Acts 2, which would make logical sense seeing that the result was the same, though there is no way to be certain. Even though the Isaianic passage is somewhat ambiguous, Bruce states that there is not a more fitting passage of scripture available, seeing that the New Testament was unwritten, to proclaim Jesus to one who did not know him.18
A considerable amount of attention has been given by scholars to the authenticity of what the Western Text includes as Philip's further instruction following the Eunuch's question in verse 36. Cottrel R. Carson presents a thorough argument in favor of verse 37 and states that it should at least be included in the text, maybe in parenthesis, and not relegated to a footnote.19 Bruce states that it is not a part of the original text but certainly reflects early Christian practice, i.e. making a public confession of faith immediately followed by immersion and then acceptance as a member of the Christian community.20 The textual evidence is scarce and the oldest most reliable manuscripts21 do not include this verse thus leading the majority of scholars and most modern versions to omit it or place it in a footnote. Even if this verse is a later addition to the text and is correctly omitted the theological tenets of faith and belief are not diminished within the New Testament. Ample evidence is found in the biblical record in regards to their necessity to satisfy the most ardent skeptic.22
Obviously nothing existed to prevent the Eunuch's baptism, for the command was issued to bring the chariot to a halt and both Philip and the Eunuch went down into the water and consummated the conversion. The giving of the order to halt could indicate a driver, which would give a witness to this event. One writer suggests it is also likely that a cadre of servants were present, as was a normal custom in that day when royalty traveled. The phrase katabesan amphoteroi eis to hudor is suggestive of immersion and when coupled with the most basic definition of the word baptizo it seems quite clear that a water burial was enacted here. No other explanation offered fits the scope of the book nor the text, otherwise there would have been no reason for them to wade into the stream. The opening statement of verse 39 compounds the implication of immersion; "they came up out of the water." It would seem that Luke is stressing the Eunuch's baptism as the proper response to the Gospel message by including within the text what could be seen as at least six inferences to the subject.23
The Next Commission of Philip
The Spirit once again comes into play and ushers Philip away from the Eunuch and on to another evangelistic mission. With this, as prior in verse 29, the direct intervention of God is implied. A textual variant exists for this passage which reads "The Holy Spirit fell on the eunuch, but the angel of the Lord caught up Philip." The manuscript evidence for this reading is weak, so much so that the UBS Greek New Testament does not mention it in the apparatus. "The phrase 'Spirit of the Lord' is found in Acts 5:9 and Luke 4:18 and the Spirit (rather than an angel) transporting a person is found in I Kings 18:12; II Kings 2:16; and Ezekiel 3:14. The fact that the Eunuch went on his way rejoicing may infer that he indeed received the Spirit."24 After all, joy does seem to be a natural occurrence following the working of God in people's lives especially in Luke's compositions.25
Irenaeus states that this Ethiopian Eunuch continued his journey home and there became a missionary to his own people thus bringing Christianity to the African continent and establishing the New Testament Church.26 This statement by this early church father is an encouraging one and quite plausible, but unfortunately no evidence of a Nubian church exists before the fourth century.
No specific time frame is mentioned here as to when Philip finds himself in Azotus, but it would seem that it was immediate. This was a deliberate act of God in continuing the spread of the Gospel to all peoples and in harmony with the aforementioned expansion theme employed by Luke. Azotus was the former Philistine city of Ashdod that was located some twenty odd miles from Gaza. Philip continued preaching the message of Jesus and it seems he moved northward, probably passing through Lydda and Joppa, until he settled in Caesarea where we find him in Acts 21:8. This is some twenty years later during which he had become a family man and had four daughters whom prophesied.
The account of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch provides a unique insight into Luke's literary prowess as he weaves a number of theological themes throughout this story. There is the marvelous portrait of God's supernatural intervention in the first century mission effort through the angel (vs. 26) and the Spirit (vss. 29 & 39). There is the response of a man of position with an honest heart to the simple Gospel message expounded by an enthusiastic commoner. Readers are given a striking reminder of a life reminiscent of Elijah as Philip is addressed by an angel (II Kings 1:15), carried from place to place by the Spirit (I Kings 18:12) and running down the road to the chariot of a powerful person (I Kings).27
On another level, Luke continues to expand his theme of the universal Gospel traveling to all peoples as the Ethiopian represents not the beginning of the Gentile mission but the inclusion of the marginalized people of God as foretold in prophecy (Isaiah 56:3-5; Zephaniah 3:9,10). Furthermore, the natural response to the preaching of Jesus from the Scriptures is reiterated in a veiled and abrupt manner that not only serves as an intimate insight to the Eunuch's heart, but also as a reinforcement of the necessity of water baptism's inclusion in the Gospel message.
In conclusion, the Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch deserves more than just passing acknowledgement in the overall scheme of the first century expansion and growth of the Church. It is a critical juncture in the fulfillment of the Great Commission and serves as an intricate part of the thrust of Luke's purpose for the book of Acts. In no way is it found to either violate the continuity or call into question the authenticity of the volume as a whole. Even if it were highly questioned as authentic, as is the Adulterous Woman episode in John 8, it bears all the marks of harmony and consistency within the overall tenor of the Christian mission in its infancy. In other words, it is just like something God and the early evangelists would do to spread the Good News to the ends of the world.
1F. F. Bruce, "Philip and the Ethiopian," Journal of Semitic Studies 34 (Fall 1989): 378.
2The Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version.
3For more information see Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1970), 98-100,110.
4Everett Harrison believes a strong case can be made for dating Acts shortly after the close of the book around A.D. 63-64. His position is based upon several factors namely the abrupt ending leaving Paul imprisoned in Rome and the failure to mention the severe persecution under Nero in light of Luke’s penchant for documenting such events. Everett F. Harrison, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 239-241.
5Take notice of Luke 1:1-3 and Acts 1:1-4.
6For a thorough examination of the authorship question see D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo & Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 185-190.
7“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. Upon close examination one will notice that this theme begins in the Gospel of Luke, albeit in reverse order, and continues throughout Acts linking the two volumes together as a continuous account of the origins and early history of Christianity.
8F. F. Bruce, gen. ed., The New Testament International Commentary of The New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), The Book of Acts, by F. F. Bruce, 174.
9Harold Littrell, A Commentary on The Book of Acts (Paragould: Littrell, 1998), 122.
10Tony Ash & Jack Cottrell, eds., The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin: College Press, 1993), Acts, by Dennis Gaertner, 151.
11See Paul J. Achtemeier, N. T. ed., Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1988), by William H. Willimon, 71-72. Also Bruce, Acts, 175.
12W. A. Criswell offers this explanation, “He was a proselyte of the temple, not of the gate like Cornelius of Caesarea, who was still a Gentile. A proselyte of the gate was someone who embraced the moral codes of Moses, had renounced his heathen gods, and had accepted the moral legislation of Moses but remained a Gentile, a heathen. Not so with this man. He had become a proselyte of the temple. He had renounced his gods, he had embraced the true God Jehovah, and had gone to Jerusalem to call upon His name.” W. A. Criswell, Acts In One Volume (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), 281.
13F. Scott Spencer, “The Ethiopian Eunuch and His Bible: A Social-Science Analysis,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 22 (Winter 1992): 156.
14See the story of Gideon in Judges 6 for a somewhat similar account.
15Daniel J. Harrington, ed., Sacra Pagina Series,(Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992), The Acts of the Apostles, by Luke Timothy Johnson, 155.
16See passages such as Psalm 5:8; 22:3; 26:11, John 16:13 and Romans 2:19.
17Bruce, Acts, 176.
19Cottrel R. Carson, “Acts 8:37 – A Textual Reexamination,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 51:1-2 (1997): 76.
20F. F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 238.
21This includes, but is not limited to, the Chester Beatty Papyrus dating to the third century, Sinaiticus dating to the fourth century, Alexandrinus dating to the fifth century, and Vaticanus dating to the fourth century.
22Consult passages such as Romans 10:10; I John 5:1; John 6:47; 8:24.
23Notice verse 36, “came to water…here is water…baptized,” verse 37, “into the water…baptized him,” and verse 38, “out of the water.”
24I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of The Apostles: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 165-6.
25See Luke 1:14, 28; 2:10; 6:23; 8:13; Acts 8:8; 13:52; 15:3 as examples.
26Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3, 12, 10.
27Daniel J. Harrington, ed., Sacra Pagina Series, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992), The Acts of the Apostles, by Luke Timothy Johnson, 158.
Achtemeier, Paul J. N. T. ed., Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Acts, by William H. Willimon. Atlanta: John Knox, 1988.
Aland, Kurt, Matthew Black, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger, and Allen Wikgren, eds. The Greek New Testament. 3rd ed. corrected, United Bible Societies. Stuttgart: Biblia-Druck, 1983.
Ash, Tony & Jack Cottrell, eds., The College Press NIV Commentary. Acts, by Dennis Gaertner. Joplin: College Press, 1993.
The Bible. New Revised Standard Version.
Bruce, F. F., gen ed. The New International Commentary on The New Testament. The Book of The Acts, by F. F. Bruce. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.
Bruce, F. F. "Philip and The Ethiopian." Journal of Semitic Studies 34 (Fall 1989): 377-386.
Bruce, F. F. The Spreading Flame. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.
Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo, & Leon Morris. An Introduction to The New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.
Carson, Cottrel R. "Acts 8:37 - A Textual Reexamination." Union Seminary Quarterly Review 51:1-2 (1997): 57-78.
Criswell, W. A. Acts in One Volume. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980.
Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1970.
Hamel, Ken. Online Bible. ver. 3.0.1, "Thayer's Revised Greek-English Lexicon." Oakhurst: Woodside Bible Fellowship, 2001.
Harrington, Daniel J. ed., Sacra Pagina Series. vol. 5, The Acts of the Apostles, by Luke Timothy Johnson. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992.
Harrison, Everett. Introduction to The New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Irenaeus. Against Heresies. 3. 12. 10.
Littrell, Harold. A Commentary on The Book of Acts. Paragould: Littrell, 1998.
Marshall, I. Howard. The Acts of The Apostles: An Introduction and Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.
Spencer, F. Scott. "The Ethiopian Eunuch and His Bible: A Social-Science Analysis." Biblical Theology Bulletin 22 (Winter 1992): 155-165.
Raymond Perkins is Pulpit Minister, Westwood Church of Christ, McMinnville, TN. He received is BA in Biblical Studies form Heritage Christian University in Florence, AL. He is currently working on an MA in Biblical Studies and a D. Min through Lake Charles Bible College, Lake Charles, LA.