Commentary on Acts 8:26-39
The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch provides a transition in Acts from phase one to phase two of the mission set forth in Acts 1:8:
“…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The first eight chapters feature the mission in “Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria.” Paul’s call to witness “before gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” inaugurates the mission “to the ends of the earth.” The presence of Philip connects the narrative to Stephen and the others assigned to wait tables (6:5). However, Stephen and Philip join those who preach and perform wonders and signs. Stephen’s witness leads to his death (7:60). After witnessing in Samaria, the Holy Spirit sends Philip to a wilderness road leading out of Jerusalem where he encounters the Ethiopian eunuch. The baptism of the eunuch foreshadows the conversion of Cornelius, the centurion god-fearer (10:1-43).
A Journey on a Wilderness Road
At first glance it may seem strange to compare the travels of the Ethiopian eunuch to the disciples’ walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-34). In the walk to Emmaus, the travelers are among an inner circle of Jesus’ disciples and they are grieving his death. The journey ends when they are reunited with the other disciples. By contrast, the Ethiopian eunuch is an exotic figure traveling in a chariot on a long journey home after worshiping in Jerusalem. He does not know anything about Jesus. The structure of the narrative is the same, however. There is the journey on a wilderness road, a meeting with a stranger who interprets the scriptures, a sacramental moment, a vanishing act that is Spirit-driven, and rejoicing. Each utilizes irony and humor as well. The common elements create a paradigm for every faith journey.
The traveler in the chariot is identified as an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the queen, in charge of the treasury (Acts 8:27). After the first introduction, he is referred to simply as “the eunuch”(verses 34, 36, 38, 39). His identity as a eunuch is more significant than his identity as an Ethiopian. According to a dictionary definition, a eunuch is: “1. A castrated man; especially who were employed as harem attendants or functionaries in certain Oriental courts and under the Roman emperors. 2. A man whose testes have not developed.”1
We do not know whether the Ethiopian eunuch’s condition is a birth defect or related to his official role in the court of the queen. Regardless, his sexual defect qualifies him for his role as a court official. He will not produce heirs and women are “safe” with him.
A common conclusion is that his deformity means he cannot be a Jew.2 If not a Jew, then he is a gentile, the first gentile convert in Acts. But the narrative portrays him as a Jew. He made a long pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship. On his way home, he reads from the prophet Isaiah. He welcomes Philip to help him interpret the scripture he was reading. Later in Acts, Peter, not Philip, baptizes the first gentiles, including Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48). At the Jerusalem Council, Peter asserts that God had chosen him to “be the one through whom the gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers” (Acts 15:7).
The eunuch does not stop being a Jew because of his deformity. But he is not fully included. His sexual defect defines him as “other” among Jews and gentiles. The significance of his identity as a eunuch is that he is marginalized in both worlds. The eunuch foreshadows Cornelius, the model gentile convert in Acts. Cornelius is a devout worshiper of the God of Israel and observes the signs of Jewish piety (Acts 10:2-3). As a god-fearer, Cornelius worships and observes Jewish customs but is not a full proselyte. According to Acts, most gentiles who become followers of the Way are affiliated with Jewish institutions (the synagogue), customs or worship.
Interpreting the Scriptures
Philip accepts the eunuch’s invitation to climb up into the chariot and sit beside him for some Bible study. Before we modern readers join them, a few preliminary observations are worth noting. First, we are reading an English (or other modern language) translation of a Greek translation of a Hebrew text. The old adage “something is always lost in translation” is relevant here. Second, what a passage meant is not the same as what it means. Third, the scriptures must be interpreted because there is more than one “correct” meaning.
The text, Isaiah 53:7-8, is part of a so-called servant song in Isaiah. The eunuch wonders about the identity of the one about whom Isaiah speaks (verse 34). The prophet Isaiah spoke of the servant not as an individual but as Israel, the corporate identity of a people. Followers of the Way interpreted these texts in light of their understanding of Jesus Christ. Understandably, this text was a favorite in early messianic interpretation of Jesus.
I like the image of Philip and the eunuch, heads bent over the Isaiah text, oblivious to the chariot’s frequent jolts along a wilderness road, the eunuch inquiring, Philip proclaiming the good news about Jesus. Interpreting the scriptures is a collaborate enterprise. Perhaps this anticipates the end of Acts in which we see Paul interpreting from the law and the prophets from morning until evening (Acts 28:23-24). Acts concludes not with a “mission accomplished” but with an ongoing mission of witnessing, proclaiming, teaching, and interpreting the scriptures (Acts 28:30-31).
1The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, William Morris, ed., American Publishing Co., Inc., 1969.
2See Deuteronomy 23:1. This is part of a list of exclusions from the assembly. It refers to Israelites who were excluded from participation in certain functions of the community. It does not say eunuchs are not Israelites. There is no evidence that these exclusions were practiced among Jews in the first century of the Common Era, especially not in the Diaspora.