Commentary on Acts 8:26-40
One reason why the book of Acts makes for great Easter preaching is the narrative’s flair for the dramatic.
Since the overall story is about a man raised from the dead, the arrival of God’s Spirit to empower ordinary people to attempt extraordinary things, and the perseverance of a religious movement that asks its members to imitate the communitarian ethos of a man crucified by the Roman authorities, perhaps no individual episode can be considered too incredible. Acts, like Easter, urges you to put cautious rationality on the shelf and follow an unrestrained God into the world, wondering as you go what else might be possible. Both Acts and Easter want your imagination to run wild.
The passage about an Ethiopian court official who has a divinely orchestrated discussion with Philip is outlandish, but not much more than the memorable stories that surround it in Acts 8-10. The encounter on a road connecting Jerusalem to Gaza is about expanding horizons—Philip’s, the Ethiopian’s, and ours. It provokes a question upon which the church still ruminates, as it makes one new discovery after another: what will it mean for all of us if the gospel is indeed good news for all people, without exception?
In Acts 1:8 Jesus declares that his followers will be his Spirit-led “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” By the time Acts 8:26 rolls around, they have been in all those places except one: the ends of the earth, wherever that is. The narrative is beginning to branch out, and that centrifugal movement will accelerate as soon as Acts 9 begins. If any readers are wondering how far the church’s witness might go and whom it might reach, Acts 8:26 answers: very far and every kind of person. Don’t be surprised.
This is a rich story with so many details that deserve discussion. Consider the bizarre circumstances and heavenly coordination, the appearance of Isaiah 53:7-8, and the scribal addition in verse 37. You can search for other Working Preacher commentaries on this passage to help with those topics. For now, let’s focus specifically on the court official and how his identity has great theological significance for the larger story Acts tells.
Scholarship has subjected this unnamed person and his body to a tremendous amount of scrutiny. People want to know exactly who he is and how he got to where he is in life. We should apologize for invading his privacy and trying to attach definitions to him from afar. The narrative leaves many details ambiguous. For example:1
Described as an Ethiopian, where is he from and how did that affect how he contributes to the story and its symbolism? Judging from his queen’s Nubian title, Candace (the Latinized form of Kandake), he probably hails from Meroe, south of Egypt. The term used to describe him, “Ethiopian” (literally, “burnt face” in Greek), indicates the dark skin color of his people, but it also could have resonated with other Greco-Roman literature that speaks of “Ethiopians” as people who lived on the fringes of the inhabited world. Greco-Roman authors sometimes use the term when characterizing sub-Saharan Africans as residents of a totally different land, almost a parallel society. Some authors referred to that society with a romanticized respect, while others viewed it as inferior. Both perspectives exhibited Greco-Roman xenophobia, but the point is that the appearance of an Ethiopian in Acts might well elicit thoughts of “the ends of the earth,” from a Roman’s limited outlook on the world.
Identified repeatedly in the passage as a eunuch, is he really castrated or is that merely a term for a court official? A few scholars have tried to argue for the latter, but the evidence strongly supports the former.
Did he become castrated by choice, through violence, or was he born that way? All of those options are possible, and none of them would have been unheard of. It appears that, for him, castration was a condition for his position in the queen’s court. I’m not sure the answer to the question matters much for interpreting the passage. Considering it, though, does accentuate another question, concerning how his body might have elicited condescension or derision from his contemporaries.
How would others have viewed him and his manhood, as a eunuch? Eunuchs did not fit conventional notions of gender in the Roman world. They were simultaneously men and nonmen, neither male nor female. Sexually impotent, they were powerless and thus often scorned according to Roman constructions of masculinity and virility.
What kind of social standing does he have? Assuming the story is told from a Greco-Roman point of view, one might consider him as despised and lacking status because of his identity as a eunuch—even more so if he is enslaved. Yet Acts describes him as powerful. He’s an official, in charge of the queen’s treasury. He’s literate and wealthy enough to have an Isaiah scroll and use of a chariot.
Is he a Jew or a gentile? He could be either. I think we should assume he’s Jewish, however. There were and still are Jewish communities in Africa. Because Acts describes Cornelius and his household as the first gentile converts (11:18; 15:7), the narrative seems to indicate the court official is Jewish. But the question reminds us that we should also beware of drawing too solid a line between Jews and gentiles, at least with regard to how Acts describes Jews, proselytes, and “God-fearers.”
How did he experience his time in Jerusalem? Acts does not say. Because of Deuteronomy 23:1 (see also Leviticus 21:16-23) some assume that the eunuch would have been forbidden from doing in Jerusalem what Acts says he came to do: worship. But that would depend on where in the city he was and what kind of worship he came to perform.
All of the ambiguity that this character radiates has an effect. From the perspective of the dominant Greco-Roman culture that Acts represents, this joyful convert does not conform to the rules set by standard boundaries. He is powerless yet powerful, strange yet impressive, ignorant yet knowledgeable. He—indeed even as inscribed on his own body—projects a sense of liminality. That doesn’t mean he is by definition oppressed or an object of pity. It means he might represent surprise, subversion, and expanse.
He reminds us that the good news will not travel to the ends of the earth primarily because of focus groups, strategic plans, and demographic analyses. It will do so because individuals will gladly carry it there, because they recognize that it speaks to them no matter who they are or how others measure them. Those individuals recognize that the good news acknowledges their worth and dignity. The good news thwarts the prejudices that religions and societies keep falling into.
Let this passage direct attention toward the horizons. Reflecting on this story, Justo L. González writes, “In studying the history of the Church and its missionary progress, we repeatedly see that the great movements, the most notable discoveries of unsuspected dimensions of the gospel and of obedience to it, usually appear not at the center but at the margins, at the periphery.”2 The Ethiopian reminds us that those of us who situate ourselves around ecclesial “centers” might be inclined to expect too little from the good news or to underestimate its capacity to bless and include others. Our imaginations grow rigid and unresponsive.
Preachers have a delicate balance to maintain with this passage. It’s important to emphasize the court official’s capacity to embody an unfamiliar, complex, fluid identity, at least if we observe him from the perspective and norms from which Acts was written. But at the same time we can’t duplicate the bigotry in that perspective and view him as an oddity or gawk at his distinctiveness. Don’t treat him as a portal to a foreign world. Recognize him as a mirror held up in front of the church, collectively. Whom do you see? Who’s missing? Why?
Earlier I mentioned that, as I read this text, the Ethiopian eunuch recognizes that the good news Philip shares with him acknowledges his own worth and dignity. I believe that because it’s he, not Philip, who first raises the topic of baptism. He simply sees the water and, on his own, does the reasoning: baptism is for him. Whatever Philip tells him about Jesus, the court official discerns on his own the fitting outcome for him. Inclusion. Participation. Belonging. As a result, he stands prominent not only as the Christian church’s first convert (that we know of) from sub-Saharan Africa but also as the church’s first constructive theologian from there.
- For details and a relatively recent bibliography on most of these questions, see Brittany E. Wilson, Unmanly Men: Figurations of Masculinity in Luke-Acts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 113-49.
- Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2001), 118.