The Ethiopian Eunuch: Accepted as a Human

Christ is risen!  Truly He is risen! 

Now an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, “Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is desert. So he arose and went. And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, was returning. And sitting in his chariot, he was reading Isaiah the prophet.

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Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go near and overtake this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him. The place in the Scripture which he read was this: “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so He opened not His mouth. In His humiliation His justice was taken away, and who will declare His generation? For His life is taken from the earth.” So the eunuch answered Philip and said, “I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing.  (Acts 8:26-39)

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Biblical scholar James Dunn comments on the significance of the Ethiopian eunuch narrative for the nascent Christian Church (his reference to Luke is because Luke is thought to have written both the Gospel that bears his name and the Book of Acts):

“There is a particular irony in Luke’s opening description of the Ethiopian eunuch and of the reason for his visit to Jerusalem, which no Jew would have missed.  He ‘had come to Jerusalem to worship’ (8:27); but Deut. 23:1 makes it quite clear that a eunuch was prohibited from entering ‘the assembly of the Lord’.  The Ethiopian eunuch, therefore, is deliberately presented as one keen to share in the worship in Jerusalem, that is, in the Temple cult, but as debarred from doing so.  Particularly significant in this connection is the fact that it is not his race or status which is the focus of Luke’s narrative; rather it is his condition which is emphasized.  After the initial identification (‘an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official...’ -8:27), he is referred to, and repeatedly so, simply as ‘the eunuch’ (8:34, 36, 38, 39).  The counterpoint is thus picked out clearly and would not have been missed by a Jewish auditor.

[Dunn highlights an irony in the Acts text that most of us modern readers would not be aware – though the eunuch came to Jerusalem to worship God, Temple law forbade him from worshipping there because he was a eunuch (thus mutilated).  It was part of the exclusivist nature of Judaism – non-Jews, eunuchs and many other ‘defective’ and unclean people were excluded from entering the Temple compound even to worship God.   Thus some seeking to worship God were excluded from Temple, but merchants and others interested mostly in making money were permitted in the Temple compound.   This led Jesus to cleanse the Temple and drive out the money makers.   Jesus said about the temple:  “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” (See Isaiah 56:7 and Mark 11:17).

Christianity, on the other hand, saw its mission as to be as inclusive as possible in its worship.   Even eunuchs (men who were mutilated and thus genderless) could be baptized and welcomed into the flock (baptism not their genitalia made them whole, fully human).  Christianity was proclaiming God as Lord of all humans, not just of a one tribe, nation or sect.  Christianity was expanding the faith far beyond the limits of the Jerusalem Temple (which is also why Christians were not crushed by the destruction of that Temple as were the non-Christian Jews).  In the modern world, eunuchs are not common as such mutilation is forbidden by law, but the rise of transgendered people means the modern Church has to deal with them as the early Church did with eunuchs.  While the Church came to oppose making boys or men into eunuchs, it still welcomed eunuchs in the Church and several eunuchs became important figures in Orthodox Byzantium and some became saints.]

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The point then is that here we have another who was cut off from the worship of the Lord God by the laws regulating the Temple and the cult.  It was precisely such a one, immediately following the breakthrough with the Samaritans to whom Philip ministered.  A clear implication is that the gospel was being extended beyond the limits allowed for in the Temple cult, and that in this way the breach with the Temple and its traditions was being widened still further.  It is true, of course, that Isa. 56:3-5 [see text below] looked for a day when eunuchs would be accepted within the Temple (so also Wisd.Sol. 3:14 [see below]); and Luke no doubt saw Philip’s mission as the fulfilment of this hope.  The point, however, is that the breakthrough came as both Philip and the eunuch were moving out, away from Jerusalem and its Temple.”   (THE PARTINGS OF THE WAYS, p 96)

St Irenaeus of Lyons says of the Ethiopian eunuch, “This man (Simeon Bachos the Eunuch) 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 flesh, and had been led as a sheep to the slaughter; and all the other statements which the prophets made regarding Him.

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Christianity saw God loving the world and all humanity rather than just Jerusalem or Israel.  Christians were open to welcoming all kinds of people who were deemed bodily defective or unclean or heretics by the Jews.  The Apostles in their effort to follow Christ found themselves moving away from the Temple and from Jerusalem.  The real Temple and the real Jerusalem are spiritual, heavenly realities, not geographical points on earth (see Revelation 3:12, 21:2).    “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb”  (Revelation 21:22).  All Christians are moving toward that heavenly temple and invite all the people of the world to join us in the journey toward heaven.  The path to the kingdom does not require a pilgrimage to or through Jerusalem.  In Christ, all the peoples of the world can worship together in spirit and truth.

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off. “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, every one who keeps the sabbath, and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.” (Isaiah 56:3-8)

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Blessed also is the eunuch whose hands have done no lawless deed, and who has not devised wicked things against the Lord; for special favor will be shown him for his faithfulness, and a place of great delight in the temple of the Lord. (Wisdom of Solomon 3:14)