Monday, March 9, 2015

Ethiopian? Eunuch?

In 1985, I went to a conference called UNIFORUM to take a class. At my hotel, I was on the elevator when another guy got on. Being a friendly Minnesotan (this was before my curmudgeon days), I
 asked the guy "Are you here for the UNIX conference?" He mumbled some reply and got off at the next floor. So not all the guests at the hotel were there for the conference... I guess computer operating systems weren’t as well known then.

The deacon Phillip, often called Phillip the evangelist, apparently didn’t suffer from ill chosen words like me. When he met the Ethiopian eunuch, described in Acts 8:26-40, he made a better impression, culminating in the baptism of the Ethiopian. From the view of the 21st century, we perhaps don’t see how remarkable this story is. From the view of a 1st century Jew, it has some puzzling features. Ordinarily Jews would not associate with Gentiles, though he appeared to be what the Bible refers to as "God fearing", perhaps a Jewish proselyte. Eunuchs would not be allowed in the Temple, yet he was returning from worshiping in Jerusalem. We take Bibles for granted, but he was reading a scroll of Isaiah, at a time when scrolls were rare and precious, the equivalent of new car today. Most striking is that the Ethiopian eunuch would be the first Gentile convert to Christianity -- before the Apostle Peter met Cornelius. Peter was more reluctant than Phillip, he explained to Cornelius that it was against Jewish law to visit a Gentile.

He was a man from Ethiopia

Most scholars seem to agree that he really was an Ethiopian, a dark skinned person. MacLaren’s Expositions [1] states confidently “Here was a full-blooded Gentile, an eunuch. Philip asked nothing about the eunuch’s proselytism, or whether he had been circumcised or not.” John Dick [2] writes  “This man was a proselyte to the Jewish religion.” There was a Jewish element in Ethiopia since the time of Queen Sheba’s visit to Solomon, possibly from the time of the Exodus, a proselyte seems plausible. "This African court official was the first non-Jewish Christian." Craig Keener [3]

He was a eunuch

Likewise, most scholars seem to agree that he really was a eunuch. “This Nubian court official was probably a Gentile 'God-fearer'. When meant literally which was not always the case (Gen. 39:1 LXX), eunuchs referred to castrated men.” Craig Keener [3]

However, “The title “eunuch” can be used of a government official who is literally a eunuch, but also for an official who is not. Thus, we cannot know for certain whether or not this man was literally a eunuch. If he was, indeed, a eunuch, he would have been forbidden to enter the assembly of the Lord”. Bob Deffinbaugh [4]

He is returning from worship in Jerusalem

He may have known who Christ was, after all Christ was the “talk of the town” in those days. Yet his questions about Isaiah 53 suggest that 
 it was news to him. Who is this sheep led to slaughter? 

I think one reason that this episode is recorded is to show that converting to Judaism is not enough for salvation, after all, the Ethiopian eunuch was already a Jewish convert. "We are not saved (as the Judaizers would insist) by becoming Jewish proselytes, for the Ethiopian was a proselyte. But while he was a religious Jew, he was not saved. People thus are saved by recognizing their sins, just as the Jews must, and by trusting in Jesus as God’s Messiah, just like the Jews. Gentiles must be saved as Jews are (so here), and Jews must be saved as the Gentiles are (so Galatians 2:15-21)." Bob Deffinbaugh [4] However, it does not mean we have license to throw out the Old Testament and its laws!

He is reading Isaiah

Acts 8 quotes the passage in Isaiah, it is ch 53. If he had continued reading Isaiah after Phillip was spirited away, he would have read this just three chapters later, which suggests to me he really was a eunuch. Imagine the impact these words had on him. Isaiah 56:
3. Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, The Lord hath utterly separated me from his people: neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree.
4 For thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant;
5 Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.
He is baptized that day

“Modern Churches require candidates to submit to a tedious process of probation. Prudence now counsels delay, but the eunuch was baptized immediately” J. Cynddylan Jones  [5]. At the other end of the spectrum are deathbed baptisms - “The baptism of Constantine at the end of his life initiated a common practice of deathbed baptisms in the early church” Everett Ferguson 'Recent Studies in Early Christianity' [6].

Apparently people wanted to live life their own way and have their sins forgiven right at the end.
The rest of the story

According to church tradition, this man was to become an evangelist among his own people.

From the 
Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches [7] article on the Ethiopian church:
Ethiopia embraced Christianity and has maintained its doctrines from the era of the apostles to the present day. Acts 8:26-39 recounts the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who was baptized by St. Philip. This eunuch was a minister of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia. This story is the beginning of Ethiopian Church history. Eusebius speaks of this eunuch as the first fruits of the faith in the whole world. Irenaeus writes that he preached the Gospel to the Ethiopians. Tradition further records that the apostle Matthew preached the gospel to the Ethiopians and won a few converts to the new doctrine before leaving the country. 
Irenaeus (mentioned above) gives his name as Simeon Bachos the Eunuch. In Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo tradition he was referred to as Bachos and in Eastern Orthodox tradition he is known as an Ethiopian Jew with the name Simeon also called the Black, the same name he is given in Acts 13:1.Wikipedia 'Ethiopian_eunuch'
By Their Fruits Shall You Know Them

The only pre-colonial Christian church of Sub-Saharan Africa, the Ethiopian Church has a membership of between 40 and 45 million.  Wikipedia 'Christianity in Ethiopia' [9] Not bad for someone who got a few hours of teaching in a chariot.