But an angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, “Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza”: the same is desert.
And he arose and went: and behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was over all her treasure, who had come to Jerusalem to worship; and he was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah.
And the Spirit said unto Philip, “Go near, and join thyself to this chariot.”
And Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Understandest thou what thou readest?”
And he said, How can I, except some one shall guide me? And he besought Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the Scripture which he was reading was this,
He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; And as a lamb before his shearer is dumb, So he openeth not his mouth: In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: His generation who shall declare? For his life is taken from the earth.
And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, “I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other?”
And Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture, preached unto him Jesus. And as they went on the way, they came unto a certain water; and the eunuch saith,
“Behold, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?”
And Philip said, “If thou believest with all thy heart, thou mayest.”
And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they both went down into the water, both Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, for he went on his way rejoicing. But Philip was found at Azotus: and passing through he preached the gospel to all the cities, till he came to Caesarea (Acts 8:26-40).
This is the narrative recorded for us in the book of Acts regarding the Ethiopian eunuch and his conversion to the Lord. For many of us, the story is very familiar: the demonstration that baptism is a part of the Gospel of Christ is made, and we have a clear example of someone being immersed in water for the remission of his sins.
One thing regarding this narrative, however, that is not often considered is the position of the Ethiopian eunuch himself: why is a court official of Ethiopia in Jerusalem worshiping the God of Israel and reading the book of Isaiah? What can we know about this eunuch?
To know more about the eunuch, we must first know some things about Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a country in Africa, south of Egypt and Nubia (modern Sudan). There is some mountainous terrain within its borders, along with some of the origins of the streams of the Nile River. Historically, it bordered the Red Sea on its east, across from the southwest portions of the Arabian peninsula.
Ethiopia has, overall, enjoyed its position in relative isolation. Ethiopia was threatened with an invasion by the Persians, but it never actually felt any invasion by the great empires of the ancient Near East or Classical worlds. This pattern held until modern times; only in the 20th century did the Italians colonize Ethiopia for a time.
Ethiopia has always been shrouded in mystery, but its connection to the Red Sea facilitated its communication with Judah. Isaiah, in Isaiah 18:1-2, speaks of messengers from Ethiopia reaching Judah in his own time:
Ah, the land of the rustling of wings, which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia; that sendeth ambassadors by the sea, even in vessels of papyrus upon the waters, saying, Go, ye swift messengers, to a nation tall and smooth, to a people terrible from their beginning onward, a nation that meteth out and treadeth down, whose land the rivers divide!
We also read in Jeremiah 38:7-13 of Ebed-melech the Ethiopian eunuch, who was a part of the household of Zedekiah, who saved Jeremiah from the dungeon. The presence of an Ethiopian eunuch in the court of Judah demonstrates at least some form of contact between the two countries.
We can see, therefore, that Ethiopia was a rather isolated but strong nation fairly far south of Israel and outside of the sphere of the empires of the Near Eastern and Classical civilizations. Let us now look at this particular Ethiopian eunuch.
The Ethiopian eunuch is a wealthy court official with significant obligations. This is admittedly speculative, but I have always believed that the eunuch was on “official business” of sorts, since it would be very insecure for Candace to allow one of her most important officials to travel a thousand miles for “unofficial” business. At the very least, the willingness to travel so far away despite the great weight of responsibility of this eunuch testifies to his strong devotion to God.
This Ethiopian eunuch came to Jerusalem to worship God. It is not a short journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem; the trip would have required a journey of approximately 1100 miles, most of which would have been traveled over the sea. This trip would have been a significant undertaking.
The fact that he has come to worship the God of Israel would lead us to believe that he is one of three types of persons:
- a member of an isolated community of Jews in Ethiopia.
- a proselyte to Judaism.
- a “God-fearer,” a Gentile who believed in the God of Israel and perhaps engaged in a few of the Jewish rituals, yet was not a full proselyte.
Of these three categories, we can safely remove the third, considering that the eunuch receives the Gospel in Acts 8, before the divinely inspired events leading to Peter preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles first in Acts 10. At the time of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, the Gospel was only being preached to Jews and proselytes.
Therefore, we can see that the Ethiopian eunuch is either a proselyte or a member of an isolated community of Jews in Ethiopia. The rest of the article will be a bit more speculative, and of course we can never know for sure regarding the nature of the eunuch on this side of Heaven; nevertheless, the Scriptures, along with historical information, may give us some idea of the nature of the eunuch.
The eunuch is reading Isaiah. We know that the eunuch is a high official and therefore most probably literate, and we see this confirmed in that he is reading the book of Isaiah (Acts 8:28). Now, we do not know in what language the eunuch was reading: it could be either in Hebrew or Greek, but most probably Hebrew, since the eunuch is an Ethiopian and speaks a Semitic language himself, and being an Ethiopian he would have little contact with the Greek-speaking world. While Hebrew and the Ethiopian’s native language are both Semitic, there would have been many differences, and so therefore the Ethiopian at some point would have needed to learn Hebrew. While this does not definitive point to either a full Jew or a proselyte, since either could have known Hebrew, it does lend credence to the idea that he is a full Jew.
The eunuch asks an interesting question. The question that the eunuch asks Philip is very interesting: “of whom does the prophet speak [in Isaiah 53:7-8, erl]: himself or someone else?” (Acts 8:34). Again, what will be said below is rather speculative, but the substance of the question is highly interesting.
If the eunuch was a proselyte, he would most likely have come into contact with one of the main parties of Judaism at the time: the Pharisees, Sadduccees, or the Essenes. We can rest assured that he was not a proselyte of the Sadduccees, because they did not accept the authority of the prophets, including Isaiah. The question itself– asking whether the prophet is speaking of himself or someone else– would most likely not be asked by either an Essene or a Pharisee, since both parties interpreted the passage consistently to refer to a Messiah-style figure of some sort, and by no means the prophet himself. Simply put, the question asked does not appear to be the type of question one would expect a proselyte, influenced by the Judaism of his day, to ask.
The question does, however, make sense when one reads Isaiah, since the prophet does speak in the first person many times in the general context of Isaiah 53 (cf. Isaiah 49:1-6, Isaiah 50:4-9). While we may understand that the true interpretation is that the prophet does refer to someone else– notably Jesus of Nazareth, as Philip tells the eunuch– for the eunuch to wonder if perhaps the prophet does speak of himself is understandable from the book itself. This may attest to a tradition of reading in Isaiah independent of the traditions of Judah proper.
What evidence we do have, then, lends itself best to an understanding of the eunuch being a member of an isolated community of Jews in Ethiopia. There is some historical evidence of Jewish persons living in Ethiopia: there is a group of Jews who do live in Ethiopia, who allege that their kind have lived there since antiquity, and perhaps have some science to back up their claims. Their claims are disputed, and the actual stories spoken of them– that they come from the people ruled by the Queen of Sheba, who had a love child with Solomon, or that they are really Danites who fled from Israel during the Jeroboam schism– are probably inaccurate, there is a strong likelihood that some Jews did travel to Ethiopia.
We do know that after 586 BCE– the destruction of Jerusalem– that many Jews fled to other lands. Many were exiled in Babylon; Jeremiah was unwillingly exiled with other Jews to Egypt (Jeremiah 43), and we have historical records from a Jewish mercenaries living in Elephantine, in the extreme south of Egypt, during the Persian period. The archaeological record seems to verify that there was a community of Jews living in modern-day Yemen, just across the Red Sea from Ethiopia, during the Hellenistic period of the 200s BCE. It is entirely possible, and even plausible, that Ethiopia– a nation that had contact and diplomatic ties to Judah– was home to a community of Jewish exiles, perhaps as early as 586 BCE or maybe during the Persian or Hellenistic period.
Again, this is all speculative, and we cannot truly know whether the Ethiopian eunuch was a member of an isolated Jewish community or if he was a proselyte. All available evidence, however, suggests that he was a member of an isolated Jewish community, and the first Christian in Ethiopia. It is also interesting to give some thought to what happened to that eunuch after he “went on his way rejoicing,” (Acts 8:39). He was without inspiration (Philip was not able to transfer the Holy Spirit, cf. Acts 8:14-16) and without a “New Testament.” Perhaps when we meet him on the other shore we can learn of the trials of the faith of this pious eunuch who rejoiced at the Gospel of Christ.