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Ethiopian eunuch

The Ethiopian eunuch is a figure in the New Testament of the Bible. The story of his conversion to Christianity is recounted in Acts 8.


  • Biblical narrative 1
  • Christian traditions 2
  • Assessment and interpretation 3
  • References 4

Biblical narrative

Philip the Evangelist was told by an angel to go to the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, and there he met the Ethiopian eunuch. He had been to Jerusalem to worship (Acts 8:27), and was returning home. The eunuch was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah, and had come to Isaiah 53:7-8. Philip asked the Ethiopian, "Do you understand what you are reading?" He said he did not ("How can I understand unless I have a teacher to teach me?"), and asked Philip to explain the text to him. Philip told him the Gospel of Jesus, and the Ethiopian asked to be baptized. They went down into some water and Philip baptized him.

In the King James Version and the Catholic Douay-Rheims Version, the Ethiopian says, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God" (verse 37), but this is omitted in most modern versions. Hubbard suggests that confession is "not supported in the better manuscripts [i.e. the Alexandrian text-type])", although the Ethiopian is still "one of the outstanding converts in Acts."[1]

After this, Philip is suddenly taken away by the Spirit of the Lord, and the eunuch "went on his way rejoicing" (verse 39).

Christian traditions

Church Father St. Irenaeus of Lyons in his book Adversus haereses (Against the Heresies, an early anti-Gnostic theological work) 3:12:8 (180 AD), wrote regarding 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." 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.[2][3]

Assessment and interpretation

The Ethiopian is described as a eunuch and a treasury official at the court of Queen Candace (Acts 8:27). D. A. Hubbard suggests that he may have been a proselyte,[1] though Paul Mumo Kisau argues that he was a Godfearer instead.[4] Scott Shauf suggests that the "primary point of the story is about carrying the gospel to the end of the earth, not about establishing a mission to Gentiles," and thus Luke "does not bring the Gentile status of the Ethiopian into the foreground." However, "the suggestion that the eunuch is or at least might be a Gentile in the story, by both his ethnic and possibly physical description, serves to tantalize the reader with the mystery of the situation."[5] The eunuch may have been from Nubia or the Sudan: David Tuesday Adamo suggests that the word used here (Αίθίοψ, aithiops) is best translated simply as "African."[6]

Commentators generally suggest that the combination of "eunuch" together with the title "court official" indicates a literal eunuch, who would have been excluded from the Temple by the restriction in Deuteronomy 23:1.[7][8] Some scholars point out that eunuchs were excluded from Jewish worship and extend the New Testament's inclusion of these men to other sexual minorities; John J. McNeill, citing non-literal uses of "eunuch" in other New Testament passages such as Matthew 19:12,[9] suggests that this eunuch was "the first baptized gay Christian,"[10] while Jack Rogers writes that "the fact that the first Gentile convert to Christianity is from a sexual minority and a different race, ethnicity and nationality together"[11]:135 calls Christians to be radically inclusive and welcoming.

Illustration from the Menologion of Basil II of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.

Other scholars have addressed the issue of the eunuch's race. Some, such as Frank M. Snowden, Jr., interpret the story as emphasizing that early Christian communities accepted members regardless of race: "Ethiopians were the yardstick by which antiquity measured colored peoples."[12][13] Others, such as Clarice Martin, write that it is a commentary on the religion rather than on its adherents, showing Christianity's geographical extent; Gay L. Byron goes further, saying, "The Ethiopian eunuch was used by Luke to indicate that salvation could extend even to Ethiopians and Blacks."[14]

C. K. Barrett contrasts the Ethiopian eunuch's story with that of Cornelius the Centurion, another convert. He notes that while the Ethiopian continues on his journey home and passes out of the narrative, Cornelius and his followers form another church in Judea, and speculates that this reflects a desire to focus on Peter rather than Philip.[15] Robert O'Toole argues that the way Philip is taken away parallels the way Jesus disappears after he has been talking to the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24.[16]


  1. ^ a b Hubbard, D. A. (1962). "Ethiopian eunuch". In Douglas, J. D. New Bible Dictionary.  
  2. ^ Paulos, Abune (1988). The Mariological tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. New Jersey:  
  3. ^
  4. ^ Kisau, Paul Mumo (2006). "Acts of the Apostles". In Adeyemo, Tokunboh. Africa Bible Commentary.  
  5. ^ Shauf, Scott (2009). "Locating the eunuch: characterization and narrative context in Acts 8:26-40".  
  6. ^ Adamo, David Tuesday (2006). Africa and Africans in the New Testament. Lanham:  
  7. ^ MacArthur, John (1994). New Testament Commentary, Volume 6: Acts 1-12. Moody. p. 254.  
  8. ^ Johnson, Luke T.; Harrington, Daniel J. (1992). The Acts of the Apostles. Liturgical Press. p. 155.  
  9. ^ McNeill, John J. (1993). The Church and the homosexual (4 ed.). Beacon Press. pp. 63–65. 
  10. ^ McNeill, John J. (2010). Freedom, Glorious Freedom: The Spiritual Journey to the Fullness of Life for Gays, Lesbians, and Everybody Else. Lethe. p. 211. 
  11. ^  
  12. ^ Snowden, Frank M. (1970). Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman experience (3rd ed.). Harvard University Press. p. 2.  
  13. ^ Witherington, Ben (1998). The Acts of the Apostles: A socio-rhetorical commentary. Eerdmans. p. 295.  
  14. ^ Byron, Gay L. (2002). Symbolic blackness and ethnic difference in early Christian literature. Psychology Press. pp. 105–115. 
  15. ^ Barrett, C.K. A critical and exegetical commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 421. 
  16. ^ O'Toole, Robert F. (1983). "Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:25-40)".  
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