This April, I was excited and honored to present a paper at the Society of Vineyard Scholars (https://www.vineyardscholars.org/) Annual Forum. My paper was on the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, which is found in Acts 8:26-40 (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+8%3A26-40&version=NRSV).
In this passage, we hear a story from the days shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus, when the early disciples were sharing the good news about Jesus in Jerusalem and beyond. The disciple Philip was led by God to meet an Ethiopian eunuch, who was going back home after having visited Jerusalem to worship there. When Philip and the eunuch met, they discussed a prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures, and Philip told him that the prophecy had been fulfilled in Jesus. The eunuch decided that he wished to be baptized, so Philip baptized him. Afterwards, the eunuch went on his journey rejoicing, and Philip was miraculously transported to a new city.
This is a beautiful story in many ways: it shows the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in bringing together people who need to meet, the shared faithfulness and spirituality of people across the world, and the radical inclusion of the Christian community regardless of ethnicity or sexual status.
For some people, this is also a story of the gospel reaching gentiles. But while the inclusion of gentiles in the body of Christ is a moving and important story, I believe strongly that Acts 8:26-40 is not that particular story.
Is the eunuch in this story a gentile, or is he Jewish? You can comb the passage carefully, but the text doesn’t tell us explicitly. What presuppositions might make us decide one way or the other?
Many scholars have argued that the eunuch had to be a gentile, for two reasons. First, he is a eunuch. Since one verse, Deuteronomy 23:1, bans those with crushed testicles or a cut-off penis from the assembly of God, these scholars argue that there were no Jewish eunuchs. Second, he is Ethiopian. Based on these scholars’ construction of race and ethnicity, being Ethiopian and being Jewish are mutually exclusive.
When these scholars argue that the eunuch is a gentile, they focus on only two of his identity characteristics: his ethnicity and his sex. Reducing his life and his experience to these two dimensions, these scholars disqualify him from participation in a empire-wide religion that at that time numbered about 5 million people.
These two reasons are unconvincing to me. First, how can we reduce the spiritual lives of eunuchs to one legal text? This is especially the case since Isaiah 56:3-5 offers a counter reading, saying that to all eunuchs who follow God, God will give participation in God’s everlasting family. Christianity is not unique in being open to eunuchs, and it flattens and stereotypes the religion of Judaism to insist otherwise.
Second, why would Jewish religious belonging or even Jewish ethnic belonging be denied to a person from Ethiopia? Jews living in the diaspora made up close to 80% of the Jewish population. Paul, for instance, was a diaspora Jew, born in the city of Tarsus. Why could the Ethiopian eunuch not also be a diaspora Jew?
The reason, I suspect, for scholars’ elision of his possible status as diaspora Jew is that we assume him to be dark-skinned, and as such exclude him from what is often mislabeled as a white form of religiosity.
Furthermore, Acts 8 presents the eunuch as a devout Jewish man. We meet him on his journey back home after he had been visiting Jerusalem in order to worship there. While on the ride back, he was occupied with reading a scroll with the text of Isaiah. He was invested in the content of this text, asking Philip probing questions about it. This narrative description communicates his abiding faithfulness to Judaism, which is so great that he has crossed a desert on pilgrimage and has brought scripture with him on the way.
Luke’s composition of the entire book of Acts also suggests that he views the eunuch as Jewish. In Luke’s carefully crafted history of the early church, he does not introduce the first gentile follower of Christ until later in Acts 10, which an entire chapter devoted to telling and retelling the story of Cornelius. Luke offers the eunuch’s story to us in a literary grouping devoted to the first Jewish followers of Jesus.
In all this, Luke’s description of the eunuch is also not color blind. That is to say, Luke does not try to erase the eunuch’s distinct social location in order to make him blend into the narrative better.
Luke introduces the eunuch with reference to the socially salient factor of his gendered body, which constrains the roles that he may fulfill in his society. But his national and sexual backgrounds are something for Luke not to hide, but to celebrate.
In the preceding 8 chapters, Luke has been constantly celebrating the diversity of the people of God, especially their geographical diversity. In Acts 2, we hear Peter’s famous list of all the people of different nationalities, ethnicities, and languages who were in Jerusalem for their pilgrimage. In chapter 6, we hear about Jewish people from Antioch, Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia Minor. In Acts 7, we hear about the activity of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses in far flung places, in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the wilderness. Finally, starting in Acts 8, Christianity begins to formally expand beyond Jerusalem.
But Luke knows that this is not the first time that the presence of God has been found all around the world.
By better understanding the eunuch in this passage, we also discover a better understanding of Judaism in the time of Jesus. He emerged from within a tradition that was not exclusivist, as Judaism is often mischaracterized in opposition to an inclusive Christianity, but from within a tradition that embraced multiple national and sexual belongings within it.
When we imagine the early followers of Jesus, we must imagine them beyond an ethnic binary of Jew/Greek and beyond a sexual binary of male/female. God’s people have always been diverse, before, during, and after the days of Jesus, and God’s people continue to be diverse today.
In Acts 21:8-9, we encounter a further bit of information about Philip, whom the eunuch encountered on the road. Philip had four daughters, who were unmarried and were prophets. I see an intersectional connection between these passages.
Philip did not stop at uplifting one kind of marginalized person, but lived out the empowerment and acceptance of the Holy Spirit for people of all ethnicities, sexes, and genders.
Let us learn both from the eunuch, our bold ancestor in faith, and from Philip, an ally to the marginalized.
Haley Gabrielle is a PhD student in Religion, with a focus on the New Testament at Emory University. She earned her Master of Arts in Religion, concentrating in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, at Yale Divinity School in 2018. Haley is a non-denominational charismatic Christian who currently attends a United Methodist church.