A Running Commentary—Literally - Reflections on Acts 8:26-40

by Dr. John Holbert on Tuesday, April 23, 2024

A Running Commentary—Literally

Acts 8:26-40

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher

          The wonderful tale of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch is among the most well-known stories in the Book of Acts. It is at the same time an introduction to the inclusive power of the gospel and an insightful narrative of the early Christian use of the Hebrew Bible, as it was mediated through the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek version of the First Testament that almost always served as the springboard for reflection on the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Messiah.

          The story begins with important pieces of information. As one finds in any number of places in the Bible, an angel speaks to Phillip and tells him to “rise up and go south along the desert road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza” (Acts 8:26). Along that way, as the angel obviously knows, passes a man from Ethiopia, a eunuch, who is a high official, master of the treasury of Queen Candace. The man is both wealthy, riding in a chariot large enough for a passenger and a driver, and is also an obvious foreigner and a sexual outsider. As it happens, the man is reading a Bible, a passage from the prophet Isaiah, while he travels back to his homeland after worshipping in the Jerusalem temple. This suggests that he is a follower of Judaism, devout enough both to go to the temple to worship as well as to continue to read and study the Jewish scripture. 

          He is a foreigner, an Ethiopian, a citizen of a country specifically mentioned in Isaiah as one of the places that will be a sign of the restoration of God’s people in the future, part of the remnant of the scattered Jewish multitude, following the destruction of Jerusalem, “those left from Assyria and from Ethiopia and from Babylon” (Is.11:11). This Ethiopian worships in Jerusalem as a sign of that coming restoration. On the other hand, because he is a eunuch, the LXX of Deuteronomy 23:2 states that any eunuch, any person not sexually whole, is precluded from full participation in the worshipping assembly. But, thanks to the words of Is.56:4-5, “eunuchs who keep my sabbaths and hold fast to the covenant” can find a place in the house of God. Little wonder that this Ethiopian eunuch is eager to understand more fully the book of Isaiah, no doubt his favorite biblical text for obvious and quite personal reasons. 

          Hilariously, Phillip quite literally runs to catch the Ethiopian’s chariot—we might imagine it is not at a galloping speed, making both for easier reading for the eunuch and more possible for Phillip to catch up! The man is reading Is. 53:7-8, the last of Isaiah’s so-called “servant songs.” While running, Phillip overhears the Ethiopian reading the passage aloud; there are any number of examples where individual reading was done aloud, perhaps the most famous to be found in Augustine’s “Confessions 6:3,” where the saint is puzzled to experience bishop Ambrose reading silently, apparently a very odd thing. Phillip, still jogging along, asks the eunuch whether he understands what he is reading. “How can I, unless someone guides me?” he answers (Acts 8:31). In this particular case, it is small wonder that the reader needs help understanding because the passage is notoriously difficult in both Hebrew and Greek. Hebrew is filled with perplexing possibilities, and the Greek often appears to be guesses at what the translator thought the Hebrew meant. Nevertheless, the text has come to be a direct reflection on the fuller meaning of what Jesus came to mean for the early church.

          Fortunately, the eunuch invites Phillip into his chariot for an explanation, thus giving him a break from his running (!) and offering him the chance to help the Ethiopian grasp the text from a Christian perspective. As we all know well, these four Isaianic servant songs, especially this last one, were significant biblical places that helped the early Christian communities flesh out the rich theological implications of the significance of Jesus. One brief essay cannot give the complex problems of meaning presented by the passage, but at least one example is important. In vs. 33 the LXX reads, in sharp deviation from the Hebrew text, “his life is taken up from the earth,” which allows anyone convinced of the resurrection of Jesus, like Phillip, to apply the text directly to the one he knows as Messiah. The Hebrew plainly does not say that. There the text makes it clear that the servant dies; he is “cut off from the earth.” Hence, the LXX’s reading is different and more capable of being interpreted in the way Phillip does for the eunuch. This is hardly the only place where the LXX lends itself to a Messianic meaning, rather more than the Hebrew does. 

          The Ethiopian then asks the crucial question: “About whom does the prophet say this? Is it about himself or someone else?” (Acts 8:34). This query leads Phillip to speak, and “beginning from this Scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). This is of course reminiscent of Jesus himself when he does the same thing on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:27, speaking to the two sad pilgrims who also have just left Jerusalem. Immediately after this, the Ethiopian asks to be baptized in the nearby body of water, and “both went down into the water” (Acts 8:38).

          The Ethiopian eunuch thus becomes a part of the emergent Christian church, though we hear no more of him. His foreignness nor his different sexuality in no way exclude him from full participation in the community of Christ. In our own time, there should equally be no such barriers to the full life of Christianity, yet there remain many who have not yet felt the full implications of this radical gospel of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch of full inclusivity in the body of Christ. 

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