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"Christ is preached to an Ethiopian"

I thought I would check out the lectionaries readings for tomorrow. The 1st reading is Acts 8:26 - 40 and so I went to and put the reference in the search engine. Up it came with this title:
Christ is preached to an Ethiopian

So what, I hear you ask is wrong with that - that is what the passage is about isn't it.

If you are going to add subtitles to the Biblical text, please do not miss the main point. If you are unsure as to what the main point is, then consult the text. And since you are publishing a version, you should consult the text in its original language. Read it and see what is repeated. If you do that with the text in question, you will find that he word Ethiopian is not repeated but the word  eunuch is.

So what is the big deal about that? Jews did not have a problem with Ethiopians. Remember the "Queen of Sheba" . However, Jews did have an issue with eunuchs. A eunuch was cut off from the assembly, in accordance with Mosaic law. For the Christian sect to welcome into fellowship a eunuch marked a huge departure from the Mosaic law system.

The word ευνουχος -eunuch is repeated  four times. How many times did the writer use the word Ethiopian? You guessed it - ONCE. 

So, having established that to the writer was more interested in the fact that this person was a eunuch than that he happened to hail from Ethiopia or that he happened to be a "powerful" man in the government of that country, we need to ask why. Why did the writer emphasise that he was a eunuch rather than simply "a man" - a descriptor used once for him in verse 27.

Well the writer, Luke, like any good journalist, focussed in on the most newsworthy aspect of this story, and that was that this convert was a eunuch. In order to understand why this fact was so amazing one has to have some background information.

In Deuteronomy 23:1 it specifically prohibits eunuchs from entering the "congregation ", or the temple. That was effectively a permanent exclusion from the covenant, Eunuchs, like lepers, were completely excluded and should any eunuch attempted to enter the temple, that would have been regarded as a defilement and the consequences for the eunuch would I am sure have been very severe.  

God did seem to be softening his line on this if we read in Isaiah 56:4
For this is what the Lord says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
    who choose what pleases me
    and hold fast to my covenant—
5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls
    a memorial and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    that will endure forever.

So God is giving his Temple and its walls. That is very significant when you consider that under the Mosaic law, it was the Temple that eunuchs were excluded from. But this is Isaiah, and this is, I believe a prophesy - future tense. 

Could it be that this account of the the eunuch and Philip is a fulfilment of that passage in Isaiah. Was God not doing a new thing here, that the translators and editors of the NIV in the 20th and 21st centuries AD. have failed to realise. Either they have failed to realise it, which is itself terrible, or worse they have deliberately ignored it because they do not want to deal with the implications of that realisation. Namely, that we serve an Inclusive God, a God who is beyond Gender. A God who though ever red to throughout with masculine pronouns, has among his many names -El Shaddai, which means "many breasted".  

Our God wants to be in relationship with every person, though God also chooses to allow us to choose to be in relationship with him. If I look again at the passage from Isaiah, it seems to me that what is important is not the physical attributes of the persons genitalia, but the ethical attributes of the person's soul.  "Those who choose what pleases me". Clearly, being a eunuch is not a matter of choice. But such people who are eunuchs can still choose what pleases God. 

What got me really excited about the story of Philip and the eunuch in Acts 8 is the place where having had the scriptures explained, the eunuch asks Philip what is stopping him from being baptised.  Bearing in mind that baptism was the New Covenant equivalent of circumcision under the Old Covenant, baptism is the welcoming into the congregation, the very type of person that had been hitherto excluded. The man did not cease to be a eunuch, because lo and behold, at the end of the narrative, it says that the eunuch continued on his way rejoicing. Not only was he welcomed into the congregation, but he became a minister of the Gospel, instantaneously ordained to take the Gospel to Ethiopia. 

I do not wish to suggest that the eunuch's ethnicity is not significant. Actually I think it is very significant that the first reported Gentile convert to the Way was Black, and again, we are often told that the first Gentile convert was "Cornelius."

I have just asked Siri who was the first Gentile convert to Christianity, and it showed me a Wikipedia article about “Cornelius the Centurion” - if that is correct, then either Luke got his Chronology mixed up because he reports on the eunuch’s conversion before he talks about the centurions conversion, but then how would we know that is the case since the same document, the Acts of the Apostles, is the only historical record of both narratives. The only other explanation that would make Cornelius the first, and that would be that the Ethiopian was not a Gentile, and if he were not a gentile, he must have been Jewish, but again, I am stymied because Luke does not mention that he is Jewish, he writes that he was a man from Ethiopia. 

I am left with only one other option in my opinion, and that is that God chose to convert a black African man (more senior in rank in his government) before he converted a white European man who had a military rank, but relatively junior to that of the Candace’s official, but that the Eurocentric theologians prioritise Cornelius conversion because he in their eyes was more important. Maybe Cornelius, being a “real man” so to speak, without the baggage of being a eunuch. 

So if I might be so bold as to suggest an alternative “headline” for this narrative in Acts 8:
First Gentile convert to Christianity: a Black African Eunuch.


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