Philip the Evangelist and the Ethiopian Eunuch
by Philip B. Spivey, Ph.D.

Recently, James A. Forbes privileged the Faith Leaders of African Descent with an address about the relevance for us of an Ethiopian eunuch in the Christian Testament of the Bible. In his address, Dr. Forbes made a persuasive argument for the case that Jesus’ embrace of same gender loving men is embodied in the person of a Black Ethiopian. The stranger who meets the Ethiopian and baptizes him in the name of Jesus is Philip the Evangelist, a disciple of Jesus. As I listened, I was completely taken with this proposition because my church, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem, is named for that Philip

St. Philip

I became a member of St. Philip’s church just before the advent of the new millennium. I was taken by its history: the second oldest black Episcopal Church in the United States founded in 1809; a force for social and economic justice since before the abolition of slavery; a spiritual home for a number of African American leaders including Thurgood Marshall, Elizabeth Jennings, Langston Hughes and Percy Sutton. And in the recent era, St. Philip’s has become an open and welcoming church to same gender loving women and men.

One of the things that caught my eye early on at St. Philip’s was the official church emblem: a crest of scarlet red overlaid with simple line drawings in fine white thread depicting the Star of David, a chariot adjacent a stream and a dove invoking the Holy Spirit. Because I did not understand these symbols in the context of our parish, I eventually went to the Bible for what became a deeper, and more personal, appreciation of these symbols.

Bible scholars tell us that the Acts of the Apostles was written in the late first century A.D. Its author is believed to be Luke, the writer of the Gospel. This book of Acts is a recounting, through Luke’s eyes, of the formative years of the Christian church. What we learn early in the 8th chapter of Acts is that Philip the Evangelist has been sent from Jerusalem by an angel of the Lord “…to go toward south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (v. 26) It is on this road that Philip meets the Ethiopian who “had come to Jerusalem and was returning home” (v.28-29). Luke informs us immediately that the Ethiopian is also a eunuch – a fact that must have borne great significance for him and for that time. What do we know and understand about the eunuchs of that day? The term eunuch is rarely used now except to refer to an earlier time and usage.

The Eunuch

In modern times, a eunuch is understood to be the sole equivalent of someone (a man) who has been castrated. In renaissance Europe, for example, they were referred to as castrati: male falsetto vocalists favored in the courts of the renaissance aristocracy. But in the time of Luke, the label ‘eunuch’ had other meanings, as well.

In his Gospel, Matthew (19:12) writes that Jesus speaks of three classes of eunuchs:

For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, (my emphasis) and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.

To grasp the full meaning of this statement, it’s useful to provide context for Jesus’ proclamation: In the verses immediately preceding this, speaking to his disciples, Jesus admonishes them for considering divorce (from a woman, even a problematic woman) and anyone who divorces and marries another, he says, has committed adultery in the eyes of God. A disciple replies that maybe it’s better not to marry (a women). And Jesus replies (19:11) Not every one can accept this teaching, but only those to whom its given. He continues in verse 12 (above) with his delineations: In the first class, the one I’ve placed in italics, I believe Jesus captures the reality of gay men like me; in the second, he describes men who, in ancient times, were castrated and were frequently engaged to guard harems or were men who had achieved high social status by virtue of their “uniqueness”; and in the third, which is more obscure to me, a case might be made that these men who had made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, might be understood today as practicing celibates within a religious tradition that values celibacy.

The Hebrew word that is equivalent for ‘eunuch’ is saris, and that term appears seventeen times in the Hebrew bible; saris has wide meanings that include castrated men, court officials, shamans, sages and wise men.

An additional perspective on this term is provided by the 3rd century Roman theologian, Hippolytus, (170-235): “A prostitute, a profligate [licentious or recklessly extravagant], a eunuch or anyone else who does things of which it is a shame to speak, let them be rejected.”

The modern eunuch

We have drawn perspectives from the theologian Hippolytus, from the Hebrew bible and from Jesus himself. For the marginalized citizens of our modern world, many of the pejorative terms associated with gender variance are still in general use. What are we to understand about the place of our Ethiopian eunuch in modern times? What does he symbolize for us and what is Jesus saying, through Philip the Evangelist? Jesus has the final word when he describes me, as I am: For there have been (gay men like me) who have been so by birth. And he concludes: Let anyone accept this who can.

In our modern discourse, we can borrow from some of our indigenous North Americans (or in some regions of Africa) where the notion of the Two-Spirit gender identity exists in harmony with the more conventional forms. In Western culture, the concept of “homosexuality” is a relatively new invention, and, by the way, the concept (and reality of same sex affection) was fought against tooth-and-nail, for example, by the prevailing culture of Victorian England; there was no status or esteem attached to same gender loving men or women.

Were some eunuchs of old same gender loving? Of course. How could it be otherwise? Were some born same gender loving while others may have been hormonally induced? Very probably. Today, they would be referred to as gender variant. The term “gender variance” hosts a large and wide spectrum of members. That spectrum includes L-G-B-T in all its expressions.

A re-reading of Acts 8:28

We can now examine Acts 8:28 with a contextual advantage:

seated in his chariot [the eunuch] was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to the chariot and join it.’ He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of scripture he was reading was this:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him
Who can describe his generation?

For his life is taken away from the earth
.

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom may I ask you, does he say this, about himself or about someone else?” (v. 34)

Isaiah’s passage, (Like a sheep…), is frequently linked to the Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus. But, based on our foregoing discussion, it could just as easily be referring to a history of scorn experienced by the “Black homosexual” sitting in the chariot.

The narrative closes like this: As the two approach a body of water the eunuch cries; “Look here is abody of water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”(v. 36) Philip went down to the water and baptized the eunuch.

The imagery is powerful because what we are witnessing is the meeting of two strangers —strangers of nation, culture, of contrasting skin tones and very likely — of sexual orientation. The lesson here for me? That in its earliest days, the Church of Jesus practiced an ethos of inclusivity; not only were gentiles and Jews actively welcomed under the tent, but The Way was open to any and all who followed.

A lesson for today

What is the take away for us? This is what I see.

I believe this story speaks to, and about, us. Whether you view it historically, metaphorically, symbolically or allegorically it speaks to a moment in time millennia ago when someone, we believe his name was Luke, carved out a place in the whole of the canon of biblical scripture devoted to a person of stature who is of African descent and who is embraced —- as is. I also believe that this narrative is a singular Biblical revelation for who we are in the eyes of my Christian God.

Another take away for me is this: To my knowledge, this is only second baptism recorded in the Christian Testament. The first? Jesus of Nazareth by John the Baptist. I’d say that this second and final baptism—- of the Ethiopian —- is mighty auspicious.

Although there is no historical basis to believe this eunuch brought Christianity to Ethiopia after his encounter with Philip (as tradition suggests) we do know that Christianity was first practiced there in the 1st century A.D.

If, as I believe, Jesus sought to bring the margins of society into his fold, why in heaven’s name, would he have elected to exclude the Black homosexual? It makes no theological sense; and it panders to those who would keep Black heterosexual and homosexual men and women at the margins of decency. I believe this Bible narrative speaks joyfully for the inclusion of all humankind — even us!

And I say: Let anyone accept this who can.