Tag Archives: the Ethiopian eunuch

Message to the Sons of Solomon

philip_and_the_ethiopianAnd King Solomon gave to the queen of Sheba all that she desired, whatever she asked besides what was given her by the bounty of King Solomon. So she turned and went back to her own land with her servants.

1 Kings 10:13 (ESV)

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship…

Acts 8:26-27 (ESV)

The Ethiopian history described in the Kebra Negast, or “Book of the Glory of Kings,” relates that Ethiopians are descendants of Israelite tribes who came to Ethiopia with Menelik I, alleged to be the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (or Makeda, in the legend) (see 1 Kings 10:1-13 and 2 Chronicles 9:1-12). The legend relates that Menelik, as an adult, returned to his father in Jerusalem, and then resettled in Ethiopia, and that he took with him the Ark of the Covenant.

-Budge, Queen of Sheba, Kebra Negast, chap. 61.
quoted from Wikipedia

I’ve written before about the section of Acts 8 that chronicles the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in relation to D. Thomas Lancaster’s commentary in Volume 6 of the Torah Club: Chronicles of the Apostles. Today (as I write this “church report”), it was Pastor Randy’s turn to teach us his perspective during Sunday services where I go to church.

It was also Charlie’s turn to discuss it in Sunday school and it was interesting. I already knew that Charlie believed the Ethiopian was Jewish but as Pastor started delivering his message, he shared with us that he just that week had changed his opinion about the Ethiopian and now believes that he must have been a Jew! Interesting.

I’m torn between whether to write about the history of the Ethiopian Jews, which is a topic of some controversy and speculation, or if I should focus on why God found it necessary to send an angel to tell Philip to find the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26). I think I’ll focus on the latter.

Let me explain.

In teaching the Sunday school lesson, Charlie remarked more than once how unusual he thought it was for God to send “an angel of the Lord” to tell Philip to stop everything he was doing in Samaria and travel south on the desert road to find one man who was returning to his native Ethiopia after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Why was this one man so important?

From a traditional evangelical Christian point of view, converting a high-ranking official of a foreign country to faith in Jesus Christ is a great way to spread the gospel message to all of the other high-ranking government officials in that country as well as to the general body of citizens. But I don’t think we can exactly map 21st Century evangelical strategies to First Century CE Jewish devotion to the sect of “the Way.” Charlie thought, given how the message of Christ was transmitted first to the Jews, then to the Samaritans, and finally to the rest of the nations, that God believed the Jewish population in Ethiopia was close to the heart of their Creator, and that the “Good News” of Messiah was a message God intended for all Jews to embrace. After all, much of the New Testament text addresses the spread of the Gospel into Europe, Asia, and the Near East. What about the Jews to the south?

This is all speculation of course, and only one part of a single chapter in the New Testament is devoted to transmitting such a message in that particular direction, but what Charlie also said more than once got my attention. He said that God wanted to make sure all of the Jews got the message that God had changed the rules.

What? What rules?

(I should say at this point, when Charlie made his comment about “changing rules” I was seriously considering what I should say or do in response. I chose not to say or do anything, but given my sensitivity to the matter of supersessionism in the church, I was afraid that I would have to defend against such a theology at the cost of my budding relationship among these fellow believers. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that.)

Actually, something important did change thanks to Christ.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…

Matthew 28:19 (ESV)

While Israel had always been intended to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6), this is the first indication that the Messiah wanted people from all of the nations, and not just from Israel, to become disciples of the Master and grafted in sons and daughters of God. As we progress forward and especially attending to Acts 10 and beyond, we see that God’s intent was not to require the Gentiles to convert to Judaism or abandon their own national and ethnic uniqueness in order to become disciples. The Holy Spirit was just as available to the Gentile disciple as to the Jew.

Walking TogetherIn this specific sense, something had changed. Prior to this moment in time, if a Gentile wanted to worship the God of Israel in a covenant relationship, he or she had to embrace Judaism (that’s more or less an exact quote from Pastor Randy). With the command of Christ, which the church calls “the great commission,” anyone from anywhere could worship God in a covenant relationship without converting to Judaism (the concept of conversion is complicated…it probably didn’t exist as such during the days of Moses or David, but it was a recognized practice during the late Second Temple period and beyond).

Did God want Philip to tell the Ethiopian that God changed the rules? A plain reading of the text doesn’t suggest such a thing. From my point of view, what God wanted Philip to tell the Jewish Ethiopian was the good news of the Messiah who had come and will come again, as revealed by Isaiah 53. Why God wanted this event to occur is up for grabs, but what the Ethiopian carried back with him to his land and to his people was the gospel message, or as much of it as Philip was able to transmit in the time they were together and related to the passages from Isaiah. What fruit resulted upon the eunuch’s homecoming and in the years and centuries to follow, we cannot know.

But if God changed anything, it wasn’t His “rules” or His Torah but rather access. God opened up covenant access to Himself for all peoples. There are two portions to the good news of Christ. Of course, there is the good news for the Gentile, that we can now come to God in covenant through the blood of His son. However, Christianity rarely considers the good news of Christ to the Jew who already had such a covenant relationship (which would include the Jews in Ethiopia), that the Messiah had come, the King of Israel had been born, that he died and rose and sits at the Father’s right hand, and that at the proper time, Messiah would cause a scattered Israel to be gathered together as a nation and one day, the King would rule from Jerusalem (I’m not suggesting two, separate paths of salvation, one for Gentiles and one for Jews, but because of Israel’s special unique relationship with God, the Messiah has more and different good news for the Jews in addition to the good news he has for the Gentiles).

On Friday May 24, 1991: Over the course of 36 hours, a total of 34 El Al Hercules c-130s – with their seats removed to maximize passenger capacity – flew non-stop.

14,325 Ethiopian Jews came home to Israel, to be greeted by thousands of Israelis who gathered at temporary absorption centers, hotels and hostels to welcome their brethren.

Operation Solomon saw the rescue of twice the number of Ethiopian Jews in Operations Moses and Joshua put together.

-from bluestarpr.com

A Christian group said Tuesday, June 7, it would help organize “the return of the last 8,700 Ethiopian Jews to Israel” by sponsoring what are known as “Aliyah” flights, the coming months.

“Last Ethiopian Jews to Return to Israel, Christian Group Says”
-from worthynews.com, June 8, 2011

I know I’m stringing together bits and pieces of scripture, news, and commentary in a less than rock-solid structure, but consider for a moment that Jews from all across the nations have been returning to Israel and are being gathered to their people. God has never forgotten them nor will He ever forsake them. Perhaps that’s why He made it a point to send an angel to Philip and to insure that the message of the Messiah would reach all of his people, including the Jewish Ethiopians.

Just a thought.

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The Uncircumcised Convert, Part 1

corneliusAnd he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.”

Acts 10:28-29 (ESV)

Simon Peter still had no idea why he had been called to Caesarea. The notion of Gentile inclusion in the kingdom had not occurred to him. Though the Master had told the apostles to “make disciples of all the nations” and to witness on His behalf “even to the remotest part of the earth,” He had never implied that this might mean accepting Gentiles as Gentiles (see Matthew 28:19; Acts 1:8). Simon naturally assumed that any Gentiles entering the kingdom and taking on the yoke of discipleship would necessarily convert to become Jewish first.

Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Vayeshev (“And he dwelt”) (pp 231-2)
Commentary on Acts 9:32-11:18

I don’t know where D. Thomas Lancaster discovered that bit of information about Peter in his commentary on Acts 10 or even if it’s simply an interesting opinion, but if true, then it begs the question, did Peter or any of the other apostles actually convert a Gentile to Judaism as part of the process of making disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) from the nations? As far as I’m aware, there’s no record in the New Testament prior to Acts 10 of the apostles converting a Gentile to Judaism, or allowing a Gentile to enter into the kingdom without conversion in the context of Jesus discipleship. The thousands we see coming to faith in the Jewish Messiah in Acts 2 and later are almost certainly all Jews. For that matter, what do we know of the Ethiopian eunuch encountered by the apostle Philip prior to Peter being summoned by Cornelius?

And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah.

Acts 8:27-28 (ESV)

The Ethiopian eunuch is sometimes considered the first Gentile convert (E.g., Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.1.13). That seems unlikely. Luke makes no issue about his non-Jewish status as he does regarding Cornelius in Acts 10. Ethiopia was home to a continuous Jewish presence from the days of Solomon up until the modern era. Beta Israel Jews, also known as Ethiopian Jews, claim Jewish ancestry reaching back to the Solomonic Era. One may safely assume that an Ethiopian who went to the trouble of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship the LORD in His Temple was Jewish. Luke says, “He had come to Jerusalem to worship” (Acts 8:27). The eunuch had traveled a great distance to reach Jerusalem, more than a month’s travel time. He had probably come to attend one of the pilgrimage festivals. While in Jerusalem, he purchased several Greek versions of the scrolls of the prophets – reading material for the trip home.

Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Vayetze (“And he went out”) (pp 176-7)
Commentary on Acts 8:1-40

I think we have to accept that Lancaster is making some assumptions here, as he says, but they are certainly compelling assumptions. Luke indeed makes “no big deal” of the Ethiopian eunuch’s conversion to the “Jesus sect” but draws a tremendous amount of attention to Cornelius and his household of Gentiles when they receive the Holy Spirit.

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.

Acts 10:44-45 (ESV)

Peter and his Jewish companions were astonished that the Gentiles could also receive the Holy Spirit while Philip…but wait. Did the Ethiopian eunuch receive the Spirit during his encounter with Philip?

And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

Acts 8:34-39 (ESV)

Immediately after rising from the water, Philip is taken away by the Spirit, but there is no mention at all of the Ethiopian eunuch receiving the Spirit as did Cornelius and his household in Acts 10 or the apostles in Acts 2. Of course in Acts 10 the Gentiles received the Spirit (verse 44) and then were baptized in water (verse 48). Did the Ethiopian eunuch receive the Spirit prior to immersion and the event was simply not mentioned by Luke?

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

Acts 2:37-41 (ESV)

philip_and_the_ethiopianNotice that Peter tells his Jewish audience that to receive forgiveness of sins, they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, but when Luke describes the results in verse 41, he only says, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” He doesn’t say that after they received his (Peter’s) word, they received the Spirit and then were baptized. It’s possible, given that these were Jews being discussed, Luke assumed his readership would know that they received the Spirit based on verses 1-4. That same thought process might have been in use when Luke describes the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. However this is just guess-work on my part.

But while the Jews who received the good news of the Moshiach in Acts 2 came to faith in Jesus but did not have to convert to Judaism (and arguably, neither did the Ethiopian eunuch), what about Cornelius and his household in Acts 10? If Lancaster’s assumption is correct, Peter should have expected Gentiles to convert to Judaism as a part of becoming disciples of the Jewish Messiah.

I mentioned in a previous meditation that Shaye J.D. Cohen in his book, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Second Edition said it was not uncommon for those from the various sects of late Second Temple era Judaism to make converts from the Gentiles including the God-fearers. If Peter expected, as did the other Judaisms of his day, that Gentiles would have to convert to Judaism in order to enter into discipleship, then he should have had Cornelius and the other male God-fearers present circumcised as part of the conversion process.

When Simon Peter heard the Gentiles speaking in the languages and saw that they had received the Spirit just as he and the other Jewish believers had, he could no longer theologically exclude them from participation in the kingdom or discipleship. (see Acts 10:47-48) They had not gone through a legal conversion to become Jewish, nor had they been circumcised. They were still Gentiles, yet they had experienced the Spirit of God, just as the Jewish believers had.

Simon Peter explained to the six men that had accompanied him from Joppa, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” By skipping circumcision and going directly to immersion, Simon Peter inverted the process by which a Gentile might ordinarily become a disciple of Yeshua. Prior to that occasion, he and the other disciples required a Gentile to first submit to conversion/circumcision. Immersion could follow later.

-Lancaster, pg 235

This presentation on Lancaster’s Torah Club commentary went longer than I originally planned, so I’m splitting it into two parts. Please join me tomorrow for the second and final part in Monday’s “morning meditation.”