The Politics of the Converted Official—Acts 8:26-40 (Richard Davis)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

The account of the baptism of the Eunuch can be read in several ways. Fruitful readings have focused on the gender and the nationality of the person. The political implications have often been overlooked, even though this is an early and potentially fruitful tale for the political theologian.

26Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now the passage of the scripture that 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.
33In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

 

34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

The story of the Apostle Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (as it is widely known) is a magical text, featuring an angel leading Philip into the wilderness to baptise an Ethiopian eunuch, following which Philip is whisked away by the Holy Spirit to Azotus. While in the wilderness, he provides us with a quick lesson in mission. Philip teaches the Ethiopian how to interpret scripture, instructs him about salvation through Jesus Christ, and then baptizes him. It all happens quickly and seemingly without any incident or consequence.

Can we learn anything about political theology from this fantastic tale? To begin with, there are three main characters in this story. The Holy Spirit, Philip, and the Eunuch. The Holy Spirit, perhaps the true protagonist of the story, is well known. We know Philip as one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ. But what do we know about the man in the chariot? He is an Ethiopian, a eunuch, and a court official. I suggest that in exploring the politics of this piece of scripture our attention should fix on him.

The politics of this passage has two traditional foci. First, some scholars have explored the sexual politics of the Eunuch’s ambiguous gender status. To some commentators this text expresses the expansion of the Christian mission that accepted people who were still shunned by the Jewish law (cf. Deuteronomy 23:1: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD”). Second, and less common, are commentaries focusing on the African element in the story. One feature of this is that in converting an exotic Ethiopian, Philip was fulfilling the command that the gospel be taken “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Another aspect of this passage is the exploration of the ethnicity of the Ethiopian and whether or not this person was black. In this way this text has a part to play in the politics of race.

These two approaches to the text are encouraged by the calling this story, as some Bible headings do, the “story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch”. Both lines of enquiry are fully justified, and illuminating in their own ways. But there is a third political aspect of the text: the fact that the Ethiopian eunuch is also a senior court official, a statesman, diplomat, or a politician. Little commentary seems to be done on this point. Is this detail incidental to the story? Assuming that any detail, however apparently trivial, is significant, it matters that he is an official. But how does it matter? In approaching these questions I wish to propose two different political interpretations of this text.

The first is that the text illustrates the baptism of politics and the endorsement of politics as being acceptable to Christianity. The baptism of any court official could be read as bringing the early Christian movement into respectability. The Christian movement has as its founder a crucified man who dies the death of the criminal. He is killed in place of Barabbas, a violent criminal—so some people would most likely have thought of Jesus, who was killed, as worse than Barabbas, who was released. It was officialdom and the Roman Empire that killed Jesus. It was officials and politicians, like Pilate and Herod, who had the final say over Christ’s life. For this reason and others, political powers and Christians were not on good terms from the very beginnings of the Christian church, and only became on close terms with the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. The conversion of the Ethiopian, another earlier political figure, signals, perhaps, that the mission of God is into the sphere of political power. If so, this aligns with the eschatological vision of Revelation 21:24 “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (there is a possible parallel here in Psalm 68:31-32). The nations of the world will be included in the new city of God that descends from heaven. The baptism of the court official can be seen as one step towards God’s ultimate acceptance of human political power. It is also worth noting here that the Ethiopian is not any type of official, but is in charge of the treasury. If that means that he is something like a modern day Minister of Revenue, this means that he is in charge of the tax collectors, a hated group in Israel at the time. If his duties include the managing of money in general, then he had the role that Judas has among the disciples, the treasurer (John 12:6). So perhaps in this text we see the redemption of that specific political profession too.

The second political interpretation is that politics offers no salvation and even those with political power still need to be saved. They too can be outcasts who need the salvation of Jesus Christ. This interpretation undermines any divine pretensions of politicians and our rulers. This interpretation is more negative toward political power as God does not baptize just any political power. Readings of Romans 13 and other texts of subservience sometimes seem to suggest that we must keep our heads down and obey any government as though God directly instituted it. In contrast to rulers who have such a high idea of themselves, here we see an official, which if taken to represent the idea of state, is humble enough to require the guidance of the church, in this case in the reading of scripture. We could conclude that the state needs the church and is not omnicompetent. In this way, the official represents a limited government that recognizes its own limitations of knowledge and expertise. Taking advice on the reading of scripture the official here accepts not only the reading of Philip, but also the implications for the way in which to respond to the text and the gospel. The desire to be baptized also signals humility on behalf of the official. The capacity to recognize the need for God’s grace is rarely found among the megalomaniac political class.

What followed the story? Did he start a church in Ethiopia? Did the man leave political service? The political implications of baptism here are left unexplored. One may draw a parallel with the classic just war justifying text of the soldier in Luke’s gospel (3:14) in which John the Baptist did not require that the soldiers coming for baptism leave their profession (although we don’t know that they didn’t). Here that official is left to work out the political and personal implications of baptism for himself.

The account of the baptism of the Eunuch can be read in several ways. Fruitful readings have focused on the gender and the nationality of the person. The political implications have often been overlooked, even though this is an early and potentially fruitful tale for the political theologian.

One thought on “The Politics of the Converted Official—Acts 8:26-40 (Richard Davis)

  1. Such a helpful piece, Richard – my Sunday sermon will be a good deal more robust thanks to your insights – which I’ll of course acknowledge! Val

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