7. Philip and the Ethiopian (8:26–40)
26 Now the angel of the Lord spoke to Philip. “Rise up,” he said, “and make your way southward 53 by the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.)
27 So he rose up and set out on his way. There he came on a man of Ethiopia, a powerful official of Kandakē, queen of the Ethiopians, a chamberlain who was in charge of all her treasury. He had gone to Jerusalem to worship,
28 and on his return journey he was sitting in his chariot, reading the prophet Isaiah.
29 The Spirit said to Philip, “Go up to this chariot and join it.”
30 So Philip ran up to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” he asked.
31 “How could I,” said the man, “unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get up and sit with him.
32 The passage of scripture which he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led off to slaughter,
and like a lamb dumb before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 As he was humiliated his rights were taken away:
as for his progeny, who will declare it?
because his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 Then the chamberlain spoke up. “Tell me, please,” he said to Philip: “who is the person about whom the prophet says this? Himself, or someone else?”
35 Then Philip began to speak: beginning at this scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.
38 He gave orders for the chariot to halt, and both of them, Philip and the chamberlain, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.
39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, 56 and the chamberlain did not see him again; for he continued joyfully on his way.
40 As for Philip, he turned up at Azotus. 57 Then, passing through city after city, he preached the gospel in them all until he came to Caesarea.
26 The story of Philip is now resumed. This part of it is told in a style which is in some respects reminiscent of the Old Testament narratives of Elijah 58 While here, as in 5:19, the Greek phrase rendered “the angel of the Lord” is that used in LXX for the supernatural messenger who manifested the divine presence to human beings, 59 Luke’s statement that “the angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, ‘Rise up …’ ” is probably a vivid way of denoting Philip’s divine guidance. In the following narrative it is difficult to see any real distinction between “the angel of the Lord” and “the Spirit of the Lord,” although the Western text introduces a distinction in verse 39.
However that may be, Philip received a divine command to go south to join the Jerusalem-Gaza road—probably the road which ran by way of Beth-govrin, Ptolemy’s Betogabris (refounded later as Eleutheropolis by Septimius Severus). The word “desert” might refer either to Gaza or to the road. The older city of Gaza was destroyed by the Hasmonaean king Alexander Jannaeus in 96 B.C.; a new city was built nearer the Mediterranean by Gabinius in 57 B.C., the old city, as Strabo says, “remaining desert.” 60 On the other hand, it was important that Philip should know which road to take; had he taken another road, he would have missed the Ethiopian. Gaza figures in the Old Testament as one of the five cities of the Philistines.
27–28 Along the desert road to Gaza Philip came on a travelling chariot or covered wagon making its way southward; in it was seated the treasurer of the kingdom of Ethiopia (Nubia), who had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was now returning home. The kingdom of Ethiopia lay on the Nile, south of the first cataract (at Aswan); its two chief cities were Meroe and Napata. The king of Ethiopia was venerated as the child of the sun and regarded as too sacred a personage to discharge the secular functions of royalty; these were performed on his behalf by the queen-mother, who bore the dynastic title Kandakē. 61
The Ethiopian treasurer was probably a Gentile worshiper of the God of Israel. He is referred to by a term which may have the more general sense of “chamberlain” or the stricter sense of “eunuch.” 62 Eunuchs were commonly employed as court officials in the Near East from antiquity until quite recent times. The law of Israel excluded eunuchs from religious privileges enjoyed by other members of the community (Deut. 23:1); the removal of this ban is foreshadowed in Isa. 56:3–5. At any rate, like the Greeks mentioned in John 12:20, 63 this man had visited Jerusalem as a worshiper, probably at the time of one of the great pilgrimage festivals, and was now beguiling his homeward journey by studying a scroll of the book of Isaiah in the Greek version.
29–31 The divine monitor (called the Spirit this time) instructed Philip to approach the chariot, and as he did so, he heard the Ethiopian reading aloud from his copy of Isaiah. Reading in antiquity was almost invariably done aloud. 64 Why this should be so will be apparent to anyone who tries to read a copy of an ancient manuscript: the words need to be spelled out, and this is done more easily aloud than in silence. In addition, beginners regularly read aloud; it requires considerable experience (not to say sophistication) to read silently, though this stage is reached more quickly with modern print than with ancient handwriting.
The actual passage of the prophecy which the Ethiopian was reading aloud gave Philip his cue immediately: “Do you understand what you are reading?” 65 he asked. The man frankly acknowledged that he did not—that he could not without a guide or interpreter. As Philip appeared to know what he was talking about, the reader invited him to come up into the chariot and sit beside him. He certainly could have found no more reliable guide to the meaning of what he read than the man who had thus strangely accosted him.
32–33 For the passage which he was reading was the great prophecy of the suffering Servant of the Lord which had found its fulfilment so recently in the sacrifice and death of Jesus of Nazareth. The prophet himself, as he gave utterance to these words, might well have wondered and “inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within” him when thus “predicting the suffering of Christ and the subsequent glory” (1 Pet. 1:11), for it must have been almost impossible to understand how his words could be fulfilled until Jesus came and fulfilled them. Jesus himself appears to have spoken of his death in terms of this prophecy (Isa. 52:13–53:12)—for example, when he said that “the Son of man … came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). 66 The words addressed to him by the heavenly voice at his baptism (Mark 1:11) implied that the royal Messiah, acclaimed by God as his Son in Ps. 2:7, was to fulfil his destiny in the mission mapped out for the Servant of the Lord introduced in Isa. 42:1. It was natural to link the oracle opening with “Behold my Servant” in Isa. 42:1 with that opening with similar words in Isa. 52:13. There is no evidence that anyone before the time of Jesus had identified the Isaianic Servant with the Davidic Messiah, but he seems to have identified them in his own person and by his own act. When he insisted that it was written concerning the Son of Man 67 that he should “suffer many things and be treated with contempt” (Mark 9:12), it is difficult to think of a more suitable scripture as the basis of such words than Isa. 52:13–53:12.
The section which Luke actually quotes (Isa. 53:7–8 LXX) does not indeed include any of the explicit statements of vicarious suffering found elsewhere in this “fourth Servant song.” One may ask if, as often in the New Testament, the quotation of a few clauses from a “testimony” passage carries the whole context with it by implication: 68 this question could be answered with greater assurance here if some details were given of Philip’s application of “this scripture.” Luke certainly knows more of the context than is reproduced here: he cites Isa. 52:13 in Acts 3:13 and Isa. 53:12 in Luke 22:37. But if we pay attention only to the clauses that Luke reproduces, it would be difficult to deduce from them anything but a theology of suffering.
34–35 The Ethiopian’s question, “who is the person about whom the prophet says this? Himself, or someone else?” often serves nowadays as the text for an academic essay or examination question, so numerous are the answers that have been offered. 69 But Philip found no difficulty, nor did he hesitate between alternative answers. The prophet himself might not have known, but Philip knew, because the prophecy had come true in his day, and so, “beginning at this scripture, he told him the good news about Jesus.” At a time when not one line of any New Testament document had been written, what scripture could any evangelist have used more fittingly as a starting point for presenting the story of Jesus to one who did not know him? It was Jesus, and no other, who offered up his life as a sacrifice for sin, and justified many by bearing their iniquities, exactly as had been written of the obedient Servant. As the historic fact of Jesus’ undeserved suffering and death is certain, equally certain is it that through his suffering and death men and women of all nations have experienced forgiveness and redemption, just as the prophet foretold. 70
36–38 Philip’s persuasive exposition of the Servant’s passion found its way home to the Ethiopian’s heart. Did Philip also tell him, as Peter had told his Jerusalem audience on the day of Pentecost, that the appropriate response to such good news was repentance and baptism for the remission of sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit? We do not know. At any rate, as they journeyed on, they came to some running water—whether the Wadi el-Hesi northeast of Gaza, which is traditionally pointed out as the place, has been rightly or wrongly identified with it is totally uncertain. “See, here is water!” said the Ethiopian. “What is to prevent my being baptized?” 71 There was nothing to prevent it, so the chariot was halted, they both went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.
This is the account in the original text. But at quite an early date (probably in the second century) an editor felt that this was not adequate. Philip must surely have satisfied himself of the genuineness of the Ethiopian’s faith. (No doubt Philip was well satisfied, but there are some minds which cannot be content to leave such things to be inferred.) So some words were added in which Philip tests the man’s faith, and he responds with a formal confession: “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” 72 The added words of the Western text reflect early Christian practice, to which the Ethiopian is made to conform. 73
39 The divine purpose in sending Philip to the Gaza road was accomplished; he was now sped northward by the Spirit on another mission. The Western text, however, makes the angel of the Lord snatch Philip away, while the Spirit of the Lord falls on the Ethiopian. 74 The purpose of this textual alteration may be partly to bring in the angel of the Lord at the end of the episode, since he was active at the beginning of it; but the much more important effect of the longer reading is to make it clear that the Ethiopian’s baptism was followed by the gift of the Spirit. Even with the shorter reading it is a reasonable inference that he did receive the Spirit, 75 . although it would be an impermissible inference in the thinking of those who believe that the Spirit is bestowed only through the imposition of apostolic hands. 76 When the Ethiopian disappears from our view, continuing joyfully on his way, it need not be doubted that the joy which filled his heart was that “joy in the Holy Spirit” of which Paul speaks in Rom. 14:17. 77
What became of him we cannot tell. According to Irenaeus, he became a missionary among his own people, 78 which we should naturally expect—although Irenaeus probably had no more specific information on the matter than we ourselves have. But with the record of his conversion Luke has begun to touch on the evangelization of Gentiles—a subject specially dear to his heart. The Ethiopians were regarded by the Greeks and their neighbors, from Homer’s time onward, as living on the edge of the world. 79 In Luke’s day interest in them had been quickened by a Roman expedition of A.D. 61–63 which explored the Nile as far up as Meroe and beyond. 80 So soon after the risen Lord’s commission to his disciples had their witness reached “the end of the earth” (1:8).
40 Philip next appeared at Azotus, the old Philistine city of Ashdod, some twenty miles north of Gaza. From there he headed north along the coastal road, preaching the gospel in all the cities through which he passed, 81 until at last he reached Caesarea. 82 There he seems to have settled down—at least, it is there that we find him when he makes his next appearance in the narrative, twenty years later (21:8). By that time he had become a family man, with four daughters, each one a prophetess—worthy children of such a father. 83
53 Gk. κατὰ μεσημβρίαν. In LXX μεσημβρία regularly means “noon” (cf. περὶ μεσημβρίαν 22:6 below), except in Dan. 8:4, 9 where it means “south” (Theodotion renders νότος). But here “southward” is the more natural sense (but see W. C. van Unnik, “Der Befehl an Philippus,” ZNW 47 , pp. 181–91).
55 Here the Western text adds: “And he said to him, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ He said in answer, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ ” Although this addition is not found in the Byzantine text, it was incorporated by Erasmus in his printed editions; he thought it had been omitted through scribal carelessness. It is printed as v. 37 in KJV, but is properly omitted from the text of The Greek New Testament according to the Majority Text, ed. Z. C. Hodges and A. L. Farstad (Nashville, 1982), where it is mentioned in the apparatus as included in the Received Text.
61 According to Bion of Soli (Aethiopica 1), “the Ethiopians do not reveal the fathers of their kings, but hand down a tradition that they are sons of the sun. They call the mother of each king Kandaki” See also Strabo, Geography 17.1.54; Pliny, Natural History 6.186; Dio Cassius, History 54.5.4
63 Cf. p. 149 with 82 (on 7:46).
66 These words are commonly supposed to echo the sense of Isa. 53:10, where the Servant’s life is appointed as a guilt-offering (LXX περὶ ἁμαρτίας); see, on the other hand, M. D. Hooker, Jesus and the Servant (London, 1956), pp. 74–79 et passim; C. K. Barrett, “The Background of Mark 10:45,” in New Testament Essays: Studies in Memory of T. W. Manson, ed. A. J. B. Higgins (Manchester, 1959), pp. 1–18.
69 See C. R. North, The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah (Oxford, 1948), pp. 6–116, for a summary of the answers offered from pre-Christian times to the 1940s, and H. H. Rowley, The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays on the Old Testament (Oxford, 21965), pp. 3–93, for a survey of answers given since 1921, when S. Mowinckel propounded the view that the prophet did say those things about himself.
70 On the interpretation of the Isaianic Servant Songs, especially the fourth, see also W. Zimmerli and J. Jeremias, TDNT 5, pp. 654–717 (s.v. παῖς Θεοῦ); S. R. Driver and A. Neubauer,The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters (Oxford, 1877); G. H. Dalman, Der leidende und der sterbende Messias der Synagoge im ersten nachchristlichen Jahrtausend (Berlin, 1888), and Jesaja 53, das Prophetenwort vom Sühnleiden des Heilsmittlers mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der synagogalen Literatur (Berlin, 21914); J. J. Brierre-Narbonne, Le Messie souffrant dans la littérature rabbinique (Paris, 1940); H. W. Wolff, Jesaja 53 im Urchristentum (Berlin, 1950); H. W. Robinson, “The Cross of the Servant,” in The Cross in the Old Testament (London, 1955), pp. 55–114; E. Lohmeyer, Gottesknecht und Davidssohn, FRLANT NF 43 (Göttingen, 21953); A. Bentzen, King and and Messiah, E.T. (London, 1955); E. Lohse, Märtyrer und Gottesknecht, FRLANT 64 (Göttingen, 1955); V. de Leeuw, De Ebed Jahweh-Profetie:en: Historisch-kritisch Onderzoek naar hun Ontstaan en hun Betekenis (Assen, 1956); E. Fascher, Jesaja 53 in christlicher und jüdischer Sicht (Berlin, 1958); D. J A. Clines, I, He, We and They JSOT. Sup. 1 (Sheffield, 1976); R. N. Whybray, Thanksgiving for a Liberated Prophet, JSOT. Sup. 4 (Sheffield, 1978).
71 Gk. τί κωλύει με βαπτισθῆναι; From the use of the verb κωλύω here and in 10:47 (there on the lips of the preacher, not the convert), it has been inferred that it featured in a primitive baptismal formula (cf. also Mark 10:14 and parallels); this is doubtful. See O. Cullmann, Baptism in the New Testament, E.T., SBT 1 (London, 1950), pp. 71–80.
77 Cf. Gal. 5:22, where “joy” figures next to “love” in “the fruit of the Spirit.”
78 Irenaeus, Against heresies 3.12.10. We have no record of the Ethiopic (Nubian) church earlier than the fourth century. See B. M. Metzger,“The Christianization of Nubia and the Old Nubian Version of the New Testament,” in Historical and Literary Studies, NTTS 8 (Leiden, 1968), pp. 111–22
81 Including probably Lydda and Joppa, soon afterward visited by Peter (9:32–43).
82 Caesarea was built by Herod the Great on the site of a Phoenician foundation, Strato’s Tower, between Joppa and Dora. It was equipped with a splendid artificial harbor, so that it became the chief port in Herod’s kingdom. He called the new city (completed in 13 B.C.) Caesarea in honor of Caesar Augustus. After A.D. 6 it became the residence of the Roman governors of Judaea, who established their official headquarters in Herod’s praetorium (cf. 23:35). Vespasian was proclaimed emperor there in A.D. 69. After the Jewish war it remained the seat of government of the legate of the imperial province of Judaea, with a new status as a Roman colony (Colonia Flavia Augusta Caesariensis) and exemption from taxation. See Josephus BJ 1.408–15; 3.409–13; Ant. 15.331–41; 16.136–41. Much of the Herodian and Roman city was extensively excavated from 1959 onward. See L. I. Levine, Caesarea under Roman Rule, SJLA 7 (Leiden, 1975).