by Barry Newton
Familiarity with Acts 2 could stimulate some subtle dissonance with this title, “Parthians, Medes and Ethiopians.” After all, the third nationality Luke recorded should be Elamites, not Ethiopians. So why the switch?
Perhaps noticing how comfortable Luke could be in describing Jews by their national identities can assist in unraveling a conflict among commentators in Acts 8. Some have suggested that the Ethiopian eunuch who went to Jerusalem to worship was not a Jew or a Jewish proselyte, but rather a God-fearing Gentile.
What difference does this make? If correct then many have taught inaccurately about Cornelius being the first Gentile convert. Also, from a literary viewpoint Cornelius’ conversion would appear to be an uncharacteristic and awkward backstep.
What evidence is there suggesting either that the eunuch was a Jew or a Gentile God-fearer?
Does his ethnic identification simply as an Ethiopian imply he was non-Jewish? The fact that Luke identifies him by his nationality does not preclude him from being Jewish as seen by Luke’s earlier reference to Jews as being Parthians and Medes. Furthermore, we know that there were Jewish communities in that area as evidenced by Zephaniah 3:10 and the Elephantine papyri.
What about the literary perspective regarding this worshiping-at-Jerusalem Ethiopian eunuch? Only after the Eunuch’s conversion when the Spirit is poured out upon the God-fearer Cornelius does the Jerusalem church acknowledge, “God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.” (Acts 11:18) It would seem quite odd given their keen awareness of Philip’s other evangelistic activity, that such a huge religious milestone at Philip’s hands would have gone unnoticed by them.
Furthermore, given the smooth literary flow of Acts which is so methodical in advancing ideas, Peter’s statement to Cornelius, “I now realize … that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34) would represent an awkward backstep if the eunuch had been the first Gentile convert.
While not conclusive, it is only after Luke records the conversion of Cornelius’ household does Luke specify that in contrast to preaching to the Jews some began to speak to the Greeks also. (Acts 11:20)
Finally, Jesus told Peter that he would be given the keys to the kingdom. If this means that he was to be the person who would open up the gates of the kingdom by preaching to the Jews and Gentiles, then Philip could not have preached to a Gentile God-fearer. Peter did preach to the Jews on the Day of Pentecost. And Luke makes a big deal of God showing to Peter that he should preach to and accept those Gentiles who come to faith. In fact Peter’s statement at the Jerusalem conference, “you know that in the early days God made a choice among you that from my lips the Gentiles might hear the message of the gospel and believe” (Acts 15:7) emphasizes a divinely chosen role for Peter.
There does not seem to be any barrier to the eunuch being a Jew. In my opinion, the weight of the evidence appears to lean toward embracing the traditional view that Cornelius’ household represented the first non-Jewish converts.
by Barry Newton