Wednesday, February 18, 2015

History, Tradition and Legend: Some Issues and Thoughts concerning the Acts 8 Account of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

I am working on a lecture to be given next week on the Origins of Christianity in Africa.  More specifically, I’ll be looking at how Christianity came to the Axumite Empire under the emperor Ezana in the first half of the fourth century.  This story is not widely known, but is well-attested by contemporary and verifiable evidence.  So it makes a good subject for a university audience, introducing an exotic (for an American audience) topic and bringing everyone up to date on the current state of the discussion around it.


But the minute one presumes to say something about the ‘origins of Christianity in Africa’, one wades into intractable controversy.  Because wasn’t ‘Africa’ ‘evangelized’ by the ‘Ethiopian’ eunuch?  I put all three in quotations for a reason, because each one represents assumptions that may or may not be true, or at least misleading.


First, there is an account in the Book of Acts where the apostle Philip meets and evangelizes an individual who is described this way: ‘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 challenge when reading a passage like this is that we are often limited by our own experiences or perspectives in how we choose to interpret this.  Take the term ‘Ethiopian’, for example.  Most today would without hesitation assume that by ‘Ethiopian’, Luke means someone from ‘Ethiopia’, which we would equate with modern day Ethiopia.  But in New Testament days, there was no such place as ‘Ethiopia’.  ‘Ethiopian’ is a Greek word that at its origins meant ‘burnt face’, i.e., dark-skinned.  So while Luke knows precisely what he is talking about, our own presuppositions tend to jump in and confuse matters.


A second issue has to do with the person the eunuch is serving.  In contemporary English translations of the New Testament, Luke describes this person as ‘Candace, queen of the Ethiopians’.  Once again, our first inclination is to interpret ‘Candace’ as a proper name, just as we might say, ‘Charles, Prince of Wales’.  However, there is no record of there being any queen named Candace in this part of the world during this time.  Because of this, we might be tempted to think Luke was fabricating ‘history’.  But a little digging uncovers the interesting fact that ‘Candace’ refers not to a person, but to a title – Kandake.  Further exploration reveals that Kandake refers to a woman who ruled either as a regent during the minority of her son, or as empress in her own right.  Moreover, the Kandake ruled, not over ‘Ethiopia’, but most likely over Meroe, a kingdom south of Egypt at the confluence of the Tacassi and the Nile rivers.

An artist's rendering of the Kandake

We are not told anything else in Luke’s account.  We don’t know what happened to the man.  We don’t know if he became an evangelist for his new faith, and if so, if he met with any success amongst his own people.  We are not told if any new churches were started as a result of his efforts.  We are just given his singular example of an African man responding to the good news explained by Philip.

So here is a case where we have textual evidence (the Book of Acts) of the conversion of an African man who was an official of the Kandake of Meroe.  And while we do not have corroborating evidence that would enable us to say this absolutely happened, we also do not have evidence that would cause us to question the veracity of Luke’s account.

So, ‘All’s well that ends well’?  Um, no.  Of course.


When I was living in Addis Ababa, I had the privilege of meeting the then Abuna Paulos (of blessed memory) in his reception room along with a group of students from my daughter’s school.  On one of the walls was a beautiful icon of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch.  Turns out, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) officially traces their origin to the conversion of this man as recorded by Luke.  Christianity was then brought to Ethiopia, and through his efforts the church had its beginnings here.

With His Holiness the Abuna Paulos of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

And if that were not enough, Eusebius writes in his Ecclesiastical History (NFNP2-01):

But as the preaching of the Saviour’s Gospel was daily advancing, a certain providence led from the land of the Ethiopians an officer of the queen of that country, for Ethiopia even to the present day is ruled, according to ancestral custom, by a woman.  He, first among the Gentiles, received of the mysteries of the divine word from Philip in consequence of a revelation, and having become the first-fruits of believers throughout the world, he is said to have been the first on returning to his country to proclaim the knowledge of the God of the universe and the life-giving sojourn of our Saviour among men; so that through him in truth the prophecy obtained its fulfillment, which declares that ‘Ethiopia stretches out her hand unto God.’
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iii.vii.ii.html

In this case, the Tradition held by the EOTC and also found in Eusebius indicates that the man converted under Philip’s ministry went on to be the means of the gospel coming to the ‘Ethiopians’.  There are several options as to what’s going on here. 

First, the gospel may indeed have first been brought to Ethiopia by this official.  He may have preached among his own people, and his preaching may have resulted in conversions.  And churches may have been established.  In which case he would have been the apostle to the Ethiopians, and the icon in the Abuna’s reception hall would be accurately presenting the origin of the EOTC.

Secondly, the gospel may indeed have been brought to ‘Ethiopians’ by the official, but the ‘Ethiopians’ of these early documents in no way correspond to the way we today understand ‘Ethiopians’ to be.  If this is the case, then it is plausible that Eusebius is passing on accurate information about the origins of a church among the ‘Ethiopians.’  It’s just that his use of Ethiopian corresponds to historical Meroe and the surrounding peoples along the upper Nile and its tributaries.  This would mean that there is probably no continuity between the events recorded in Acts 8 and the origins of the EOTC.  This also does not imply that there is historical continuity between Acts 8 and the later Christian kingdoms along the Nile that persisted until the fourteenth century.

The al-Ghazali Monastery in Nubia, northern Sudan, which dates from the early 7th century,

Thirdly, both Eusebius and Ethiopian tradition may be involved in reconstructing history/tradition by word association.  Eusebius is aware of the prophecy in Isaiah concerning ‘Ethiopia will stretch forth her hand to God’.  And the story of the ‘Ethiopian’ eunuch’s conversion may be too tempting a plot line not to fill out in order to ‘prove’ the fulfillment of prophecy.  The same with the EOTC.  There may be an eagerness to view any biblical reference to ‘Ethiopia’ or to ‘Ethiopians’ as referring to contemporary Ethiopia.  But as we have seen, ‘Ethiopia’ does not necessarily mean ‘Ethiopia’, and an ‘Ethiopian’ is not necessarily an ‘Ethiopian’

Nubian Bishop and the Theotokos

Among the challenges posed here is to figure out the difference between legitimate Tradition (that which is handed down from the Apostles to the present day and which is authoritative for the Church) and legend.  Eusebius is writing some three hundred years after the events he discusses.  What are his sources, and are they conveying information that is accurate, or are they taking liberty with the historical record for polemical reasons?  And the same questions need to be asked of the EOTC’s tradition concerning the ‘Ethiopian’ eunuch.  What are their sources?  Do they reflect unbroken ‘Tradition’ from the event itself.  Or do the sources betray a fabrication of history, again for polemical purposes?

Nubian - from a 9th century icon of the Resurrection

The great problem here is that we just don’t know.  We ourselves are not acquainted with the sources used either by Eusebius or by the EOTC.  We cannot therefore make a judgment based on evidence, one way or another.  What we are left with are our own prejudices – the very things we are inclined to accuse our ancient sources of harboring.  So while it is not safe to verify the accounts presented by Eusebius and the EOTC of the connection between Acts 8 and Ethiopian Christianity, it is also unsafe to nullify those accounts.  We are already aware of how easy it is to misinterpret passages because we aren’t fully acquainted with what certain significant words (in this case, ’Candace’ or ‘Ethiopian’) mean in their context.  This makes (or at least should make) us cautious of being too quick to dismiss a Scripture passage or a Church Tradition as being in error.  It is just as likely that we will be the ones shown to be in error when all is said and done.

Columns from a church in old Dongola, capital of the Christian kingdom of Makuria

So at the present time, we can say that the Acts 8 account of the ‘Ethiopian’ eunuch likely refers to an African man serving in the court of the Kandake of Meroe in present-day Sudan.  Eusebius, and the Tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church recount that this man’s subsequent ministry resulted in Christianity being introduced to the Ethiopians.  Presently, there is no corroborating evidence of a mid- to late-first century church in Axum or areas that might plausibly be considered to be ‘Ethiopia’ at the time.  However, as is often said, an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  It just means that we can only report the claims, the issues and the current state of the evidence as they presently are.  Which means the most we can say currently with respect to Acts 8 and the origins of the Ethiopian Church is a resounding if unsatisfying ‘maybe’.