Who Was the Ethiopian Eunuch in the Bible?

Find helpful context connected with this miraculous conversion.

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One of the more interesting features of the four Gospels is their narrow scope in terms of geography. With the exception of the Magi from the east and Joseph's flight with his family into Egypt to escape Herod's wrath, pretty much everything that happens within the Gospels is limited to a handful of towns scattered less than a hundred miles from Jerusalem.

Once we hit the Book of Acts, however, the New Testament takes on a far more international scope.

And one of the most interesting (and most miraculous) international stories concerns a man commonly known as the Ethiopian Eunuch.

The Story

The record of the Ethiopian Eunuch's conversion can be found in Acts 8:26-40. To set the context, this story took place several months after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The early church had been founded on the Day of Pentecost, was still centered in Jerusalem, and had already begun creating different levels of organization and structure.

This was also a dangerous time for Christians. Pharisees such as Saul -- known later as the apostle Paul -- had begun persecuting followers of Jesus. So had a number of other Jewish and Roman officials.

Moving back to Acts 8, here's how the Ethiopian Eunuch makes his entrance:

26 An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip: “Get up and go south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is the desert road.) 27 So he got up and went. There was an Ethiopian man, a eunuch and high official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to worship in Jerusalem 28 and was sitting in his chariot on his way home, reading the prophet Isaiah aloud.
Acts 8:26-28

To answer the most common question about these verses -- yes, the term "eunuch" does mean what you think it means. In ancient times, male court officials were often castrated at a young age in order to help them act appropriately around the king's harem. Or, in this case, perhaps the goal was to act appropriately around queens such as Candace.

Interestingly, "Candace, queen of the Ethiopians" is a historical person. The ancient kingdom of Kush (modern-day Ethiopia) was often ruled by warrior queens. The term "Candace" may have been the name of such a queen, or it may have been a title for "queen" similar to "Pharaoh."

Back to the story, the Holy Spirit prompted Philip to approach the chariot and greet the official. In doing so, Philip discovered the visitor reading aloud from a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Specifically, he was reading this:

He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb is silent before its shearer,
so He does not open His mouth.
In His humiliation justice was denied Him.
Who will describe His generation?
For His life is taken from the earth.

The eunuch was reading from Isaiah 53, and these verses specifically were a prophecy about the death and resurrection of Jesus. When Philip asked the official if he understood what he was reading, the eunuch said he did not. Even better, he asked Philip to explain. This allowed Philip to share the good news of the gospel message.

We don't know exactly what happened next, but we know the eunuch had a conversion experience. He accepted the truth of the gospel and became a disciple of Christ.

Accordingly, when he saw a body of water along the roadside some time later, the eunuch expressed a desire to be baptized as a public declaration of his faith in Christ.

At the conclusion of this ceremony, Philip was "carried ... away" by the Holy Spirit and taken to a new location -- a miraculous ending to a miraculous conversion. Indeed, it's important to note that this entire encounter was a divinely arranged miracle. The only reason Philip know to talk with this man was through the prompting of "an angel of the Lord."

The Eunuch

The Eunuch himself is an interesting figure in the Book of Acts. One the one hand, it seems clear from the text that he was not a Jewish person. He was described as "an Ethiopian man" -- a term that some scholars believe can simply be translated "African." He was also a high official in the court of the Ethiopian queen.

At the same time, the text says "he had come to Jerusalem to worship." This is almost certainly a reference to one of the annual feasts in which God's people were encouraged to worship at the temple in Jerusalem and offer sacrifices. And it's difficult to understand why a non-Jewish person would undertake such a long and expensive trip in order to worship at the Jewish temple.

Given these facts, many scholars believe the Ethiopian to be a "proselyte." Meaning, he was a Gentile who had converted to the Jewish faith. Even if this was not correct, he clearly had a deep interest in the Jewish faith, given his journey to Jerusalem and his possession of a scroll containing the Book of Isaiah.

In today's church, we might refer to this man as a "seeker" -- someone with an active interest in the things of God. He wanted to know more about the Scriptures and what it means to connect with God, and God delivered answers through His servant Philip.

It's also important to recognize that the Ethiopian was returning to his home. He did not remain in Jerusalem but rather continued his journey back to Queen Candace's court. This reinforces a major theme in the Book of Acts: how the message of the gospel constantly moved outward from Jerusalem, throughout the surrounding regions of Judea and Samaria, and all the way to the ends of the earth (see Acts 1:8).