Thursday, May 03, 2012

Ethiopian eunuch: Early church welcomed queers

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, detail from 11th-century illuminated manuscript (Wikimedia Commons)

A black gay man was the first non-Jewish convert to Christianity, according to progressive interpretations of the Ethiopian eunuch’s story in the Bible. The term translated as “eunuch” probably included a variety of sexual minorities that today would be called LGBT or queer. The account of the eunuch’s conversion in Acts 8:26-40 will be read in many churches this Sunday.

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The nameless Ethiopian eunuch was a double outsider -- queer and black -- and his experience shows that the early Christians welcomed all kinds of outcasts, regardless of race, gender identity or other differences.

Divine intervention plays a big role in the eunuch’s story from the start. It begins when an angel gives some surprising advice to Philip the deacon. He is in the midst of a successful evangelistic campaign in Samaria, but the angel interrupts with an order to leave and take a lonely desert road through the wilderness from Jerusalem to Gaza.

On the road Philip meets a stranger in a chariot reading aloud from the Book of Isaiah on his way home from worshiping in Jerusalem. The man is described as an Ethiopian eunuch (“eunouchos” in Greek), an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch from the Menologion of Basil II, an 11th-century illuminated manuscript (Wikimedia Commons)

In contemporary usage a “eunuch” is a castrated man, but it had a broader definition in ancient times. Literally meaning “the keepers of the bed,” the eunuchs served and guarded the women in royal palaces and wealthy households. Their employers had to be certain that the eunuchs would not get sexually involved with the women they were supposed to protect, so many eunuchs were castrated men, homosexual men, and intersex folk. Many, but not all, were both castrated and homosexual. Eunuchs were trusted officials often rose to senior posts in government.

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Jesus himself used eunuch as an ancient term for LGBTQ people when he declared in Matthew 19:12: “There are eunuchs who were born that way.” (The traditional interpretation of this scripture is that Jesus was speaking of voluntary celibacy.)

When Philip sees the eunuch on the road to Gaza, the Holy Spirit again takes the initiative, urging him to run to join him in his chariot. Soon the two men are absorbed in conversation about the scripture that the eunuch was reading: Isaiah 53:7-8. The passage describes the humiliation and injustice experienced by God’s suffering servant.

The eunuch probably chose this scripture because he had just faced rejection from religious leaders when he worshiped at the temple in Jerusalem. Eunuchs were sexual outcasts in Jewish religious society, much like LGBT people in the church today. First-century Jewish law condemned homosexual acts and forbid converting eunuchs to Judaism. Deuteronomy 23:1 says bluntly, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”

Philip used the prophecy of God’s rejected servant to tell the eunuch about Jesus as they traveled together in the chariot. Maybe he pointed out Isaiah’s prophecy that comes a few chapters later:


  To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
  who choose what pleases me
  and hold fast to my covenant —
  to them I will give within my temple and its walls
  a memorial and a name
  better than sons and daughters;
  I will give them an everlasting name
  that will endure forever.
     --Isaiah 56-4-5


As the chariot passes by some water, the eunuch raises a question that many LGBT people today ask as well: “What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”

There was no reason to prevent the eunuch from receiving full membership rights in the church. Philip shows no concern about the eunuch’s sexual orientation or race. Philip simply replies, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.”

The pair goes down into the water and Philip baptizes the eunuch then and there. Mission accomplished, the Holy Spirit suddenly takes Philip away. The men did not see each other again after that, but the Bible reports that the eunuch “went on his way rejoicing.”

“The Baptism of the Eunuch” by Rembrandt, 1626 (Wikimedia Commons)

Many authors explore the implications of the Ethiopian eunuch for LGBT people today in books such as:

The Children Are Free: Reexamining the Biblical Evidence on Same-sex Relationships by Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley

Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality, Revised and Expanded Edition: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church by Jack Rogers

The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament by Theodore Jennings

Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible by Nancy Wilson

Freedom, Glorious Freedom: The Spiritual Journey to the Fullness of Life for Gays, Lesbians, and Everybody Else by John McNeill

The Queer Bible Commentary by Deryn Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona West and Thomas Bohache

A literary look at the life of a gay eunuch in Biblical times is provided in “The Persian Boy,” a historical novel by Mary Renault.

Over the centuries many artists, including Rembrandt, have painted the Ethiopian eunuch’s conversion and baptism. The image of of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch at the top of this post is from the Menologion of Basil II, an 11th-century Byzantine illuminated calendar manuscript now in the Vatican library.  It presents a beautiful image of harmony between men of different races and sexual orientations. Unfortunately a lot of other historical paintings of the Ethiopian eunuch have an undertone of racism, showing the Ethiopian as exotic or childlike.

Call to artists: I have searched high and low for a contemporary LGBT-affirming artwork of the Ethiopian eunuch, but so far I have found nothing. Are any artists out there willing to create new images of this important story? Please send them to me so I can share them here at the Jesus in Love Blog.

Philip, the deacon in this story, is often confused with the apostle Philip whose feast day falls on May 1 or May 3. However St. Philip the Deacon (sometimes called Protodeacon) is honored on Oct. 11 in the Catholic and Episcopal churches and on June 6 in the Orthodox Church. Whatever the day, his example of unlimited welcome for a queer black man is an inspiration for today.
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Related links:

The early church welcomed a gay man (WouldJesusDiscriminate.org)

The Ethiopian Eunuch - Did You Know God Saved A Gay Man In Acts 8:26-40? (GayChristian101)

A Reflection on the Story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts (John McNeill)

Queer Eye for the Lectionary on Acts 8:26-40 (Louie Crew)

Sermon on Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Queeremergent)

Queering the Ethiopian Eunuch: Strategies of Ambiguity in Acts” (book) by Sean D. Burke

The Importance of Language to Understanding the Word ‘Eunuch’ (Queering the Church)

Can Size 14 Heels Keep You Out of Heaven? (Kathy Canyonwalker)

"Born Eunuchs": Homosexual Identity in the Ancient World (Faris Malik)
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This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

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8 comments:

Trudie said...

The challenge to create a painting of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch is indeed fascinating. We'll see what the Spirit suggests.

However, I did want to comment that way back in the early '80's, when there wasn't much good LGBT fiction around, I came across Mary Renault's "The Persian Boy". I adored that book, and still consider it the best of her "Alexander Trilogy", although I enjoyed and frequently re-read the other two as well.

Kittredge Cherry said...

“The Persian Boy” does shed more light on the lives of eunuchs, so I added a link to it in the main post. It tells how a eunuch, abducted and gelded as a boy, finds love in the arms of Alexander the Great. Thanks, Trudie, for the reference.

I’m adding the Ethiopian eunuch to my “Queer Christian Art Wish List” -- along with the centurion and his male lover.healed by Jesus. I do look forward to seeing what new images may emerge.

S. A. Morris said...

I'm not sure I agree with the interpretation of the Ethiopian eunuch as a homosexual. I think it is a bit of a stretch. I find very interesting that the next time we see Philip is in Acts 21:8-9, where he and his family are described thus;

8 And the next day we that were of Paul's company departed, and came unto Caesarea: and we entered into the house of Philip the evangelist, which was one of the seven; and abode with him.

9 And the same man had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy.

Four daughters who prophesy? Not quite in keeping with Paul's usual strictures on women in the church.

Trudie said...

I have to chuckle at S. A. Moms' "challenge" of equating the idea of eunuch with homosexual. Although a woman with a hysterectomy doesn't cease to be a "functioning female" (though not fertile) I agree with you (and many other historical writers) that the term eunuch was typically applied to non-functioning males, who might have been celibate, but were unlikely to have had sex with women.

The famous "Castrati" of opera fame may also not have been sexually active with anyone, but it is safe to assume that at least some of them who WERE sexually active were involved with other men.

The point is that all eunuchs fit the category of "queer" as is currently applied as an umbrella term (see Patrick Cheng and others). The fact that Jesus and his immediate disciples affirmed them is the relevant circumstance, not their particular brand of sexuality.

Apropos of women "prophesying", this does not presume that they were preaching or leading a church, which seems to have been the main area of Paul's prohibitions on female involvement in ecclesiastical matters. Even this, though, is not completely consistent throughout Paul's ministry.

Colin Smith said...

A further informative link on eunuchs in ancient times is at "Born Eunuchs:
Homosexual Identity in the Ancient World” (http://www.well.com/user/aquarius/contents.htm). This website, compiled by Faris Malik, has a very detailed look at eunuchs in the ancient world (quoting many sources) and claims that “born eunuchs” were gay men.

Kittredge Cherry said...

I’m glad that this piece on the Ethiopian eunuch got you all thinking. S.A., I find that the more I read and study about eunuchs, the more probable it seems to me that some were not only “queer” but also homosexual. I hope you will keep studying this subject, including the informative new link referenced by Colin. I added that link to the main body of the post as well.

I did debate in my mind about how much to emphasize the idea that the Ethiopian eunuch was gay, not merely queer. But many scholars do believe that “eunuchs” often meant homosexuals, so I reported it accordingly here.

Like S.A. and Trudie, I am intrigued by Philip’s four prophesying virgin daughters. Maybe Paul allowed women to “prophesy” in private but not “preach” in public. Still it seems like another gender-bending aspect to the life of St. Philip. And sometimes “virgin” is a code word for “lesbian,” since we avoid hetero intercourse.

Trudie, thanks for bringing up the "Castrati" of opera fame. Eunuchs have contributed to the world in so many ways!

Matt Wyman said...

Boy... don't you know a eunuch is a man who has had his ball cut off? It has nothing to do with being gay.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Matt, your comment prompted me to add two words to my text:

The term TRANSLATED AS “eunuch” probably included a variety of sexual minorities that today would be called LGBT or queer.

I know the English word “eunuch” does not usually mean gay. The problem is translation. There is no English word exactly like the Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic words in the original Bible text.