And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasure and had come to Jerusalem to worship, …
Acts 8:27 (KJ21)
An African court official is the first recorded fully Gentile convert to Christianity.
This strange story is when an angel tells Philip to go south toward Gaza (Acts 8:26) after he had done well and had reached many converts in Samaria. Old Gaza was a deserted town. The ruins lay near the current culturally Greek cities of Askelon and New Gaza.
‘Ethiopia’ was a Greek term for a wider area – and not to be confused with modern Ethiopia. Ancient Mediterranean history viewed it as ‘the very end of the earth’, and could include all of Africa south of Egypt, and to the far east of southern India!
Greek literature often respected Africans as a people particularly beloved by the gods. Greek historian Herodotus called them the most handsome of people – and sub-Saharan Africans were known in the Roman Empire. The most commonly mentioned feature of Ethiopians in Jewish and Greco-Roman literature is black skin. Egyptians and others were sometimes called ‘black’ compared to lighter Mediterranean peoples, but the further south along the Nile, the darker the complexion would be.
Axum, a powerful east African empire, converted to Christianity in the early 300s (the same generation the Roman Empire converted) and would be closest to modern Ethiopia. Ethiopia at this time, in 34 AD, when Philip meets the ‘Ethiopian’, is more likely a Nubian kingdom in what is now Sudan.
The ‘Candace’ (kan-dak’a) queen in the story, seems to have been the dynastic title of the queen of the Nubian Empire. Greco-Roman literature also mentions her. The Nubian kingdom had lasted since circa 750 BC, with the main cities being Meroe and Napata. It was wealthy with trade ties to the north. Its contact with the interior of Africa enabled it to supply treasures such as peacocks to Rome, and excavations of Meroe have discovered Roman wealth and artefacts there. The trade links south were strong too – a bust of Julius Caesar has been found as far south as Tanzania!
All the same, the trade connection with Rome was early and limited. The Ethiopian and his entourage that met Philip must have been intrepid Nubian visitors to be so far north!
Christianity has undeniable Jewish origins, but as the gospel spread into the world this African court official was the first recorded non-Jewish Christian. Let’s acknowledge and celebrate it.
Heavenly Father, may You help us learn about and celebrate the diversity You include in Your Bible. In Jesus name, Amen
Study by Andrew Montgomery
About the writer:
Andrew Montgomery is a Deacon in the Edinburgh congregation of Grace Communion International.
Gilmerton New Church
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