19 Jan 2016

Indiana Jones, Temples of Jews and Acts: Who Did Philip talk To? Exegetical Notes on Acts 8.27 and Why History Matters

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Acts, Africa, Bible, Black History, Church, Church History, Exegesis, Jewish Backgrounds
Meroe - Africa

Map showing Meroe in relation to Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in modern Africa

The Necessity of Historical Context

Today we are going to look at Acts 8.27: “Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of THE Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.” Who was this man? Where was this guy from? How did he come to know about Yahweh?

The Bible is a book that is rooted and grounded in historical realities but it is easy for moderns to simply impose ideas on the text that are perfectly “common sense” to us but totally nonsense to the writer and his/her readers.

Historical rootedness is one thing that makes the biblical narrative radically different from myths. The people are historical. The places are historical. Now I do not mean by historical simply opposed to make believe. Historical means that people and places are defined by the languages they spoke, the places they lived, culture in which they breathed. The fact that the Bible is historical means the history surrounding the people and places and events actually shape the people, places and events. That reality places limits on who and what they were and also on our often fanciful imaginations of who and what they were and did.

History matters because the Bible itself matters. The biggest example of this is the incarnation of the Word in a specific time, place, culture and ethnicity.  To divorce the Word from that history is to fashion a humanly made idol. So as students of God’s word we take the historical setting with the utmost seriousness precisely because we take God’s word seriously and want to hear it and not our imaginations.

Thus it is with our famous text in Acts 8 where Philip the father of four prophets (his daughters), we ask those historical questions to help us understand what was going on. Where was he from? Ethiopia of course! Well it is not that simple.  This is a time when we need to realize that two thousand years exist between Act 8 and our reading of it today. Lots of “history” has happened in two thousand years that we may not realize impacts how we read the text.

The eunuch was from “Aithiopia” which is the Greek rendering for what “Old Testament” readers know as “Cush” or “Nubia” which was the Kingdom of Meroe.  If we think Aithiopia was the same place that on a modern map designates “Ethiopia” then we have made a serious mistake. The horn of Africa was known as the Aksum in Roman days and then for centuries by its Arabic name Abyssinia. Only in the 20th century did this area, the horn of Africa, acquire the name Ethiopia.

Meroe II

Citizens of Meroe

Kingdom of Meroe

Meroe – Nubia/Cush – was a thriving civilization for a thousand years centered in what is today Sudan. The country ruled Egypt from time to time in antiquity and was described by Herodotus. When Mereo declined and virtually disappeared in the 4th century AD, ignorant Europeans over a thousand years later dismissed it as myth. That was until James Bruce rediscovered some of the civilization in 1772. Meroe is located just shy of a thousand miles south of the Mediterranean Sea on the Nile. That is basically the distance from LA to Amarillo, TX. Certainly a very long way via foot, camel or even boat along the Nile. The individual in Acts 8 was a most dedicated man of God.

The Romans became involved in Meroe in the first century B.C. thru Octavian’s conflict with Anthony and Cleopatra in Egypt. Indeed in 29 BC Meroe was declared to be a protectorate of Rome by “Augustus” as he brags in his famous Res Gestae set up in present day Ankara Turkey. The Kingdom of Meroe did not willingly submit to Rome’s “protection.” After some conflict Meroe was granted independence and Roman troops withdrew from Qasr Ibrim to what we call Aswan today. Rome and Meroe would maintain friendly, and profitable, relations for the next 300 years. Greek was spoken in Meroe, as was Meroitic and various forms of Egyptian. Meroe was of critical importance because it was the gateway to the vast interior of Africa and became rich because of the vast flow of trade north to Egypt and on to the rest of the Empire and south to the interior of Africa. This is the area that was called “Aithiopia” for over a thousand years.

Augustus found in Meroe

Octavian found in Meroe

Candace is a title and not a name used in the Meroitic kingdom. The NIV 2011 in fact uses the Greek title and not “Candace” of traditional English versions. She is the “Queen Mother” basically. The mother of the king. The Candace in Acts 8.27 was probably Queen Nawidemak who ruled in the first half of the first century AD. Her tomb has been discovered and excavated. We moderns are not helped by our Bibles on this matter. The maps that are included in the back of most Bibles do not have any reference to Meroe/Cush at all. Perhaps a thousand miles from the Mediterranean is to far. But the world of the Bible is more than just around Jerusalem. The eunuch traveled a LOOOOOONG way to worship the God of Israel. For more on Meroe, Rome and the Eunuch see Edwin Yamauchi’s rich work, Africa and the Bible, pp. 149- 181. Two chapters “Rome and Meroe” and “Why the Ethiopian Eunuch was not from Ethiopia.”

How Did the Eunuch Come to Know Yahweh? Indiana Jones Discovers Two Jewish Temples

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Get this book! You will be surprised how large a role Africa has in the Bible

Ok we know where the “Ethiopian” was from, but how did he come to know about Yahweh? The short answer is, of course, from Jews. But how and where? Some out of date scholars, surprisingly, actually claim that the Ethiopian was in fact Jewish. J. W. McGarvey makes this claim with no evidence whatsoever (he does mention the possibility of him being a proselyte but dismisses it but why?). But he is a black African. He is a proselyte. But Meroe is a LONG way, not only from Jerusalem but from the coast. Here we need to know that there is more to the story that we probably know.

aramaic 460-459bc

Aramaic Letter from the Jewish colony at Elephantine dated to 460/459 BCE

For starters Israelites had penetrated deep into Africa centuries before the eunuch was born. In 1893 a horde of Aramaic texts were discovered and published in 1911 and various times since. These texts reveal a previously unknown Jewish colony that existed on the island of Elephantine in the Nile River. The letters show the life of the colony in the 5th century BC. When the Persians under Cambyses II conquered Egypt in 525 BC the colony was already thriving and well established. Among the interesting things in these Elephantine texts is an exhortation from Darius dated 419 BC to keep the Passover and told them to abstain from beer during the feast (cf Passover Papyrus). How and when this colony came to this remote part of Egypt is a subject of debate. But scholars think it originated either in the time of Manasseh, who was an ally of Egypt – and Elephantine was a military garrison with Israelite troops. Some think it began shortly after that time. But we know for certain that by the time of the Babylonian invasion that many Jews had gone to Egypt (even kidnapped Jeremiah to go there (Jer 43.5-7). So by the time of the destruction of Jerusalem the colony on Elephantine was in existence. Scholars have suggested that the “Hananiah” mentioned in the letters as a Persian administrator is the same brother of Nehemiah mentioned in Nehemiah 1.2 and 7.2.

Reconstruction of Elephantie Jewish Temple

Jewish Temple at Elephantine. Reconstruction by Stephen Rosenberg

Not only was the discovery of this Jewish colony a complete surprise to scholars, but the real shock was that by the time of Ezra and Nehemiah’s return to Judah … a TEMPLE to Yahweh had been built on the island of Elephantine. This temple existed for hundreds of years. As mentioned above the Aramaic texts from Elephantine were discovered in 1893. Since then there had been a “frenzy” to find the temple that they describe but it eluded discovery. During the early 400’s BC the temple was attacked by Egyptian priests on the same island from the temple of Khnum.

Among the Aramaic documents discovered,there are letters to the Jerusalem temple and Persian authorities contemporary with Nehemiah. The Jews received permission to rebuild the temple with caveat that only offer cereal offerings not animal sacrifice was to be performed (apparently the Egyptians did not like the slaughter of animals they deemed sacred so to keep the peace only grain offerings were allowed).

In 1997, a German team lead by Cornelius von Pilgrim (yes that is his name) finally discovered the Jewish temple on the island of Elephantine. In an article in Near Eastern Archaeology 67 (2004), 4-13, Stephen Rosenberg, of the Albright Institute in Jerusalem, published the first architectural lay out of this “temple.” Pilgrim’s and Rosenberg’s study tends to support the origin of this colony from Northern Israelites because the layout of the temple closely matches the design recorded for the Tabernacle in Exodus 25-27 rather than the Jerusalem Temple. Some scholars now think that this temple is alluded to in Isaiah 19.19 which states “on that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the center of the land of Egypt and a pillar to the LORD at its border.” Elephantine certainly was basically the southern frontier border of Egypt. Whatever is the case for hundreds of years the worship of Yahweh was done in the vicinity of the kingdom of Meroe. The colony and its temple was lost to history to be shockingly revealed a hundred years ago and the temple … more like shrine on the model of the tabernacle only discovered 20 years ago.

We have no idea if the Jews and temple on Elephantine had any influence in anyway on the religious faith of Africans. Certainly it is possible. But as Jewish scholar Shaye J. D. Cohen noted on the importance of Egypt to Jewish history, “Hellenistic Egypt. Islamic Spain. Renaissance Italy. These were magical times and places, ‘Golden Ages’ in the history of Jews and Judaism.” By the time of the first century there were more Jews in Egypt than in Palestine. The Septuagint comes from Egypt. Philo was from Egypt. The oldest synagogue ever discovered is in Egypt. Jews had been living in Egypt since before the fall of Jerusalem. Ethnically specific Jewish cemeteries have been found in most of the classical sites in Egypt. Jews achieved a high reputation and civilization in Egypt … so much so it is called a Golden Age in Jewish history. Sadly, some of the first most ancient examples of anti-semitiism are also in Egypt.

And Yet Another Temple

Egypt was not the home to one, but two temples to Yahweh. The first at Elephantine was a total shock when discovered. The second is still a shock for most people who read only the Old and New Testaments. But it has been known for over two thousand years. Its memory and legitimacy is preserved in Josephus, the Mishnah and the Talmud. The temple that was built in Ptolemaic Egypt in Leotopolis (north of present Cairo) stems from the Maccabean crises. The temple was built by the Oniads who were the legitimate descendants of Zadok from the time of Solomon. Onias IV fled to Egypt when Antiochus IV sold the High Priesthood in the Jerusalem temple to the highest bidder. This of course led to the desecration of the temple and the Maccabean revolt. That was one Jewish response. The other response was Onias

Proposed Map of the Leontopolis Temple

Proposed Map of the Leontopolis Temple

IV going to Egypt as an ally of the Ptolomy’s and getting permission to built a temple to the “Most High God.” This temple had priests, Levites and daily sacrifices. According to the Mishnah vows and sacrifices at Leonotopolis were legitimate. Priests there were recognized as priests but could not offer sacrifice in Jerusalem but they could eat the priests portion. This temple in Leontopolis was destroyed by the Romans as a result of the Jewish Revolt in AD 73/4.

Back to the Man

Where did the man from Meroe hear the good news about Yahweh and his ways? Any number of places are possible. Alexandria, where he most certainly had sailed from, had a huge Jewish population. He could have heard readings from the LXX (he was reading it himself in Acts 8). He could have been to Leontopolis itself. The likelihood is that he was a believer long before he set out on his pilgrimage. But we do not know where.  The Jewish temple at Elephantine could have been “leaven” in Africa, who knows.

What we do know is that there was plenty of opportunity for Africans to learn something about the God of Israel as our survey of dusty history has shown. James himself said that Moses was proclaimed in every city (Acts 15.21). Where ever he heard the word, he embraced the God of Israel as the true

Remains of the glory of Meroe

Remains of the glory of Meroe

God. So convinced of this truth he felt the need to go not to Leonotopolis but to Jerusalem. In the magnificent work of the Spirit his paths crossed a Greek speaking Jew named Philip who preached to him Jesus.

The man from Meroe took his faith in the Jewish Messiah back with him. What did he do when he returned? He had no book of Acts, no Romans or Galatians or Ephesians or Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. All he had was the Bible he already had … the one that came from Egypt. He never heard the name “Christian.” I doubt seriously that he thought he was changing religions. I wonder what his kind of the Jesus Way looked like … what is now called the “Ethiopian” Orthodox Church believes that this man in Acts 8 began them.

So did God send those long forgotten Jewish soldiers to Elephantine to prepare the way? Who knows? What about that Temple that no one knows about in Leontopolis? God has done stranger things to help bring people to faith in the Messiah.

Just wondering … hope you have been blessed.

A few sources to help study:

F. F. Bruce, “Philip and the Ethiopian,” Journal of Semitic Studies 34 (1989): 377-86.
Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 13.64-74; Jewish Wars, 7.426-432
Joseph Meleze Modrzejewski, The Jews of Egypt: From Rameses II to Emperor Hadrian (T&T Clark 1995)
Stephen G. Rosenberg, “The Jewish Temple at Elephantine” Near Eastern Archaeology 67 (2004), 4-13
Edwin Yamauchi, Africa and the Bible (Baker Academic 2004)

7 Responses to “Indiana Jones, Temples of Jews and Acts: Who Did Philip talk To? Exegetical Notes on Acts 8.27 and Why History Matters”

  1. Daniel New Says:

    This article on the Ethiopian Eunuch was informative, but could have benefitted from some editing. Your CONTACT page gives a 404 message, so glad you added this form below. I do want to read more.

  2. Daniel New Says:

    “STONED-CAMPBELL” – is this your idea of a joke?

  3. Dwight Says:

    Great article. In particular about the two other Temples. While many brothers argue that to replicate anything is sinful, this is only true if it is meant to replace or alter and not supplement. These other temples didn’t replace the Temple in Jerusalem.
    God obviously allowed one of them during the time of the written scriptures.
    The Stone’d’-Campbell name does distract some, but not overwhelmingly so. It is interesting that even in the conservative circles 25-30 years ago we used to have many, many lessons against smoking and tobacco/drinking/ dancing, but I haven’t heard any in the last 10 years. Still do on drinking wine, etc. though.

    • Profile photo of Bobby Valentine Bobby Valentine Says:

      Making assumptions is dangerous Dwight 🙂 “Stoned-Campbell” has nothing to do with smoking, tobacco, drinking or dancing. Though Scripture, contrary to popular opinion in the South, is hardly anti-wine. Here is a blog that has been up for many many years, follow the link … Why Stoned-Campbell?

  4. Mike Price Says:

    As usual very interesting and fun to deal with. 🙂

  5. Charles Stelding Says:

    The eunuch could not have entered the temple to worship in Jerusalem if he had no testicles (Deut 21:1, see also Str-B I, 809; Josephus Ant. 4.8.40), so we must assume that he was not castrated and met the law’s regulation to worship there. In ancient literature, eunuchs were men who had no sexual desire for women. Jesus said that some eunuchs are “born that way” (Mat 19:10). It seems that eunuchs who have been so from birth are the closest description we have in the Bible of what we understand today as homosexual.

    The ancient literature (even the Talmud) portrays eunuchs who were anatomically able to procreate, but had a sexual aversion to or were impotent with women, and they were commonly known to have sex with other men and had effeminate characteristics.

    Thus, not only does Acts teach that an African black man is accepted in the kingdom, but also accepted are those who have no sexual inclination for women. The gospel is for all (Isa 56:3-8).

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