The Early Church Welcomed a Gay Man
In the ancient world, eunuchs were widely associated with homosexuality. Here a self-avowed eunuch is welcomed in to the early church without any concerns about his sexual orientation. He was welcomed on the same basis as other people – his faith in Jesus Christ.
This story challenges the “grasshopper mentality,” a phrase that comes from an old joke about a grasshopper in a bar. (If you come from a conservative background like we do, to understand the joke, you need to know there’s a mixed drink called a “grasshopper.”)
A grasshopper steps up to a bar and says, “I’d like a drink, please.”
The bartender asks, “What’ll it be?”
“I don’t know. What do you suggest?”
“Well,” the bartender says, “you may not know it, but we have a drink named after you!”
At this, the grasshopper grins and says, “In that case, I’ll have a Stuart!”
You see, the bartender had been unable to see past the grasshopper’s “type” to think he might have a name, a family, and a life beyond his “grasshopperness.” And that is the way many Christians view gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. Once they find out someone is gay, it is as if that person has a neon sign on his or her forehead, flashing, “Gay! Gay! Gay!” But God sees people differently, looking past incidental labels and seeing into the core of each being. As the Apostle Peter says, “God shows no partiality.” (Acts 10:34) The grace of God is available to gay people on the same basis as all other humans. That is what the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is all about.
The author of Acts sought to write a well-researched history of the acts of the apostles following the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension into heaven. In chapter eight of that book, we find Philip heading a great evangelistic campaign in Samaria. The story tells us that along with “proclaiming the Messiah,” (8:4) Philip was healing people and casting out demons. His efforts were going so well, and so many were coming to faith, “there was great joy in that city.” (8:8) However, in the midst of this great revival, the Holy Spirit told Philip to “get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (8:26) This road was in the wilderness.
This seems like a strange command: Leave the great revival among the Samaritans, and go out into the wilderness. But Philip did what God asked. Then the story gets even stranger. Out in the wilderness, Philip finds a lone Ethiopian eunuch traveling south from Jerusalem. The author tells us the man was sitting in his chariot, reading from Isaiah. Having just been to Jerusalem to worship, he was now headed home.
It is this nameless man who makes the story so important to gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians. So, let us look more closely at the identity of the Ethiopian eunuch. At the time of the writing of Acts, the term Ethiopian was used to describe people from Nubia, south of Egypt. So, we know from this description that he was probably a black African. But that still leaves us with the question, “What is a eunuch?”
The Greek word used in Acts is eunouchos, which means literally “guardian or keeper of the couch.” (See note 1) The term refers to those who were placed in positions of highest trust in royal palaces and wealthy households. Eunuchs served and guarded the women in these households. Because of their intimate access to the royal courts, eunuchs often rose to senior government positions. In this story, the Ethiopian eunuch was Treasurer to the Queen of Ethiopia. (8:27)
Not just anyone was permitted to serve as a eunuch. Given their intimate access to the women of the household, they had to be men who could be trusted not to have affairs with (or force themselves upon) the women — because to do so would cloud the line of succession to the throne and confuse inheritance rights. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the ideal candidate for the position of eunuch would be someone known for his disinterest in women. Although the ancients did not have the same clear concept of heterosexual and homosexual that we do today, people were put together in the same way then as now. There were men then (as now) who had a reputation for being disinterested in women as objects of sexual attraction. They would make the ideal eunuch.
Of course, it was not always possible to find someone like this. In those situations, or in situations where the master wanted to be extra cautious, eunuchs were often castrated, i.e., their testicles were removed so they would be incapable of fathering children. But it would be historically inaccurate to picture eunuchs as a bunch of straight men who were castrated. Ancient literature indicates that various types of eunuchs were recognized. There were “man-made eunuchs,” meaning those who had been castrated. But there are also references to so-called “natural” or “born” eunuchs. This category apparently included males who from childhood seemed incapable of or disinterested in intercourse with women.(See note 2)
For example, in the Jewish Babylonian Talmud, which was written several hundred years after Christ but is based on an oral tradition that goes back much further, Rabbi Eliezer refers to “eunuchs by nature” and contrasts them with man-made eunuchs. He asserts that natural eunuchs can be “cured,” a statement that would make no sense if he were talking about men who had physical genital defects. (See note 3)
In the same Talmud, other rabbis discuss how a natural eunuch can be identified. Signs of natural eunuchs are said to include lateness of pubic hair, urine that does not form an arch, absence of a beard, softness of hair, smoothness of skin, a high voice, and a body that does not steam when bathing in winter. (See note 4) Are you starting to get the picture? The ancient stereotype of “natural” or “born” eunuchs sounds hauntingly like the modern stereotype of gay men as effeminate sissy-boys who need to be “cured” because something is wrong with them.
And what was “wrong” with them? It is clear from the ancient literature that eunuchs as a class had a reputation for being attracted sexually to men, rather than women. For example, an ancient Summarian myth about the creation of eunuchs says they “do not satisfy the lap of women.” They were specifically created, the myth says, because they can resist the wiles of women. (See note 5) The book of Sirach, found in the Old Testament of the Catholic Bible, says that embracing a girl makes a eunuch groan. (Sirach 30:20) The Roman playwright Juvenal (who lived near the time of Christ) stated, “When a soft eunuch takes to matrimony. . . it is hard not to write a satire.” See (See note 6) Lucian, a Greek satirist who lived about one hundred years after Christ, compares a eunuch with a concubine to a deaf man with a flute, a bald man with a comb, and a blind man with a mirror. (See note 7) In other words, a eunuch has as much need for a woman as a fish has for a bicycle.
Instead, eunuchs were commonly associated in ancient culture with sexual interest in men. For example, the Kama Sutra (an ancient Eastern sacred text) has an entire chapter on eunuchs seducing men. (See note 8) Quintus Curtius, an historian who wrote about Alexander the Great, reports that Alexander’s palace included “herds of eunuchs, also accustomed to prostitute themselves [like women].” (See note 9) Quintus Curtius also reports that Alexander the Great fell deeply in love with a eunuch named Bagoas and they entered into a relationship of mutual love.
These examples from ancient literature indicate that, in ancient culture, eunuchs were a suspect category. They were commonly regarded as being sexually interested in men, not women. This does not mean all were gay. But clearly, as a class, they were strongly associated with homosexual desire in the popular mind. To introduce one’s self as a eunuch in ancient times was roughly akin to introducing one’s self today as a hairdresser from San Francisco.
With this historical background, we can now return to the story in Acts 8 about the Ethiopian eunuch. The point we have been leading up to is this: When the Ethiopian introduced himself to Philip as a eunuch, Philip would have immediately known he was dealing with a man who was part of a class commonly associated with homosexual desire.
Acts 8:32-33 tells us the Ethiopian eunuch was reading from Isaiah 53:7-8. This passage was seen by early Christians as a prophecy about Jesus. The whole chapter tells about the suffering of God’s anointed one. Verse 3 says, “He was despised and rejected by others.” Verse 7 says, “He was oppressed and he was afflicted.” It seems like a strange passage for someone to read just after worshipping in Jerusalem, the holy city. But it makes sense when we understand that the Ethiopian eunuch had probably found himself despised and rejected by the religious leaders in Jerusalem.
In Homoeroticism in the Biblical World, Martti Nissinen states that “any eunuch attempting to join the Christian community would have had to deliberately ignore the Torah (Old Testament Jewish Scriptures), which forbade it.” Robin Scroggs, in The New Testament and Homosexuality, details how Philo, a first century Jewish philosopher, not only upheld the ban on eunuchs, but associated eunuchs with Roman male homosexual prostitutes.
Just like gay, lesbian, and bisexual people of today, eunuchs were the sexual outcasts of Jewish religious society. Deuteronomy 23:1 states, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” By the first century, this verse was understood as applying to anyone who was incapable of fathering children (either physically or by reason of what we today would call sexual orientation). The first-century teachers of Jewish law forbade converting such a person to Judaism, and they would have informed the Ethiopian eunuch when he arrived in Jerusalem that he could not even enter the outer court of the temple. Tom Horner tells us, “The eunuch was persona non grata both socially and religiously.” (See note 10)
So, in Jerusalem, the Ethiopian eunuch would have been assured by the people of God that he could not become one of them. He would have been despised and rejected, cut off from God’s grace by the religious leaders.
Perhaps someone among his friends had furtively told him about Isaiah 56:3-5, which promises eunuchs who keep God’s commandments that someday they will receive a house, a monument, and a name within God’s walls. Perhaps, like gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians today, he had gone to his religious leaders pointing to the Scriptures which affirmed him, hoping he might somehow be accepted. But instead, he had been clobbered once again with Deuteronomy 23:1. A eunuch “may not enter the assembly of God’s people!” And so he had taken his precious scroll of Isaiah and begun his journey home, reading about another of God’s children who had been despised, rejected, and cut off.
It was at this point Philip, guided by the Holy Spirit, happened along and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian eunuch, still seeking a religious authority figure, answered “How can I unless someone guides me?” (8:31) So, Philip started with this Scripture and “proclaimed to him the good news of Jesus.” (8:35) Then they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is some water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip’s answer should be astonishing to anyone who still holds a prejudice against gay, lesbian, and bisexual believers.
Philip responded, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.”
Philip did not say, “Let’s talk about Deuteronomy 23:1.” He also did not say, “I realize since you’re a eunuch that you may desire men; can you promise me you’ll never have a sexual relationship with a man?” Instead, operating under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” We have no way of knowing whether the Ethiopian eunuch was in fact gay. But we do know he was part of a class of people commonly associated with homosexuality and that this fact was completely irrelevant to whether he could become a Christian.
The implications of this story are profound for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. This story illustrates that what matters is how we relate to Jesus — a point made over and over again in the New Testament, but which many modern Christians refuse to apply consistently. Scripture is not what keeps them from accepting their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters; only prejudice does. For if there were some authentic scriptural basis for excluding the Ethiopian eunuch because of the real possibility he was homosexual, we can be sure that Philip, a man who followed God even when God led him into the wilderness, would have been quick to pursue it.
But Acts 8 is not the only place where the Bible talks about eunuchs. Jesus also had something very important to say in Matthew 19.
Note 1. The Keeper of the Bed: The Story of the Eunuch (Arlington Books, London, 1973) by Charles Humana, page 21. Note: Our discussion in the next few pages is drawn from the work of several authors, including Rev. Nancy Wilson in Our Tribe, Michael S. Piazza in Holy Homosexuals: The Truth About Being Gay or Lesbian and Christian, Second Edition (Sources of Hope Publishing House, Dallas, Texas, 1995), David F. Greenberg in The Construction of Homosexuality, and Faris Malik in Born Eunuchs: Homosexual Identity in Ancient World.
This text is an excerpt from The Children are Free: Reexamining Biblical Evidence on Same-sex Relationships and reproduced on this website with the permission of the author.
Read more about what a Eunuch is – those born that way and those made that way by humanity.