Justice Was Denied Them: The Ethiopian Eunuch and Hope in Representation

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As it has for many marginalized people, the Bible has acted more as a weapon than a life raft for transgender and nonbinary youth. They have struggled to find representation within their own homes, let alone within the walls of the church or the pages of Scripture. However, there is one story in the Bible that has particularly resonated with this community, and it has caused many transgender, nonbinary, and ally scholars to do the work of reclaiming a spot in the gospel of Jesus Christ for these individuals. The conversion story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40 serves as a tool to address the lack of compassion and respect among many church leaders and pastoral caregivers for transgender and nonbinary youth. 

Luke, traditionally regarded as the author of Acts, outlines his motive for the book in 1:8, quoting Jesus as saying, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts is the sequel to Luke’s gospel, interrupted by John in the canonical sequence of the New Testament. Readers are meant to read one informed by the other. After the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Acts chronicles the work of the Holy Spirit through the apostles. Acts 1:8 offers its readers a lens through which to read the rest of the book: the gospel spreads outward from Jerusalem to Judea, from Judea to Samaria, and from Samaria to the ends of the earth. The work of the Holy Spirit is mighty and swift to bring the news of Jesus Christ to people everywhere. The beginning of chapter 8 signals this geographical expansion, stating that the apostles were scattered throughout “Judea and Samaria.” 

Whereas initially there was no “special divine guidance leading to the evangelistic venture,” beginning in verse 26 an angel of the Lord directs Philip to this single person. Dr. Howard Marshall writes, “Philip’s journey and the subsequent actions are seen to have been instigated by God and thus to have been part of his intention. The church did not simply ‘stumble upon’ the idea of evangelizing the Gentiles; it did so in accordance with God’s deliberate purpose.” This is the attitude the author of Acts intends for his readers to approach the rest of the story—this interaction is completely and divinely orchestrated by the Holy Spirit. Continuing with the geographical outline of the book, the Ethiopian eunuch moves the spread of the gospel further. Dr. Carl Holladay writes that Ethiopia was a “somewhat fluid geographical designation […] used by ancient writers for the region south of Egypt ….” The fact that this area was so remote and unknown contributed to “its romantic, mythical status.” The person to whom Philip approached was not someone with which he would have been accustomed to entertaining in conversation. 

As if the Ethiopian identifier was not foreign enough, the person was a eunuch. A eunuch—literally “bed-haver” (eune, “bed” and echo, “have”)—was typically a castrated male used as an advisor to a female ruler. This is consistent with the text, which identifies the eunuch as the treasurer of “Kandake, the Queen Mother and ruling monarch of the ancient kingdom of Meroe.” This was a powerful kingdom that would explain the eunuch’s wealth, literacy, and fluency. However, this power and affluence would not have been enough to deem the eunuch honorable by Greco-Roman standards. In fact, eunuchs were consistently ostracized for their inability to perfectly fit into either the male or female category. Dr. Allison Trites notes that “under God’s providence and at that time and place, [Philip] encountered an Ethiopian eunuch, who was simultaneously exotic and disgraceful, powerful and pious.” The author of Acts depicts the Ethiopian eunuch as the “ends of the earth,” the culmination of 1:8. If the gospel can reach this sort of person, the possibilities are infinite. 

As Philip approaches the chariot, the eunuch is reading the words of the prophet Isaiah aloud. Philip asks if the eunuch understands, and the eunuch responds: “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” (v. 31) The author of Acts then reveals that the eunuch is reading from Isaiah 53, a suffering servant passage. Marshall writes, “It was […] no accident that at the precise moment when Philip heard him, he was reading from a passage which was ideally suited as a starting-point for the Christian message.” It is all the more moving when the reader considers the ways in which the eunuch may have related to the suffering servant—through the mutilation of the body, the shared humiliation, and lack of descendants. Dr. Aaron Perry writes, “It may be the case that in suffering the physical violence of castration at the hands of others for their purposes, the eunuch may understand the lamb who was led silently to slaughter and suffered humiliation.” The Holy Spirit allows Philip to show the eunuch that the person with which he identifies is not just a distant prophet from hundreds of years ago, but he is the Messiah of the world. Trites notes that “God in his mercy had provided not only the text but also the interpreter,” further emphasizing the spirit-filled nature of this conversation. After hearing the good news, the eunuch insists on getting baptized. Despite their marginalized status and shameful role, the Ethiopian eunuch is welcomed into the community of believers. The author of Acts concludes the passage by writing that the eunuch went away rejoicing. According to Trites, “the presence of the Spirit was all the greater because [the eunuch] had not only been introduced to a saving understanding of Scripture; [they] had also experienced full acceptance among the people of god. God’s plan for inclusive salvation overcomes physical defect, ethnic/racial barriers, and geographical remoteness.”

The work of the Holy Spirit is mighty and swift to bring the news of Jesus Christ to people everywhere.

The gender identity of the Ethiopian eunuch is fascinating when interpreted through the proper socio-historical lens. Dr. Brittany Wilson, in her article “’Neither Male nor Female’: The Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26-40,” argues that to overlook the “inextricable connection between status, gender, and ethnicity in the Greco-Roman culture” would be to miss a fundamental element to interpreting the status of the eunuch. She writes, “Throughout Greek and Roman texts, eunuchs emerge as gender-liminal figures with one foot in the realm of ‘women’ and one foot in the realm of ‘men’. As ‘un-manned’ men, or ‘non-men,’ eunuchs embodied all the characteristics of effeminate men, but they were also portrayed as ambiguous figures who upset the male/female gender binary.” As an example, Wilson cites a quote from Philo that eunuchs were “neither male nor female.” She also offers the example of the second-century satirist, Lucian, who stated that eunuchs were “neither man nor woman but something composite, hybrid and monstrous, outside of human nature.” Eunuchs were both regarded as “lacking libido” while also frequently depicted as “licentious lovers of both women and men.” The Ethiopian eunuch of Acts would not have been exempt from this sort of scrutiny. In fact, Wilson argues that the reason the eunuch remains unnamed is because Luke wishes for the person’s designation as a eunuch to be the “guiding principle in our interpretation.” This treatment of eunuchs was not limited to Roman writings. The Bible itself condemns and excludes eunuchs. In Leviticus 21:17-23, the Lord’s altar was not approachable by priests who were “blind, lame, mutilated, or a eunuch.” According to Jewish law, eunuchs were “living violations of Israelite purity codes…, ritually unclean because they mixed boundaries, and their genitals did not meet the standards of bodily wholeness.” The eunuch did not fit into Jewish and Gentile standards. 

Wilson also adds that gender identity is connected to ethnic identity. She writes that due to the distant and exotic nature of Ethiopia, Greco-Roman authors “also depicted Ethiopians as people who transgressed gender norms. Greek and Roman authors often portrayed ‘barbarians’ in general as gender transgressors, typically expressed in terms of male effeminacy or female masculinity.” This even further feminizes the eunuch of Acts 8 as they are a direct subordinate to a “manly” queen—a woman with a traditionally masculine role. 

According to Greco-Roman and Jewish standards, there is nothing masculine nor feminine about a eunuch. They are neither and both; in the middle and in between. Wilson’s historical context of the eunuch in Greco-Roman culture offers special insight as to why this biblical character holds a special place in the hearts of transgender and nonbinary individuals. Scott Shauf argues that eunuchs were comparable to “those born intersex, those who are transgender in the broadest sense of this word and, third, those who are gender different, or gender queer, that is not conforming to normative definitions of gender roles or identities.” In an article on the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) website, Austen Hartke and Myles Markham elaborate on this subject: “Trans scholars today aren’t interested in these individuals because they believe eunuchs identified as transgender, but rather because some of the things eunuchs in scripture experienced are similar to what trans people—and intersex people—experience today, particularly in terms of discrimination, oppression and dehumanization.” Scholars are careful to make this distinction and avoid anachronistic fallacies—there was simply not the vocabulary among ancient Greco-Roman culture to identify someone as transgender, intersex, or nonbinary. However, as Hartke and Markham point out, there are significant similarities between the reception and treatment of eunuchs and modern genderqueer individuals. Kittredge Cherry, on her QSpirit website, synthesizes the attitude towards this passage: “Eunuchs were sexual outcasts in Jewish religious society, much like LGBTQ people in the church today.” The shared pain of being among the minority, the scorned, and the rejected allows this passage to act as scriptural representation for this community. 

In another passage of significance for the transgender, nonbinary, and intersex believer, Jesus himself addresses the topic of the eunuch’s sexuality. In Matthew 19:12, Jesus tells the disciples that there are three types of eunuchs: the ones who were born that way, the ones who were made eunuchs by others, and those who chose to be eunuchs. While many scholars have debated who falls into these categories (for example, the first type may include intersex and gender dysphoric people), the most important thing is to realize the way Jesus treats eunuchs. He does not shame them, ridicule them, or even condemn their behavior. Hartke and Markham write that “the fact that Jesus positively mentions people who are gender-expansive in his own time and place gives hope to many gender-expansive people today.” If Christ himself extends grace and compassion to the people who occupy this space, who are his believers to do the direct opposite in his name? 

A couple of months ago, yet another film adaptation of Cinderella was released. Despite the harsh critical reception of the film, however, one character managed to deeply resonate with my youngest brother. The fairy godmother—played by Billy Porter—was a Black man in a dazzling hot pink gown. My brother latched onto this character as an effeminate black boy. For weeks, the “Fabulous Godmother” was all he talked about. For once, he saw himself represented on the television screen. 

As I reflect on the story of the Ethiopian eunuch and its importance to the transgender, intersex, and nonbinary communities, I can’t help but think of the light in the eyes of my little brother as he watched Billy Porter dance in fairy wings. The importance of representation has been a long-respected truth. According to the author of Acts, the first-ever Gentile convert was a dark-skinned, gender-ambiguous individual who was scorned and rejected by society. This sort of representation is extremely moving. 

Unfortunately, misguided exegesis, political motives, ignorance, and insensitivity cause many pastors to turn away from transgender, intersex, and nonbinary persons. Unfortunately, I have heard believers express similar attitudes toward people in this community as the quotes from Philo and Lucian—far too often are genderqueer people treated as “hybrid and monstrous, outside of human nature.” The author of Acts records the history of the very church that is now actively discriminating against the people whom the Holy Spirit called them to love and welcome. According to the Trevor Project, “affirming transgender and nonbinary youth by respecting their pronouns and allowing them to change legal documents is associated with lower rates of attempting suicide.” Yet believers continue to refuse this grace to their transgender, intersex, and nonbinary siblings. 

Yet, there is representation and hope present within the gospel for those who need it.

One day, I hope to occupy a pastoral role. In this role, it is vital to extend the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth—to every single person I meet regardless of status, gender, or sexuality. When Philip asks the Ethiopian eunuch if the passage in Isaiah is properly understood, the eunuch responds, “How can I [understand] unless someone explains it to me?” As I meditate on this passage as a tool for ministry, this verse strikes me. The church has caused insurmountable pain to those in the transgender, intersex, and nonbinary communities. This has no doubt turned countless people away from Scripture. Yet, there is representation and hope present within the gospel for those who need it. As I prepare my heart for ministry in a world burdened by the suffering of those who struggle with sexuality and/or gender, I hear this question ringing throughout the LGBTQIA+ community: how can they see the representation and hope in Scripture unless they are allowed to participate in its freedom? I hope to empower the church to become a more thoughtful and loving place for all peoples—whether a first-century Ethiopian eunuch, a 21st-century trans black woman, or anyone in between.  


Apostolacus, Katherine. “The Bible and The Transgender Christian: Mapping Transgender Hermeneutics in the 21st Century,” Journal of the Bible and Its Reception, 5(1), 2018, pp. 1–29.

Blomberg, Craig L. From Pentecost to Patmos: An Introduction to Acts through Revelation, 2nd ed. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2021. 

Cherry, Kittredge. “Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch: Early church welcomed queers in Bible story.” QSpirit, 2021. 

Cinderella. Directed by Kay Cannon. Fulwell 73: 2021.

Hartke, Austen and Myles Markham. “What Does the Bible Say about Transgender People?” Human Rights Corporation, https://www.hrc.org/resources/what-does-the-bible-say-about-transgender-people. 

Holladay, Carl R. Acts: A Commentary, 1st ed. The New Testament Library. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.

Marshall, Howard I. Acts: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 5. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980.

Perry, Aaron. “Lift up the Lowly and Bring down the Exalted: Gender Studies, Organizations, and the Ethiopian Eunuch.” Journal of Religious Leadership 14, no. 1, 2015. 

Trites, Allison A. and William J. Larkin, The Gospel of Luke and Acts, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 12. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.

Wilson, Brittany E. “‘Neither Male nor Female’: The Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8.26–40,” New Testament Studies, 60(3), 2014, pp. 403-422.


Mattie Motl

Mattie Mae Motl (she/her) is a master of divinity student at Denver Seminary. When she’s not studying, she’s reading poetry, drinking matcha lattes, and spending time with her family. She lives in Denver with her middle school sweetheart, Ryan, and her one year old, Miriam.

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