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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Bible Background, Part 2, by Craig S. Keener


Here a particular African empire is in view. While we might confuse “Ethiopia” here with modern Ethiopia, that is probably not in view. That kingdom, Axum, was a powerful east African empire and converted to Christianity in the early 300s, in the same generation the Roman empire converted. The empire here, however, is most likely a particular Nubian kingdom of somewhat darker complexion, south of Egypt in what is now the Sudan. “Candace” (kan-dak’a) seems to have been a dynastic title of the Queen of this Nubian Empire; she is mentioned elsewhere in Greco-Roman literature, and tradition declares that the queen-mother ruled in that land. (Ancient Greeks called all of Nubia “Ethiopia.”) Her black Nubian kingdom had lasted since c. 750 BC; its main cities were Meroe and Napata. This kingdom was wealthy (giving a royal treasurer like this one much to do!) and had trade ties to the north; Rome procured peacocks and other African treasures through such African kingdoms in contact with the interior of Africa, and Roman wealth has turned up in excavations of Meroe. The trade also extended further south; a bust of Caesar has been found as far south as Tanzania. Still, the trade connection with Rome was limited, and this official and his entourage must have been among the few Nubian visitors this far north.

This Nubian court official was probably a Gentile “God-fearer.” Although it was not always the case (As Potipher had a wife, Gen. 39:1 LXX), eunuchs referred to castrated men. While these were preferred court officials in the East, the Jewish people opposed the practice, and Jewish law excluded eunuchs from Israel (Deut. 23:1); the rules were undoubtedly instituted to prevent Israel from neutering boys (Deut. 23:1). But eunuchs could certainly be accepted by God (Isa. 56:3-5, even foreign eunuchs; Wisd. 3:14). An Ethiopian “eunuch” in the OT turns out to be one of Jeremiah’s few allies and saves his life (Jer. 38:7-13). This African court official was the first non-Jewish Christian. Such information may be helpful in establishing that Christianity is not only not a western religion, but that after its Jewish origins it was first of all an African faith.

14. Paul preaches to Philosophers in Acts 17:22-31

Paul “contextualized” the gospel for his hearers, showing how it related to their own culture without compromising its content. (Today we often err on either one side or the other—failing to be culturally relevant, or failing to represent accurately the biblical message.) Paul speaks to two groups of philosophers present, Stoics and (probably a smaller group) Epicureans; his faith held little common ground with Epicureans, but the Stoics could agree with a number of Christian beliefs.

Paul opens by finding some common ground with his pagan audience. It was customary to begin a speech by complimenting the hearers in the opening of a speech, the exordium. One was not permitted to flatter the Areopagus (the leading philosophical and educational leaders of Athens), but Paul would remain free to start on a respectful note. “Religious” meant that they were observant, not that he agreed with their religion (“superstitious,” in the King James Version, does not convey the right idea).

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Category: Biblical Studies, Winter 2005

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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