Monday 10 April 2023

The First Queer Evangelist?

At this Easter time, or Passiontide, as non-English-speaking nations call it, millions of people are thinking about the teachings of Christ – some good thoughts, and some bad thoughts. There are more Christian denominations with more interpretations of scriptures than there are gender identities or political ideologies, so there are bound to be differences of opinion and doctrine which offend.

With more than 2,000 years of history behind it, Christianity has much that has been forgotten or deliberately ignored. So, it may surprise you to learn that one of the first black, gender-variant evangelists appears in the Bible. He is venerated by many established Christian denominations to this day.

Whether you think the New Testament of the Bible is history or fiction at this point is irrelevant. Even as an apocryphal tale the story, in theological terms, was an attempt by the early Christians, still worshipping in small, or secret, isolated groups, to show that people of any race, nationality or identity could be accepted as a convert, and go on to be an evangelist.

The tale in question centres on an Ethiopian eunuch, as he is generally called. The Bible doesn’t give his name. In the early centuries people liked to give names to anonymous characters in the Bible. The Three Wise Men of the Nativity are a well-known example. They were given the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar several centuries later. The Ethiopian eunuch has been given different names in different denominations – Qinaqis, Actius, Djan Darada. In western Christianity his most common name is Simeon Bachos, probably first used in 180 AD by St. Irenaeus of Lyons, the person who was probably also responsible for coming up with the names of the New Testament book in which the Ethiopian features, the “Acts of the Apostles”.

Here’s the story. The evangelist St. Philip the Deacon had a vision of an angel who told him to travel down from Jerusalem to Gaza. Before he set off he spotted an Ethiopian eunuch, a treasurer to the Candace (a rank similar to Queen Mother) of Ethiopia, who was reading aloud part of the Old Testament book of Isaiah. The eunuch seemed confused by what he was reading, so St. Philip went over to help him. They discussed the passage while they rode along to Gaza. Then the Ethiopian stopped their chariot next to some water, a river perhaps, and asked Philip if there was any reason to stop him from being baptised there and then. Philip said there wasn’t if he truly believed in Christ’s teachings, to which the Ethiopian said he did. So Philip he baptised him in the water. Upon doing so St. Philip suddenly vanished into thin air, transported by the “Holy Spirit” according to the Bible, back to Jerusalem. The Ethiopian, who didn’t seem to very concerned about the sudden disappearance, continued on his way home.

Later traditions say that he evangelised the Ethiopians. There’s no written evidence of this, but it is a fact that some of the oldest surviving Christian Churches, largely unaltered in terms of doctrine and practices, are based in Ethiopia.

“The Baptism of the Eunuch” by Rembrandt, c.1626, Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, Netherlands.

The term “eunuch”, as applied in the Bible, is used for several different other terms that appear in the original Hebrew texts. One such definition is the word “saris” (using the Roman alphabet instead of the Hebrew). This was applied to any man who hadn’t shown any heterosexual sexual maturity or drive by the time he was 20 years old. There was no indication that these men had any difference, or absence, of sexual organs like we recognise today with the term “eunuch”, though some may have been forcibly castrated because of their lack of sex drive. In this respect a saris was like the ancient Greek agamoi. Like the agamoi, the saris was seen as a deviant and banned from places of worship.

On the other hand, a eunuch was often held in high regard. I’ve written before how some eunuchs were priests and holy people. Even the Three Kings mentioned above have often been referred to in recent decades as eunuchs or gender-variant.

The most commonly accepted origin of the Greek word “eunuch” is from a phrase which means “guardian of the bed”. This usually referred to the private royal bedchamber, the innermost living quarters of the king or emperor and his family. These “guardians” were the most trusted of servants. There was an equivalent in the UK Royal Family until the mid-20th century, the Gentleman of the King’s Bedchamber which was held by senior courtiers, not eunuchs. Sir William Neville and his partner Sir John Clanvowe were appointed Gentlemen and Knights of the Chamber by King Richard II in 1381.

Over the years, the original highly trusted eunuch “guardians” came to be appointed to higher offices of state, such as treasurer or chamberlain (the man who organised the chambers of the court). It is these positions, eunuchs who held high office, which was the usual translation of the Hebrew saris in the Latin Bible. In the “Acts of the Apostles” the Ethiopian eunuch is explicitly referred to as the treasurer to the Candace of Ethiopia. He was a high ranking courtier.

I was going to go into a deep explanation about other aspects of this story, such as why the Ethiopian questioned his suitability to be baptised, because it feels too much like I’m back in my days as a Methodist lay preacher and I don’t want this to turn into a sermon. So, I’ll just leave it at that. If you want to know more, there are many sites online that cover it.

What I will say is that the Ethiopian eunuch, Simeon Bachos or whichever name he is given, is used in the Bible to signify that anyone with gender variance and of whatever race was welcomed in early Christianity.

No comments:

Post a Comment