(1) And Saul was consenting unto his death.—The word seems carefully chosen to convey the fact that he did not himself take part in stoning, but contented himself with guiding and directing the murder. He “kept the garments” of the witnesses who flung the stones (Acts 22:20). The statement came, we can scarcely doubt, from St. Paul’s own lips, and in his use of the same word in the passage just referred to, and in Romans 1:32, we may see an indication that he had learnt to see that his guilt in so doing was greater, and not less, than that of the actual murderers.
There was a great persecution against the church.—It is clear that this involved much suffering, imprisonment, as in Acts 8:3, perhaps the spoiling of men’s goods, the being made “a gazing stock by reproaches and afflictions” (Hebrews 10:33-34). In St. James’s description of the sufferings of the brethren (James 2:6-7), we may see at once the measure of the violence of the persecution, and the prominence in it (though Saul, the Pharisee, was for the time the chief leader) of the priesthood and the rich Sadducean aristocracy.
Throughout the regions of Judæa and Samaria.—Jerusalem was naturally the chief scene of the persecution, and the neighbouring towns, Hebron, and Gaza, and Lydda, and Joppa, became places of refuge. It was probably to this influx of believers in Christ that we may trace the existence of Christian communities in the two latter cities. (See Notes on Acts 9:32; Acts 9:36.) The choice of Samaria was, perhaps, suggested by the hatred of that people to the Jews. Those who were fleeing from a persecution set on foot by the priests and rulers of Jerusalem were almost ipso facto sure of a welcome in Neapolis and other cities. But the choice of this as a place of refuge indicated that the barriers of the old antipathy were already in part broken down. What seemed the pressure of circumstances was leading indirectly to the fulfilment of our Lord’s commands, that the disciples should be witnesses in Samaria as well as in Judæa (Acts 1:8). It seems probable, as already suggested (see Note on Acts 7:16), that there was some point of contact between the Seven, of whom Stephen was the chief, and that region.
Except the apostles.—The sequel of the history suggests two reasons for their remaining. (1) The Twelve had learnt the lesson which their Master had taught them, “that the hireling fleeth because he is an hireling” (John 10:13), and would not desert their post. A tradition is recorded by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. vi. 5, § 43) and Eusebius (Hist. v. 13), that the Lord had commanded the Apostles to remain for twelve years in Jerusalem lest any should say “We have not heard,” and after that date to go forth into the world. (2) The persecution which was now raging seems to have been directed specially against those who taught with Stephen, that the “customs” on which the Pharisees laid so much stress should pass away. The Apostles had not as yet proclaimed that truth; had, perhaps, not as yet been led to it. They were conspicuous as worshippers in the Temple, kept themselves from all that was common and unclean (Acts 10:14), held aloof from fellowship with the Gentiles (Acts 10:28). They may well have been protected by the favour and reverence with which the great body of the people still looked on them, and so have been less exposed than the Seven had been to the violence of the storm. It was probable, in the nature of the case, that the Hellenistic disciples, who had been represented by Stephen, should suffer more than others. It was from them that the next great step in the expansion of the Church in due course came.
(2) And devout men carried Stephen to his burial.—It has sometimes been asserted, as e.g. by Renan (Les Apôtres, p. 145), that these were proselytes. St. Luke, however, always uses a different word to describe that class (comp. Acts 13:43; Acts 13:50; Acts 16:14; Acts 17:4; Acts 17:17), and the word used here is applied by him to Simeon (Luke 2:25), to the multitude of Jews present on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:5), to Ananias as devout according to the Law (Acts 22:12). This notion must accordingly be rejected as against evidence. On the other hand, had they been members of the Church they would naturally, though perhaps not necessarily, have been described as “brethren” or “disciples.” We are left therefore to the conclusion that they were Jews who had been kindled into admiration and half-conviction by the calm heroism of the martyr, and who, without committing themselves to more than that admiration, acted in his case as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathæa had acted after the Crucifixion. They would show honour to the memory of the dead, though they had not had the courage to defend the preacher of the truth while he was yet with them. In the legend or tradition as to the death of Stephen, reported and accepted by Augustine (De Civ: Dei. xvii. 8; Serm. 318, 319; Tract. In Joann., 120), Gamaliel and Nicodemus are named as actually taking part in the entombment, and as afterwards laid in the same sepulchre, on which his name appeared in Aramaic characters as Chaliel (= garland), the equivalent in that language of the Greek Stephanos. The translation of the martyr’s relics to Ancona, Minorca, and to Uzalis, and other towns in Africa, made a deep impression on Augustine, and gave occasion to some of his most eloquent sermons. Oratories were dedicated to his memory, and miraculous cures effected by prayers addressed to him. (See Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Aug. 3rd.)
And made great lamentation over him.—The act was every way significant. Commonly, one who had been stoned to death on the charge of blasphemy would have had no funereal honours. He would have been buried “with the burial of an ass” (Jeremiah 22:19). The public lamentation on the part of men conspicuous for their devout zeal for the Law, was therefore of the nature of a protest, probably on the part of the more moderate section of the Pharisees, such as Joseph, Nicodemus, and Gamaliel, against what would seem to them the unnatural coalition between the Sadducean priesthood and the ultra-zealot section of their own party.
(3) As for Saul, he made havock of the church.—The tense in the Greek implies continuous action, and so indicates the severity of the persecution. Further details are given by St. Paul himself. He “persecuted this way unto the death” (Acts 22:4). It does not follow, however, that this points to more than the death of Stephen. Both men and women were imprisoned (ibid). The fact that the latter class were included among the sufferers, implies that they had been more or less prominent in the activity of the new society. Such may have been the devout women of Luke 8:2-3. The victims were punished in every synagogue, most probably with the forty stripes save one (2 Corinthians 11:24) which was the common penalty for minor offences against religious order. They were compelled to blaspheme the “worthy name” of the Master whom they owned as the Christ (Acts 26:11; Jas. Ii. 7). They were subject to wanton outrages in addition to judicial severity (1 Timothy 1:13). There was, as the persecutor himself afterwards confessed (Acts 26:11), a kind of insane ferocity in his violence. Even the very word “haling” implies a brutality which might well have been spared.
(4) They that were scattered abroad.—These. As has been said above, would in all probability be Stephen’s Hellenistic fellow-workers and followers. As in later ages, the axiom that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” held true from the beginning. The attempt to stamp out the new faith did but give it a wider scope of action, and urged it on to pass the limits within which it might otherwise have been confined for a much longer period.
Preaching the word.—Better, preaching the glad tidings of the word.
(5) Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria.—More accurately, “a city.” The sequence of events implies that it was not the Apostle, but his namesake who had been chosen as one of the Seven. As having been conspicuous in the work of “preaching the glad tidings of Christ,” he was afterwards known as Philip the Evangelist (Acts 21:8). It was natural enough that the identity of name should lead writers who were imperfectly informed to confuse the two, as Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus, seems to have done in the passage quoted by Eusebius (Hist. iii. 31). The “city of Samaria” is described in precisely the same terms as in John 4:5, where it is identified with Sychar, the Sichem of the Old Testament. (See Note on John 4:5.) “Samaria,” throughout the New Testament (as, e.g., in Acts 9:31; Luke 17:11; John 4:4-5), is used for the province, and not for the city to which it had been attached in earlier times. This had been new-named Sebaste (the Greek equivalent of Augusta) by Herod the Great in honour of the Emperor, and this had more or less superseded the old name (Jos. Ant. xv. 8, § 5). Assuming the identity with Sychar, the narrative of John 4 suggests at once the reason that probably determined Philip’s choice. The seed had already been sown, and the fields were white for harvest (John 4:35). Possibly, as suggested above (Note on Acts 7:16), there may have been some previous connection with the district. Some of that city had already accepted Jesus as the Christ.
Preached Christ.—The verb is not the same as in Acts 8:4, and is the word used for “preaching” or “proclaiming.” The tense implies continued action, extending, it may be, over weeks or months. We find in John 4:25 that the expectation of the Messiah was as strong among the Samaritans as among the Jews, and Philip’s work therefore was to proclaim that the long-expected One had come, and that the Resurrection was the crowning proof that He was the Christ the Son of God. The readiness with which the proclamation was accepted shows that in spite of the adverse influence which had come into play since our Lord had taught there, the work then done had not been in vain.
Hearing and seeing the miracles which he did.—Better, the signs, as being closer, here as elsewhere, to the force of the Greek. It is remarkable that they had believed in the first instance without any other sign than the person and the teaching of the Lord Jesus. Miracles came not as the foundation, but for the strengthening of their faith; perhaps also as a corrective to the adverse influence of which we are so soon to hear.
(7) For unclean spirits, crying with loud voice.—The MSS. present several variations in the structure of the sentence, but they do not affect its meaning. The character of the “signs” agrees with those that are recorded in the Gospels. The “great cry,” partly, it may be, of agony, partly of exultation at deliverance, agrees with Mark 1:26; Luke 4:33.
(8) There was great joy in that city.—This and the whole narrative may well have been learnt by St. Luke from the lips of Philip himself, when St. Paul and his companions visited the Evangelist at Cæsarea on his way to Jerusalem (Acts 21:8), or during the Apostle’s two years’ imprisonment in that city (Acts 24:27), or, we may add, from St. Paul’s report of what he had heard when he travelled through Samaria (Acts 15:3).
(9) But there was a certain man, called Simon.—The man who is thus brought before us in a brief episode, occupies a prominent place in the history and the legends of the Apostolic Church. For the present it will be convenient to deal only with the materials which St. Luke gives us, reserving a fuller account for the close of the narrative. Nothing is told us here as to his earlier history, prior to his arrival in Samaria. The name indicates Jewish or Samaritan origin. He appears as the type of a class but too common at the time, that of Jews trading on the mysterious prestige of their race and the credulity of the heathen, claiming supernatural power exercised through charms and incantations. Such afterwards was Elymas at Cyprus (Acts 13:6); such were the vagabond Jews exorcists at Ephesus (Acts 19:13); such was a namesake, Simon of Cyprus (unless, indeed, we have a re-appearance of the same man), who also claimed to be a magician, and who pandered to the vices of Felix, the Procurator of Judæa, by persuading Drusilla (Jos. Ant. xx. 7, § 2, see Note on Acts 24:24) to leave her first husband and to marry him. The life of such a man, like that of the Cagliostro fraternity in all ages, was a series of strange adventures, and startling as the statements as to his previous life may seem (see Note on Acts 8:24), they are not in themselves incredible. Apollonius of Tyana is, perhaps, the supreme representative of the charlatanism of the period.
Used sorcery.—Literally, was practising magic. On the history of the Greek word magos and our “magic,” as derived from it, see Note on Matthew 2:1. Our “sorcerer” comes, through the French sorcier, from the Latin sortitor, a caster of lots (sortes) for the purposes of divination. Later legends enter fully into the various forms of sorcery of which Simon made use. (See below.)
Bewitched the people of Samaria.—Literally, threw them into the state of trance or ecstasy; set them beside themselves, or out of their wits. The structure of the sentence shows that the “city” is not identical with Samaria, and that the latter name is used, as elsewhere, for the region.
Giving out that himself was some great one.—The next verse defines the nature of the claim more clearly. The cry of the people that he was “the great power of God,” was, we may well believe, the echo of his own boast. He claimed to be, in some undefined way, an Incarnation of Divine Power. The very name had appeared in our Lord’s teaching when He spoke of Himself as sitting on the right hand of “the Power of God,” as an equivalent for the Father (Luke 22:69).
(10) To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest.—The ready acceptance of the claims of the pretender, may, in part, be traced to the impression made by the presence of “the Christ, the Saviour of the world” (John 4:42). If One had come among them in whom they felt that there was a more than human greatness, why might there not be another manifestation of a like nature? The sorcerer appears as the earliest type of those who were to come with lying signs and wonders so as to deceive, if it were possible, even the elect (Matthew 24:24; 2 Thessalonians 2:9).
This man is the great power of God.—The better MSS. give, “This is the Power of God that is called great.” The word “Powers” was used by the Samaritans of the angels or hosts of God, and they probably recognised Simon as one of these and as of special pre-eminence.
(11) And to him they had regard.—The Greek word is the same as in the “gave heed” of the previous verse. The “long time” during which the evil fascination had been exercised, reckoning backwards from the date which we have now reached (A.D. 34), might carry us to a period prior to our Lord’s visit to Sychar, in A.D. 30. It is scarcely probable, however, that it was in active operation at that time. And it is likely enough that, finding the people still influenced by the impressions which that visit had left, he wrought on their excited feelings for his own purpose.
(12) But when they believed Philip . . . .—The word for preaching is, as in Acts 8:4, “preaching the glad tidings of the kingdom of God.” The sequel shows that this included baptism as the outward condition of admission to the kingdom. We may infer from the other narrative of Philip’s mission-work (Acts 8:31-35) that it also included an outline-history of the passion and death and resurrection of the Prophet whom they had seen among them as fulfilling the great Messianic prophecies.
They were baptized, both men and women.—The tense points, not to one great act, but to the continual succession of converts who were thus admitted. We think of the woman of Samaria, of John 4:7, and wonder whether she was one of them.
(13) Then Simon himself believed also.—Endless questions have been raised as to the nature of such a faith, and the effect of such a baptism. It is probable enough that he was impressed by the signs that Philip wrought; that he felt himself in the presence of a Power above his own; that he accepted Philip’s statements as to the death and resurrection of the Christ. It was such a faith as that of which St. James speaks (James 2:14; James 2:19). If we are to use the definite language of theological science, it would be true to say that he had the fides informis, faith not preceded by repentance and not perfected by love. And baptism, in such a case, the expressed or implied conditions being absent, brought with it no new birth to a higher life. He remained still “in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity” (Acts 8:23). But even for him it bore its witness of the readiness of God to forgive and to regenerate. The subsequent fulfilment of the conditions which were then absent would have quickened the potential into an actual grace, and no second baptism would have been needed to supplement the shortcomings of the first. Peter calls on him (Acts 8:22) to repent and pray for forgiveness. He does not tell him that he must be baptised again.
And wondered.—The verb is the same as that rendered “bewitched” in Acts 8:9; Acts 8:11. The tables were turned. The magician yielded to a spell mightier than his own, and was, in his turn, as one beside himself with amazement. The difference between Simon and the believing Samaritans is, in this matter, suggestive. His faith rested on outward miracles. With them the miracles did but serve to confirm a faith which rested on the “prophetic word” as spoken by the Son of Man (John 4:42).
(14) When the apostles which were at Jerusalem. . . .—The tidings came to the Twelve as a proof that the limitation which had at first excluded Samaria from the range of their work as preachers of the kingdom had now passed away (Matthew 10:5), and that the time had now come when they were to be “witnesses” to Christ in Samaria as well as in Judæa (Acts 1:8). Old antipathies of race and worship disappeared, and without hesitation they sent the two who were, in many respects, the chief of the Apostles to sanction the admission of the new converts. The Apostle who in his zeal had once sought to call down the fire of the wrath of God on the village of the Samaritans (Luke 9:54), was now to bring to them that baptism of the Holy Ghost and of fire (Matthew 3:11) which spoke not of wrath but of love. That his companion should be Peter, was natural, both from the position which the latter occupied as the leader of the apostolic company and from the friendship by which the two had been throughout their life united.
The word of God is characteristically used by St. Luke, as in his Gospel, for the whole sum and substance of the gospel of Christ. (Comp. Luke 5:1; Luke 8:11; Luke 8:21.)
(15) Prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost.—The prayer clearly pointed to such a gift of the power of the Spirit as had been bestowed on the Day of Pentecost. It assumed that such gifts had been received by the disciples generally at Jerusalem, and that they were distinct from the new birth of water and the Spirit (John 3:5) which was given through baptism. The Apostles looked on the Samaritans as qualified for that higher gift as well as for admission into the kingdom, and it was given to them, and not to Philip in his subordinate position as an evangelist, to be the channels of communicating it.
(16) As yet he was fallen upon none of them.—The same verb is used of the gift of the Spirit in Acts 10:44; Acts 11:15, and of Peter’s trance in Acts 10:10. It is manifestly used to express an unlooked-for change in a man’s normal state of consciousness, the sudden advent of new powers and feelings.
(17) Then laid they their hands on them.—The act had already appeared as at once the symbol and the channel of the communication of spiritual gifts and offices in the appointment of the Seven. (See Note on Acts 6:6.) Historically, the act here recorded has the interest of being the starting-point of what afterwards developed into the rite known as Confirmation. Taking the narrative of the Acts by itself, a question might be raised how far what we read of was normal or exceptional, connected, for a time only, with the bestowal of new and marvellous powers, or powerful, through the whole history of the Church, as a means of grace strengthening the spiritual life after those powers had been withdrawn. In any case it was probable that no hard and fast line marked the disappearance of the special and marvellous forms of spiritual power which were at first manifested in connection with the laying-on of hands, and so the practice had time to become part of the fixed order of the Church. When they ceased altogether we can understand the reluctance of men to give up a rite that had come down from the days of the Apostles. They would feel that the prayer of faith was still mighty to prevail; that the Spirit would still be given in answer to prayer joined with the symbolic act, though no longer in the same form, and would confirm and strengthen the work which had been begun in baptism, and so the primitive laying-on of hands passed into Confirmation, and was accompanied by other symbolic acts, such as anointing. The thought that it is so called because in it adults confirm the promises made for them when baptised as infants, is entirely modern, and cannot be traced further back than the sixteenth century.
(18, 19) When Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands. . . .—The words imply that the result was something visible and conspicuous. A change was wrought; and men spoke with tongues and prophesied. To the sorcerer, accustomed to charms and incantations, the men who were in possession of this power would seem to be enchanters with a higher knowledge than his own, and he who had purchased many such secrets, after the manner of the time (comp. Acts 19:19), from previous masters in the magic art, thought that this might be obtained in the same way. The act thus recorded has given its name to a large class of offences in ecclesiastical jurisprudence, and the sin of Simony in all its forms, the act of purchasing spiritual powers and functions, perpetuates the infamy of the magician of Samaria.
(20) Thy money perish with thee.—Literally, Thy money be together with thee, for perdition. The same word is used as in the “son of perdition” in John 17:12 and in Hebrews 10:39. The prominence of the word in 2 Peter 2:1-3; 2 Peter 3:7; 2 Peter 3:16, is interesting in connection with the question as to the authorship of that Epistle. Another coincidence presents itself in the “gold that perisheth” of 1 Peter 1:7.
Because thou hast thought . . . .—Better, because thou thoughtest. The speaker looks at the thought historically, as at the moment when it rose up in the sorcerer’s mind. The Greek verb has a transitive not a passive sense, thou thoughtest to acquire the gift of God by money. Not so, Peter must have remembered, had he acquired that gift. The very word which he uses is that which our Lord had spoken to him and his brother Apostles, “Freely” (i.e., as a gift) “ye have received” (Matthew 10:8).
(21) Neither part nor lot.—A like, though not an identical, combination of the two words meets us in Colossians 1:12. On the latter, see Notes on Acts 1:17; Acts 1:25. It is, perhaps, used here in its secondary sense. Simon had no inheritance in the spiritual gifts nor in the spiritual offices of the Church. The power attached to the apostleship was not a thing for traffic.
Thy heart is not right in the sight of God.—“Straight” or “right” is used, as in Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, for “straightforward,” not in the secondary sense of “being as it ought to be.” The word is not of frequent occurrence in the New Testament, but, like so many of the spoken words of St. Peter, meets us again as coming from his pen (2 Peter 2:15).
(22) Repent therefore of this thy wickedness.—The stern words of condemnation are, we see, meant to heal, not to slay. Rightly understood, the call to repent in such a case as this, opens the door of hope as wide as the history of the penitent thief. Repentance, and with repentance, forgiveness, were possible, even for the charlatan adventurer who had traded on the credulous superstition of the people, and claimed something like adoration for himself and his mistress.
Pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart . . . .—The better MSS. give “Lord” instead of “God,” either in the Old Testament sense of the word or with special reference to the Lord Jesus. The “if perhaps,” in the Greek, as in the English, implies a latent doubt. Did the thought come across the mind of the Apostle that the sin of Simon came very near that “sin against the Holy Ghost which hath never forgiveness” (Matthew 12:31)? The use of such words by the chief of the Apostles, after the apparent concession of a plenary power in John 20:23, are terribly suggestive. He neither forgives nor condemns, but bids the offender turn to the Searcher of hearts and pray for forgiveness. Had he seen repentance, he might have said, “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” Had he seen a conscience utterly dead, he might have closed the door of hope. As it is, he stands midway between hope and fear, and, keeping silence, leaves judgment to the Judge.
(23) In the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.—On “gall,” in its literal sense, see Note on Matthew 27:34. This is the only passage in the New Testament in which it is used figuratively. “Bitterness” meets us, as expressing extreme moral depravity, in Romans 3:14, Ephesians 4:31, Hebrews 12:15. The latter phrase implies that the iniquity of Simon bound him as with the iron chains of a habit from which he could not free himself.
(24) Pray ye to the Lord for me.—There is something eminently characteristic in the sorcerer’s words. (1) His conscience reads “between the lines” of St. Peter’s address what was not actually found there. That “if perhaps” is to him as the knell of doom. (2) He prays not for deliverance from “the bond of iniquity,” but only from the vague terror of a future penalty. (3) He turns, not, as Peter had bidden him, to the Lord who was ready to forgive, but to a human mediator. Peter must pray for him who has not faith to pray for himself.
At this point Simon disappears from the history of the Acts, and this seems accordingly the right place for stating briefly the later traditions as to his history. In those traditions he occupies a far more prominent position than in St. Luke’s narrative, and becomes, as it has been said, the “hero of the romance of heresy,” as given in the Homilies and Recognitions of the Pseudo-Clement. Born at Gittom, in Samaria (Justin, Apol. i. 26), he received his education at Alexandria, and picked up the language of a mystic Gnosticism from Dositheus (Hom. ii. c. 22; Constt. Apost. vi. 8). He had for a short time been a disciple of the Baptist (Hom. c. 23). He murdered a boy that the soul of his victim might become his familiar spirit, and give him insight into the future (Hom. ii. c. 26; Recogn. ii. 9). He carried about with him a woman of great beauty, of the name of Luna or Helena, whom he represented as a kind of incarnation of the Wisdom or Thought of God (Justin, Apol. i. 6; Hom. ii. c. 25; Euseb. Hist. ii. 13). He identified himself with the promised Paraclete and the Christ, and took the name of “He who stands,” as indicating divine power (Recogn. ii. 7). He boasted that he could turn himself and others into the form of brute beasts; that he could cause statues to speak (Hom. iv. c. 4; Recogn. ii. 9, iii. 6). His life was one of ostentatious luxury. He was accompanied by the two sons of the Syro-Phœnician woman of Mark 7:26 (Hom. i. 19). After the episode related in the Acts, he went down to Cæsarea, and Peter was then sent thither by James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, to confront and hold a disputation with him on various points of doctrine. From Cæsarea he made his way to Tyre and Tripolis, and thence to Rome, and was there worshipped by his followers, so that an altar was seen there by Justin with an inscription, “SIMONI DEO SANCTO” (Apol. i. 56). Peter followed him, and in the reign of Claudius the two met, once more face to face, in the imperial city. According to one legend, he offered to prove his divinity by flying in the air. trusting that the demons whom he employed would support him; but, through the power of the prayers of Peter, he fell down, and had his bones broken, and then committed suicide (Constt. Apost. ii. 14; 6:9). Another represents him as buried alive at his own request, in order that he might show his power by rising on the third day from the dead, and so meeting his death (Irenæus, Adv. Hær. vi. 20).
In the midst of all this chaos of fantastic fables, we have, perhaps, one grain of fact in Justin’s assertion that he had seen the altar above referred to. An altar was discovered at Rome in 1574, on the island in the Tiber, with the inscription “SEMONI SANCO DEO FIDIO.” Archæologists, however, agree in thinking that this was dedicated to the Sabine Hercules, who was known as SEMO SANCUS, and it has been thought by many writers that Justin may have seen this or some like altar, and, in his ignorance of Italian mythology, have imagined that it was consecrated to the Sorcerer of Samaria. His statement is repeated by Tertullian (Apol. c. 13) and Irenæus (i. 20). Of the three names in the inscription, Semo (probably connected with Semen as the God of Harvest, or as Semihomo) appears by itself in the Hymn of the Fratres Arvales, and in connection with Sancus and Fidius (probably connected with Fides, and so employed in the formula of asseveration, medius fidius) in Ovid, Fast. vi. 213; Livy, viii. 20; .
(25) And they, when they had testified . . .—The statement involves a stay of some duration, long enough to found and organise a community of disciples. And this was followed, not by an immediate return to Jerusalem, but, as the Greek tense shows, by one with many halts, at each of which the glad tidings of “the word of the Lord” were proclaimed, and a Church founded. Did the Apostles enter on this journey into the village on which one of them had sought to call down fire from heaven (Luke 9:54)? Now, at least, he had learnt to know what manner of Spirit claimed him as his own.
The curtain falls at the close of this drama on the Christians of Samaria, and we know but little of their after history. The one glimpse of them which we get is, however, of very special interest. When Paul and Barnabas after their first missionary journey went up to Jerusalem, they passed “through Phenico and Samaria” (Acts 15:3). St. Paul also had conquered the antagonism that divided the Jew, and, above all, the Pharisee, from the Samaritan. The Samaritans heard with joy of that conversion of the Gentiles which showed that old barriers and walls of partition were broken down. Many, we may believe, would elect to take their stand on the ground of the freedom of the gospel rather than on any claim to Jewish descent or the observance of the Jewish Law. Others, however, we know, adhered to that Law with a rigorous tenacity, and left their creed and ritual, their Gerizim worship and their sacred Books, as an inheritance to be handed down from century to century, even to the present day. The whole nation suffered severely in the wars with Rome under Vespasian, and Sychem was taken and destroyed, a new city being built by the emperor on the ruins—a Roman city with Temples dedicated to Roman gods—to which, as perpetuating the name of his house and lineage, he gave the name of Flavia Neapolis (= New Town), which survives in the modern Nablous. In the early history of the Church there attaches to that city the interest of having been the birthplace of the martyr Justin, and of the heretic Dositheus. In one of the Simon legends, as stated above, the latter appears as the instructor of the sorcerer, but this is probably a distortion of his real history.
(26) And the angel of the Lord . . .—Better, an angel. The tense of the verbs in the preceding verse, in the better MSS., implies that the events that follow synchronised with the journey of Peter and John through Samaria. The journey which Philip was commanded to take led him by a quicker route across country into the main road from Jerusalem to Gaza. The history of the city so named (appearing at times in the English version—Deuteronomy 2:23; 1 Kings 4:24; Jeremiah 25:20—as Azzah) goes even as far back as that of Damascus, in the early records of Israel. It was the southernmost or border-city of the early Canaanites (Genesis 10:19), and was occupied first by the Avim, and then by the Caphtorim (Deuteronomy 2:23). Joshua was unable to conquer it (Joshua 10:41; Joshua 11:22). The tribe of Judah held it for a short time (Judges 1:18), but it soon fell into the hands of the Philistines (Judges 3:3; Judges 13:1), and though attacked by Samson, was held by them during the times of Samuel, Saul, and David (1 Samuel 6:17; 1 Samuel 14:52; 2 Samuel 21:15). Solomon (1 Kings 4:24), and later on Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:8), attacked it. It resisted Alexander the Great during a siege of five months, and was an important military position, the very key of the country, during the struggles between the Ptolemies and the Seleucidæ, and in the wars of the Maccabees (1 Maccabees 11:61). Its name, it may be noted, meant the “strong.”
Which is desert.—Literally, as in a separate sentence, This (or It) is desert. There is nothing to show whether this was intended to appear as part of the angel’s bidding, or as a parenthetical note added by St. Luke, nor whether the pronoun refers to the “way” or to the “city.” If we assume the latter, we may think of it as written after the city had been laid waste during the Jewish war (A.D. 65). On the former hypothesis, it points to a less frequented route than that from Jerusalem through Ramleh to Gaza, which led through Hebron and then through the Southern or Negeb country. On the whole, the latter seems most to commend itself, and on this view we may see in it part of the instruction which Philip reported as coming, whether in dream or vision or voice we are not told, from the angel of the Lord. He was to go in faith to the less frequented, less promising route from Jerusalem to Gaza, apparently without passing himself through the Holy City, and so to intercept the traveller whose history was to become so memorable.
(27) A man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority.—Literally, a eunuch, a potentate. The Ethiopia from which the traveller came was the region so named by the geographers of St. Luke’s time in the upper valley of the Nile. Its connection with the Jewish people presents many points of interest. There seems reason to believe that in the time of Manasseh, who (according to the statement in the narrative of Aristeas as to the LXX. translation) formed an alliance with Psammetichus king of Egypt, a considerable body of Jews were sent off to protect the outposts of his kingdom, and it is in reference, probably, to these that Zephaniah speaks of the suppliants of “the daughter of my dispersed beyond the rivers of Ethiopia” (Zephaniah 3:10). Jewish influences had accordingly been at work there for some centuries. They may probably be traced in the piety of the Ethiopian eunuch, Ebed-melech, in the time of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 38:7-13; Jeremiah 39:16-18). Even at an earlier period the hopes of Israel had looked forward to, perhaps had actually seen, the admission of Ethiopians among the citizens of Zion (Psalms 87:4), Ethiopia stretching forth her hands unto God (Psalms 68:31). The fact that the traveller had come as a pilgrim or a proselyte, shows (if, as the narrative implies, the latter) that he was a circumcised “proselyte of righteousness.” His baptism was not, like that of Cornelius, the admission of a Gentile as such. The word “eunuch” has been taken by some commentators as meaning only “chamberlain,” which is, indeed, the strict etymological sense of the word. Its use in Matthew 19:12, and indeed in later Greek writers generally, is, however, in favour of the literal sense of the word. The strict letter of Deuteronomy 23:1, forbidding the admission of such persons into the congregation of the Lord, had been already modified (probably on the assumption that the state was not one which they had brought about by their own act) in favour of the sons of the stranger, the eunuchs “who keep my Sabbaths,” by Isaiah (Isaiah 56:4); and we may well think of St. Luke, as glad to record a proof that the discipline of the Church of Christ was as liberal on this point as the teaching of the Evangelical prophet. It is interesting to note that the first act of the first (Ecumenical Council was to formulate a like rule in dealing with such cases of the kind as then presented themselves (Conc. Nic. Song of Solomon 1), admitting those who were not self-mutilated even into the ranks of the clergy.
Under Candace queen of the Ethiopians.—The quantity of the second syllable is uncertain, but the analogy of Canăce is in favour of its being short. The knowledge of the student of Strabo (Strabo, xvii. p. 820) may, perhaps, be traced in the description. He mentions a Queen of Meroè, in Ethiopia, bearing the name of Candace. The occurrence of the same name in Plin. iv. 35, Dion.-Cass. liv. 5, indicates that it was, like Pharaoh, a dynastic name or title. Eusebius (Hist. ii. 1) states that in his time (circ. A.D. 430) the region was still under the rule of a queen, according to the custom of the country.
Who had the charge of all her treasure.—The Greek word for treasure is Gaza, a word of Persian origin, which about this time had come into use both among Greek and Latin writers (Cicero, de Off. ii. 22). The LXX. translators employ it in Ezra 5:17; Ezra 6:1; Ezra 7:21; Isaiah 39:2. Aristotle (Hist. Plant. viii. 11) is the first Greek writer in whom we find it naturalised. It is not found elsewhere in the New Testament, but a compound form appears as denoting the treasury of the Temple in Luke 21:1. The coincidence between this Gaza and the name of the town is at least suggestive of the thought that St. Luke saw in it a nomen et omen. The man came from one Gaza, and was going to another; and he, like the man in the parable of Matthew 13:44, found a treasure which he had not looked for, but which came to him as the reward of his diligently seeking.
Had come to Jerusalem for to worship.—The act itself, even prior to the eunuch’s conversion by Philip, was a fulfilment of the hope of the prophet Zephaniah cited above. Whether of Jewish origin or incorporated as a “proselyte of righteousness,” he belonged to “the daughter of the dispersed,” and so long a journey by a man in so high a position was in itself a notable event. He came seeking, we must believe, for light and wisdom, and they were given him beyond his expectations.
(28) Sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet.—After the manner of most Eastern nations, to whom silent reading is almost unknown, the eunuch was reading aloud. Philip heard him, and so gained an opening for conversation. Was the roll of Isaiah a new-found treasure? Had he bought the MS. in Jerusalem, and was he reading the wonderful utterances for the first time? The whole narrative implies that he was reading the LXX. version.
(29) Join thyself to this chariot.—The act implied is that of laying hold and, as it were, attaching himself to the chariot in which the eunuch rode.
(30) Understandest thou what thou readest?—The Greek play upon the word for understand (Ginôskein) and read (Anaginôskein) cannot well be produced in English, but is worth noting as parallel to a like play in the well-known saying of the Emperor Julian (Anegnôn; egnôn; kategnôn)—“I read; I understood; I condemned.”
(31) How can I, except some man should guide me?—The words of the inquirer imply, as has been said above, that the prophecy was new to him. It is as though, in turning over, or perhaps unrolling, the MS., this was the passage which, in its strange, touching portraiture of the Man of Sorrows, had riveted his attention, and on which he was consequently dwelling with the prayer that some authorised interpreter would unfold its meaning. The word for “guide” connects itself with the title of “a guide of the blind,” which the Rabbis were fond of claiming (Matthew 15:14; Romans 2:19).
(32) The place of the scripture which he read.—The word for “place” is apparently used as an equivalent for the Hebrew Parashah, or Haphtarah, which were technically used for the sections of the Law and Prophets respectively appointed for use as lessons in the synagogue services. It was in common use among the Greek writers, and was adopted by Cicero (Ep. ad Att. xiii. 25).
He was led as a sheep to the slaughter.—We may venture, taking as our guide the statement in Acts 8:35 that Philip “preached unto him Jesus,” to represent to ourselves the method of interpretation which would be given of each clause. In 1 Peter 2:23 we find the outlines of such a method. The story of the Passion would be told; the silent patience of the Sufferer; His previous life and work; the proofs which both had given that He was none other than that which He claimed to be—the Christ, the Son of God.
(33) In his humiliation his judgment was taken away.—The Hebrew runs, as in the English version of Isaiah 53:8, which fairly represents its natural construction, “He was taken from prison (or oppression) and from judgment,” i.e., was delivered from His sufferings just when they seemed to culminate. A different meaning has, however, been given to the Hebrew preposition by many scholars, who render the words, “Through oppression and [unjust] judgment He was taken away”—i.e., He was the victim of a judicial murder. The LXX., which is here followed, seems to have adopted a different construction, “By His humiliation, by His low estate, His judgment (i.e., the righteous judgment which was His due) was taken away.” Here also, however, the word “judgment” has been taken in a different sense, and the words have been interpreted as meaning, “His condemnation was taken away, or cancelled”—i.e., because He humbled Himself He was afterwards exalted. Assuming Philip to have explained the words as they stand in the LXX., the first of these two latter interpretations has most to commend itself. The story of the Passion, the unrighteous sentence passed on the Lord Jesus because He stood before the Council and the Governor as poor and friendless, would be dwelt on as filling in the outlines of the prophetic picture.
Who shall declare his generation?—The Hebrew noun may mean, as in Psalms 14:5, the men of a given period, or those sharing a common character. The words have, however, been very variously taken: (1) “Who shall declare the number of those who share His life, and are, as it were, sprung from Him”—i.e., Who can count His faithful disciples? (2) “Who shall declare the wickedness of the crooked and perverse generation in which He lived?” (3) “Who, as far as His generation went, were wise enough to consider?” Assuming, as before, that it was the LXX. that Philip explained, the second of these seems preferable, as corresponding with the frequent use of the word “generation” with condemnatory epithets attached to it both by our Lord Himself (Matthew 12:39-42; Matthew 16:4; Matthew 17:17) and His Apostles (Acts 2:40; Philippians 2:15). The sense which some commentators have affixed to it, “Who shall declare His duration?” “Who shall set limits to the life of Him who is One with the Eternal?” or, as others, “Who shall declare the mystery of His mode of birth?”—i.e., of the Incarnation—are, it is believed, untenable as regards the Hebrew, and yet more so as regards the Greek.
For his life is taken from the earth.—The Hebrew admits of no other meaning than that the Sufferer was hurried to a violent death. The fact that in being thus taken from the earth the Sufferer was exalted to heaven, though true in itself, cannot be found in the words.
We are not concerned here with a detailed explanation, either of the words that precede, or those that follow, the passage quoted in Isaiah 53, but it is difficult to think of Philip as not taking in context as well as text, and unfolding in full, not only the fact of the Passion, but its atoning and redeeming power, as set forth in the prophet’s marvellous prediction.
(34) Of himself, or of some other man?—Later interpreters, some of them ascribing the whole of the second half of Isaiah’s prophecies (Acts 40-66) to a great unknown writer living towards the close of the Babylonian Exile, have given very different answers to the question which the eunuch asked. They have seen in the righteous sufferer of Isaiah 53 either the delineation of the character of Jeremiah as the greatest sufferer of all the prophets, or of the righteous few who were sharers in his sufferings. This is not the place to discuss either the authenticity of this part of the writings that bear Isaiah’s name, or the primary historical application of this passage. It is enough to remember that here, as with well nigh every other Messianic prophecy cited in the New Testament, there may well have been “springing and germinant accomplishments,” end that a primary reference to persons or facts in nearly contemporary history does not exclude a more complete fulfilment in Him who gathered up in Himself all that belonged to the ideal sufferer, as well as to the ideal King, of whom the prophets had spoken, with special reference, we may believe, to the atoning power of His sufferings (Isaiah 53:4-6), and to His silent patience under them (Isaiah 53:7. Comp. 1 Peter 2:22-25.)
(35) Philip opened his mouth.—The phrase, wherever it occurs in the New Testament, implies something like a set discourse. (Comp. Acts 10:34; Acts 18, 14; Matthew 5:2; Matthew 13:35; 2 Corinthians 6:11). It always means something more than the mere act of speaking.
And preached unto him Jesus.—The sequel shows that the teaching must have included, not only an interpretation of the prophecy as fulfilled in Christ, but instruction as to the outward condition of admission to the society of the disciples. The eunuch hears enough to make him eager for the baptism which was to bring with it so great a blessing.
(36) They came unto a certain water.—Men have naturally endeavoured to identify the locality. In the time of Jerome, probably in that of Eusebius (de loc.), it was fixed at Bethsura, the Bethzur of 2 Chronicles 11:7), about twenty miles from Jerusalem, and two from Hebron. A fountain, now known as Ain-Edh-Dhirweh rises near the town, which retains the old name in the slightly altered form of Beit-Sur. On the other hand, Robinson is inclined to find the spring in the Wady-el-Hasey, between Eleutheropolis and Gaza, not far from the old sites of Lachish and Eglon. This agrees better with the mention of Gaza and with the epithet “desert” as attached to the “way.”
(37) And Philip said. . . .—The verse is a striking illustration of the tendency which showed itself at a very early period to improve the text of Scripture with a view to greater edification. It existed in the time of Irenæus, who quotes it (), but is wanting in all the best MSS., including the Sinaitic, and many versions. The motive for the interpolation lies on the surface. The abruptness of the unanswered question, and the absence of the confession of faith which was required in the Church’s practice on the baptism of every convert, seemed likely to be stumbling-blocks, and the narrative was completed according to the received type of the prevailing order for baptism. Even with the insertion, the shortness of the confession points to a very early stage of liturgical development, as also does the reference to it in Irenæus.
(38) They went down both into the water.—The Greek preposition might mean simply “unto the water,” but the universality of immersion in the practice of the early Church supports the English version. The eunuch would lay aside his garments, descend chest-deep into the water, and be plunged under it “in the name of the Lord Jesus;” the only formula recognised in the Acts. (See Note on Acts 2:38.) So it was, in the half-playful language in which many of the Fathers delighted, that “the Ethiopian changed his skin” (Jeremiah 13:23).
(39) The Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip.—Human feeling would have naturally led the teacher to continue his work, and to accompany the convert with a view to further instruction; but an impulse so strong and irresistible that it was felt to be from the Spirit of the Lord led Philip to an abrupt and immediate departure. He was literally snatched away from his companion. So understood, the history presents a striking parallel to the Spirit hindering St. Paul from going in this or that direction in Acts 16:6-7. Many commentators have, however, taken the words in a yet more literal and material sense, as stating that Philip was caught up into the air and carried out of sight, and compare the cases of Elijah (1 Kings 18:12; 2 Kings 2:11), Ezekiel (Ezekiel 3:12; Ezekiel 3:14), and St. Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2; 2 Corinthians 12:4). In the last two cases, however, the language of the writer implies a spiritual rather than a bodily transport, and the case of Elijah, in 1 Kings 18:12, admits of an explanation like that which has now been offered in the case of Philip. The use of the same verb in 2 Corinthians 12:2; 2 Corinthians 12:4, suggests the thought that here also there was a suspension of the normal activity of consciousness. As St. Bernard walked by the Lake of Geneva, and knew not that he was near it, so Philip rushed away, as drawn on he knew not whither, as in a state of ecstasy; and so, in informing St. Luke of what passed (it is obvious that the report must, in the first instance, have come from him), could give no other account of his journeying than that he was “found” at Azotus.
Went on his way rejoicing.—A remarkable various-reading runs: “The Holy Spirit fell on the eunuch, and an angel of the Lord caught away Philip;” but it does not appear to be more than a conjectural emendation. Joy at the new-found truth prevailed, we must believe, over any sorrow at the disappearance of the preacher. Eusebius (Hist. ii. 1) speaks of him as returning to his native country, and there preaching “the knowledge of the God of the universe and the life-giving abode of the Saviour with men,” and so fulfilling the words that “Ethiopia should stretch forth her hands unto God” (Psalms 68:31); but it does not appear that he was acquainted with any historical facts. It is, perhaps, not without significance in connection with this history, that the Ethiopian Church has been throughout its history the most strongly Jewish in its worship and tone of thought ‘of all Christian communities (Stanley, Eastern Church, p. 12).
(40) Philip was found at Azotus.—The city so named, the Ashdod of the Old Testament, was, like Gaza, one of the cities of the Philistines, about three miles from the sea, and half-way between Gaza and Joppa. Like Gaza its history was chiefly marked by successive sieges: by Tartan, the Assyrian General B.C. 716 (Isaiah 20:1); by Psammetichus, B.C. 630, (Herod. ii. 157); the Maccabees (1 Maccabees 5:68; 1 Maccabees 10:34). It was restored by the Roman general Gabinius in B.C. 55. In remoter times it had been one of the headquarters of the worship of Dagon (1 Samuel 5:5), The old name lingers in the modern Esdud, but the city has sunk into a decayed village. The narrative suggests the thought that here also Philip continued his work as an evangelist. Philistia was, as of old, to be joined with Ethiopia in furnishing the city of God with converts who should be written among the people (Psalms 87:4).
He preached in all the cities.—The route which Philip would naturally take on this journey led through Lydda and Joppa, and we may probably trace the effect of his labours in the appearance in Acts 9:32; Acts 9:36, of organised and apparently flourishing Christian societies in both these towns.
Till he came to Cæsarea.—The historical importance of the city, lying on the line of the great road from Tyre to Egypt, dates, as its name shows, from the Roman period. As described by Strabo, it was known only as Strato’s Tower, with a landing place for ships. It rose to magnificence, however, under Herod the Great, who built theatres, amphitheatres, and temples, and constructed a harbour as large as the Piræus at Athens. In honour of his imperial patron he named it Cæsarea Sebaste (the latter word meaning Augusta) (Jos. Ant. xvi. 5, § 1). It became, after the deposition of Archelaus, the official residence of the Roman Procurator, and is, as the sequel shows, prominent in the early history of the Church. Tacitus (Hist. ii. 79) speaks of it as the chief city—the caput of Judæa. It appears from Acts 21:8 that Philip took up his abode there and made it the head-quarters of his work as an evangelist. In ecclesiastical history it became famous as the scene for a time of the labours of the great Origen, and as the home of the historian-bishop Eusebius.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Acts 8". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany