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Disability, Stigma, and the Baptized Eunuch in Acts 8:26–40


in Biblical Interpretation
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This article applies a “crip reading” to the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26–40. First, insights from disability studies theory and crip theory are used as a hermeneutical lens to scrutinize the socially constructed meanings of the eunuch’s bodily “stigma.” The eunuch, it is argued, is a disabled – a crip – character because his body is marked and he does not display the culturally valued ability to procreate. Second, this article shows how the meaning of bodily signs of castration and circumcision change from the Hebrew Bible to Acts and suggests that the story of the Ethiopian eunuch holds a special place in Luke’s renegotiation of bodily signs. Finally, this article explores the destabilizing potential of the story and argues that a crip Christ who defies both norms of masculinity and norms of ability emerges from the eunuch’s reading of Isaiah 53.


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  • 1

     Erving GoffmanStigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (Harmondsworth: Penguin1968) p. 131.

  • 6

     Dan GoodleyDisability Studies: An Interdisciplinary Introduction (Los Angeles: Sage2011) pp. 3–4.

  • 9

     GoffmanStigma pp. 13–17.

  • 10

     Rosemarie Garland ThomsonExtraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press1997) p. 8.

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  • 11

     Lennard J. DavisBending over Backwards: Disability Dismodernism and other Difficult Positions (New York: New York University Press2002) pp. 38–39. See also David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s video documentary Vital Signs: Crip Culture Talks Back; accessible at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5rWHA0KcFc.

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  • 12

     See Robert McRuerCrip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York: New York University Press2006).

  • 13

     McRuerCrip Theory pp. 7–10.

  • 14

     Sean D. BurkeQueering the Ethiopian Eunuch: Strategies of Ambiguity in Acts (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress press2013) pp. 22–26.

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  • 18

     J. David Hester“Queers on Account of the Kingdom of Heaven: Rhetorical Constructions of the Eunuch Body,” Scriptura 90 (2005) pp. 809–823 (812).

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  • 19

     BurkeQueering the Ethiopian Eunuch pp. 101–102.

  • 20

     Halvor MoxnesPutting Jesus in His Place. A Radical Vision of Household and Kingdom (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press2003) pp. 78–80.

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  • 21

     SuetoniusDomitianus 7.

  • 23

     Mathew KueflerThe Manly Eunuch: Masculinity Gender Ambiguity and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press2001) pp. 62–63.

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  • 25

     Hester“Queers on Account of the Kingdom of Heaven” pp. 5–6.

  • 26

     KueflerThe Manly Eunuch p. 33.

  • 27

     BurkeQueering the Ethiopian Eunuch p. 97. The terms Ulpian uses for externally-inflicted eunuchs (thlibiae thlasiae) refers to these two practices of compressing (θλῖβω) or crushing (θλάω) the testicles (Kuefler The Manly Eunuch p. 33).

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  • 28

     KueflerThe Manly Eunuch p. 34.

  • 29

     Abusch“Circumcision and Castration under Roman Law in the Early Empire” p. 77.

  • 30

     BurkeQueering the Ethiopian Eunuch p. 97.

  • 32

     MoxnesPutting Jesus in His Place p. 79.

  • 33

     See for example LucianDe Syria dea 51; Catullus Carmina 63; Ovid Fasti 4.183–86 351–366.

  • 34

     BurkeQueering the Ethiopian Eunuch p. 106.

  • 35

     See for example PolybiusHistoriae 22.22; Plutarch Artaxerxes 16.1; Callirhoe 5.9; Esth. 1:10–15; 2:14.

  • 43

     Hester“Queers on Account of the Kingdom of Heaven” p. 815.

  • 47

     ParsonsBody and Character in Luke and Acts pp. 134–36. Shauf on the contrary claims that the story is not about social isolation caused by physical status (Shauf “Locating the Eunuch” p. 772).

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  • 48

     GoffmanStigma p. 12.

  • 50

     ThomsonExtraordinary Bodies p. 6.

  • 51

     SchipperDisability and Isaiah’s Suffering Servant p. 77.

  • 53

     See discussions in OlyanDisability in the Hebrew Bible pp. 32–33; Saul M. Olyan “‘Anyone Blind or Lame Shall Not Enter the House’: On the Interpretation of Samuel 5:8b” CBQ 60 (1998) pp. 218–27. Olyan concludes that “a ban on worshipers with at least some physical defects was in force in Jerusalem at some point in time” (Olyan “‘Anyone Blind or Lame Shall Not Enter the House’” p. 227).

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  • 56

     OlyanDisability in the Hebrew Bible p. 36.

  • 57

     OlyanDisability in the Hebrew Bible p. 37.

  • 58

     Stewart“Sexual Disabilities in the Hebrew Bible” p. 72.

  • 59

     OlyanDisability in the Hebrew Bible p. 11.

  • 60

     Richard I. PervoActs: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress2009) p. 222; Mona West “The Story of the Ethiopian Eunuch” in Deryn Guest et al. (eds.) The Queer Bible Commentary (London: SCM Press 2006) pp. 573–74.

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  • 64

     OlyanDisability in the Hebrew Bible p. 26. Note however that in Roman legal discourse circumcision and castration were constructed as very similar almost identical procedures. See Abusch “Circumcision and Castration under Roman Law in the Early Empire” p. 76.

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  • 66

     PervoActs: A Commentary p. 219.

  • 69

     Mitchell and SnyderNarrative Prosthesis p. 47.

  • 70

     Mitchell and SnyderNarrative Prosthesis p. 10.

  • 71

     Mitchell and SnyderNarrative Prosthesis p. 53.

  • 73

     Mitchell and SnyderNarrative Prosthesis p. 10.

  • 78

     Hester“Queers on Account of the Kingdom of Heaven” p. 14.

  • 79

     MoxnesPutting Jesus in His Place pp. 89–90.

  • 80

     See GlancySlavery in Early Christianity pp. 148–51 for an interesting discussion of the likeness between Christ and slaves in this passage.

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  • 81

     McRuerCrip Theory p. 2.

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