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


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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.


  • 1

     Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), p. 131.

  • 6

     Dan Goodley, Disability Studies: An Interdisciplinary Introduction (Los Angeles: Sage, 2011), pp. 3–4.

  • 9

     Goffman, Stigma, pp. 13–17.

  • 10

     Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 8.

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  • 11

     Lennard J. Davis, Bending over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and other Difficult Positions (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 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 McRuer, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York: New York University Press, 2006).

  • 13

     McRuer, Crip Theory, pp. 7–10.

  • 14

     Sean D. Burke, Queering the Ethiopian Eunuch: Strategies of Ambiguity in Acts (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress press, 2013), 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

     Burke, Queering the Ethiopian Eunuch, pp. 101–102.

  • 20

     Halvor Moxnes, Putting Jesus in His Place. A Radical Vision of Household and Kingdom (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), pp. 78–80.

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  • 21

     Suetonius, Domitianus 7.

  • 23

     Mathew Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), pp. 62–63.

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  • 25

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

  • 26

     Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch, p. 33.

  • 27

     Burke, Queering 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

     Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch, p. 34.

  • 29

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

  • 30

     Burke, Queering the Ethiopian Eunuch, p. 97.

  • 32

     Moxnes, Putting Jesus in His Place, p. 79.

  • 33

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

  • 34

     Burke, Queering the Ethiopian Eunuch, p. 106.

  • 35

     See, for example, Polybius, Historiae 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

     Parsons, Body 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

     Goffman, Stigma, p. 12.

  • 50

     Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies, p. 6.

  • 51

     Schipper, Disability and Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, p. 77.

  • 53

     See discussions in Olyan, Disability 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

     Olyan, Disability in the Hebrew Bible, p. 36.

  • 57

     Olyan, Disability in the Hebrew Bible, p. 37.

  • 58

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

  • 59

     Olyan, Disability in the Hebrew Bible, p. 11.

  • 60

     Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 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

     Olyan, Disability 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

     Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, p. 219.

  • 69

     Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis, p. 47.

  • 70

     Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis, p. 10.

  • 71

     Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis, p. 53.

  • 73

     Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis, p. 10.

  • 78

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

  • 79

     Moxnes, Putting Jesus in His Place, pp. 89–90.

  • 80

     See Glancy, Slavery 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

     McRuer, Crip Theory, p. 2.

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