The discovery of an ancient church in sub-Saharan Africa dated to around the 4th century reveals the spiritual impact of the Bible’s second Philip.
The large building, 40 feet (ca. 12 m) by 60 feet (ca. 18 m), along with several religious artifact, discovered in Beta Samati, Ethiopia revealed the extent of Christianity in the ancient Aksum Empire that dominated much of Eastern Africa, rivaling in size and influence to the Roman Empire.
The Aksum empire existed from around 80 BC to 825 AD and as evidenced by the large church, Christianity was well established in the region by the fourth century as it became Ethiopia’s official religion in 333 AD, shortly after Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313 AD.
Among the religious artifacts discovered at the site was a stone cross with the words ‘venerable’ written on it leading some archaeologists to speculate it may have been worn by a priest.
But the exponential growth of Christianity in the Aksum Empire heralds back to a passage in the Book of Acts that recount the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch by Philip the Evangelist.
There are two Philips in the Bible. The Philip mentioned in the Gospels is one of the 12 Apostles (John 12:2-22) and was last mentioned in Acts 1:13 as part of the group in the Upper room when the Holy Spirit fell on the Day of Pentecost.
But there is a second Philip who is referred to as either a deacon or evangelist, a term used to differentiate him from the Apostle Philip.
This second Philip had a profound impact on the growth of Christianity in the early church. He listed as one of the first deacons of the early church (Acts 6:4-5), who handled the distribution of welfare and probably other financial affairs so the Apostles would spend more time in word and prayer.
When the early church underwent persecution, Philip left Jerusalem for Samaria (Acts 8:5-12) and helped start a church. And from there he moved to Caesarea (Acts 8:40) where it seemed he married and settled down.
The last reference we have to the second Philip is found 20 years later in Acts 21:8-9 when the Apostle Paul and Luke visited Philip’s home in Caesarea on their journey to Jerusalem.
While they were staying in Philip’s house, the prophet Agabus showed up to warn Paul of what would happen if the Apostle went to Jerusalem (Acts 21:9-11).
The evidence that Philip married in Caesarea is seen in the mention of his four unmarried daughters, who Luke said prophesied (Acts 21:8-9).
But certainly, Philip’s most significant contribution to early Christianity was the miraculous conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch.
While Philip was in Samaria, an angel of God told Philip to go down a specific road where he encountered a eunuch who was sitting in a carriage reading from the book of Isaiah.
Philip was able to explain to the Eunuch that the passage referred to Jesus the Messiah and lead the Eunuch to the Lord and even water baptized him.
However, the most significant thing about the Ethiopian eunuch is that he held an important position in the Aksum empire.
He is described as working as the treasurer for Candace that was not the actual name of the Queen, but rather a term used to describe the position of Queen.
Because of the Eunuch’s important position, as a new believer he would have had regular contact with the royal court and it seems his spiritual influence was significant. Though we have no evidence that he led his Candace to the Lord, the resulting growth and acceptance of Christianity suggests that members of the Royal household became Christians.
Perhaps, it is no coincidence that Constantine’s conversion to Christ was in part impacted by his mother Helena who had become a Christian and undoubtedly had a profound impact on her son.
It seems that women may have played a major role in the rise of Christianity in Rome and Africa.
One of the early church father, Irenaeus, who lived between 130 AD and 202 AD stated that this Eunuch had been successful in impacting Ethiopia with the gospel.
We still see the profound impact of Philip and the Eunuch where today 62% of the country’s 109 million population are Christian, with most belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.