And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worshipand was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.”
So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: “As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth.In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth.”
And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus.
And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?” (Acts 8:27-36)
I can think of no passage in the Scriptures that better illustrates the inherent problem surrounding their reading: you must already know the answer to the question to find the answer to the question.
If that sounds like a tautology, it is. For the “answer” is not found in the Scriptures, per se, but in Christ as the Church knows Him and has received Him (Jn. 5:39). This is precisely what St. Philip is doing with the Ethiopian Eunuch.
The passage from Isaiah, on its face, is rather opaque. The Eunuch reads it and wonders whether the prophet is speaking about himself or someone else. There is no clue in the text that would yield an answer. However, this text belongs to the poetic passages known as the “Suffering Servant Songs.” They were seen by the Church as pointing to Christ, the fulfillment of the suffering servant. But the Church did not arrive at this conclusion by its own careful study. It was given to them.
In St. Luke’s gospel, we hear the account of the two disciples with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. They are puzzled about what has happened in Jerusalem and are not sure what to think:
And [Jesus] said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Lk. 24:25-27)
“Moses and all the prophets…” Christ begins to set out for them the trail of interpretation from the five books of Moses through the rest of the prophets, no doubt including Isaiah. These men were not ignorant of the writings (or Christ’s words would have found nothing in them). But they did not know how to read them in a Christian manner.
We see something similar in St. John’s gospel. After the footrace between Peter and John to the tomb of Christ (having heard that the body was missing) we read:
Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes. (Jn. 20:8-10)
We’re told that they did not “know” the Scripture “that he must rise from the dead.” The teaching that the Messiah would be put to death and then rise on the third day was not a teaching to be found in the Judaism of the time. No one reading the Scriptures saw this coming! The clearest hint of a three-day burial and resurrection is the foreshadowing in the book of Jonah. Of course, the leap from that account to the historical event of Christ’s resurrection is obscure. Christ Himself, in the gospels, gives reference to it, and doubtless does so again in his conversation with the two disciples on the road. But no one within the Jewish religious world, including the disciples of Jesus, “knew” this until it was explained and taught by Christ after the resurrection.
Of course, after that teaching, the story becomes obvious. The Church later takes it up in its hymns of Holy Saturday:
Jonah was caught but not held fast in the belly of the whale.
He was a sign of Thee who hast suffered and accepted burial.
Coming forth from the beast as from a bridal chamber… (irmos, ode 6).
As various versions of Christianity have become popularized in modern culture, many people think that they “understand” the Scriptures. The error comes when we think that we can understand the Scriptures without any mediation. “I just follow the Bible,” I’ve been told. But none of us does. We necessarily come to our reading with a host of ideas and assumptions. There is already a narrative in our minds before we begin to look for the story.
The Scriptures are only ever read through the eyes of a tradition, even if that tradition claims not to be a tradition but the “Bible only.” Indeed “Bible only” is a tradition with a narrative that is often less than 200 years old. We cannot pretend to understand God’s word when we refuse to understand ourselves, or to examine how understanding itself works.
It is as though the Scriptures were a piano. It has the same 88 keys for everyone. But the music you play is what you see on the sheet music. You do not “play the piano.” You use the piano to play your sheet music. We use the Scriptures to play our tradition. Too many players pretend they have no sheet music.
The place and role of tradition within Orthodoxy has been understood and taught from the beginning. Without apology, the Church refers to the Tradition which it has received, by which and through which we understand the Scriptures and everything else. We do what the two disciples did on the road. We do what Peter and John did. Christ has taught us how to read. Not only do the Orthodox speak honestly about this process, but, in doing so, we are able to speak carefully and wisely, and even critically about that by which we read. When such a mechanism (tradition) is denied, all that can result is a certain uncritical ignorance.
Fr. Thomas Hopko famously said, “You cannot know God. But you have to know Him to know that.” In a private conversation with him, I once said, “The more I write, the less I seem to know.” He smiled and said, “Good! Keep writing! Someday you’ll know nothing. Then you’ll be holy!” Somedays I think I’m holier than others…
So the question becomes, “Then how do we learn the answers so that we can find the answers?” The answer to that is found in the life of the Church. The Ethiopian Eunuch does not disappear from the Scriptures. Philip baptizes him, but he does not then take his Bible and go off to Ethiopia. Indeed, he shows up later in Antioch, during the time when St. Paul was there.
Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. (Acts 13:1)
Tradition has come down that this Simeon (called Niger – “the Black”) was none other than the Ethiopian in Acts. Only now he is a prophet or teacher. He has been nurtured in the fullness of the Tradition. Later, he will become an Apostle to his homeland. There he is known as “Simeon Bachos.”
We learn how to read the Scriptures just as Simeon did – someone teaches us. That teaching is far more than reading a collection of texts. It is also the formation of the heart. This formation, like that of the Apostles, happens in the context of the life of the Church.
All of this reveals Sola Scriptura to mean little more than a particular Protestant version of sheet music. The Scriptures cannot and do not stand outside the community of interpretation that has received them.
We do well to follow Simeon Bachos into the community of the Apostles. There we can learn to sing the Lord’s song.