Acts 8:4-8 During the persecution in 35AD, Philip (one of the seven Greek-speaking ‘deacons’ chosen by the church in Jerusalem – see Acts 6:5) travels north with those who have fled to Sebaste, the principal city of Samaria (see 1 on Map 18).
Map 18 Philip's Journeys
During the persecution following the death of Stephen, the Greek-speaking believers sought refuge in Sebaste because it was a Gentile city where traditional Hebraic Jews (who hated Samaritans) refused to go.
The city of Sebaste (originally the ancient capital of Israel, then known as Samaria) had been rebuilt and renamed by Herod the Great in 25BC (see Map 18). The new name Sebaste – given in honour of the Roman Emperor – came from the Greek version (‘Sebastos’) of the Latin name ‘Augustus’ (meaning ‘majestic’ or ‘more than human’) – the title of the Roman emperor Octavian, who ordered the census to be taken in Judaea (see Luke 2:1).
King Herod had colonised the city with six thousand veterans from his army of foreign soldiers who were from different parts of the Roman Empire. Herod authorised the building of many pagan temples including one dedicated to Augustus Caesar and Roma Aeterna, where offerings were made to the emperor and his seat of government, Rome (the ‘eternal city’).
Signs and wonders in Sebaste
Acts 8:9-13 Many Samaritans are healed in Sebaste (Samaria) and Simon the ‘magician’ believes and is baptised.
Acts 8:14-25 Peter and John arrive in Samaria from Jerusalem (see 1 on Map 18) and pray that the new Samaritan believers will be filled with the Holy Spirit. Simon (an arrogant man who boasts about his ‘magical’ powers) tries to buy the ability to anoint people with the Holy Spirit. He is strongly rebuked by Peter.
Amazed that even Samaritans (whom the Jews hated) are being blessed by God and filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter and John return to Jerusalem, spreading the Good News of Jesus in many Samaritan villages en route.
Acts 8:26 Philip then travels south on the desert road leading from Jerusalem down to the coastal town of Gaza (see 2 on Map 18).
Gaza was an important Philistine city in Old Testament times. It occupied an important position on the coastal trade route between Egypt and Mesopotamia (see Map 18). The city was beseiged by Alexander the Great for two months in 332BC, then ruled by the Greek Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasties until it became part of the Hasmonean kingdom of Israel following its conquest by Jonathan Maccabeus in 145BC. It became a Roman ‘client’ kingdom under Pompey in 63BC, and was ruled by Herod the Great from c.30BC until his death in 4BC. It came under direct Roman rule in 6AD.
There continued to be a prosperous Jewish community in Gaza until the Romans expelled the Jews in 66AD following the outbreak of the Romano-Jewish War. Later, in the Talmudic era, from the 2nd to the 5th centuries AD, there is renewed evidence of a large Jewish community.
Remains from the New Testament period are rare in Gaza, but remnants of a large Jewish synagogue, built around 500AD, have been uncovered near the city’s ancient harbour.
Two 6th century Christian churches have also been discovered. A Byzantine mosaic from one of these churches, showing King David playing the lyre, is now on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Three floral mosaics laid in 544 AD, and a medallion commemorating John the Baptist, were removed from the second Byzantine church by the Israel Antiquities Authority in 1999. Other Roman and Byzantine artefacts can be seen in the Al-Mathaf Museum of Archaeology on the coast just north of Gaza.
Philip shares the good news with an Ethiopian
Acts 8:27-38 On the way to Gaza, Philip meets a Jewish official from the court of the Queen of Ethiopia (whose kingdom stretched north along the River Nile into what is now northern Sudan). The official is on his way back from worshipping in Jerusalem, though, as a eunuch, he is regarded as ritually ‘unclean’ and has not been allowed into the Temple itself (see Deuteronomy 23:1).
Philip explains how the prophet Isaiah spoke about Jesus who was “like a sheep being led to be killed” (Acts 8:32) (see Isaiah 53:7-8). The Ethiopian official believes in Jesus and is baptised.
Acts 8:39 The Holy Spirit takes Philip further north to Azotus (Ashdod) (see 3 on Map 18).
Roman harbour at Caesarea (Acts 8:40)
Philip in Caesarea
Acts 8:40 Philip spreads the Good News of Jesus in all the coastal towns he passes through before reaching Caesarea on the coast of Samaria (see 4 on Map 18).
Caesarea was an important Roman port, and the headquarters of the Roman administration in Judaea and Samaria. Herod the Great had built the harbour (and a palace for himself) and had named the city after the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar.
Philip (a Greek-speaking Jew) settles in Caesarea (where there are very few Hebraic Jews to persecute his family) and is visited here over twenty years later by Paul in 57AD (see Acts 21:8). (See the feature on Caesarea in Chapter 12). At the outbreak of the Romano-Jewish War in 66AD, Philip and his four daughters escape to Hierapolis where a church celebrating his martyrdom can still be seen today (see Map 29).