(Acts 8:30-31) Does this support the idea that we need an interpretive society to understand the Bible, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim?

CLAIM: When Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah 53, Philip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the man responds by saying, “Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?” Jehovah’s Witness argue that this supports our need for an interpretive authority like the Watchtower Society: ““in order to understand God’s Word and discern his will we…need the help of his dedicated, organized people. [i.e. the Watchtower Society] The Ethiopian Bible reader acknowledged that fact.”[1] Is this the case?

RESPONSE: Not at all. Several responses are in order:

First, this is an example—not a precept or principle. We cannot build doctrines on examples. We need precepts to support core doctrines (see “Hermeneutics”).

Second, without hearing about the historical Jesus, the eunuch wouldn’t have known who was being predicted. Before the historical Jesus, Jewish authors were confused as to the identity of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. NT scholar George Ladd writes, “Judaism before Christ never interpreted [Isaiah 53] as referring to the sufferings of the Messiah.”[2] NT scholar D.A. Carson concurs, “There does not seem to be an unambiguous pre-Christian source within Judaism that identifies the Suffering Servant of Isa. 53 with the anticipated Messiah.”[3] Even critic Bart Ehrman agrees, “We do not have a single Jewish text prior to the time of Jesus that interprets the passage [Isa. 53] messianically.”[4] Surely an Ethiopian eunuch wouldn’t be able to understand this passage if trained rabbis were unable. He need to hear about the person of Jesus for all of this to make sense.

Third, Philip is one man—not an organizational society of interpreters. Thus this undermines the Jehovah’s Witness position, because under this view, one man (Philip) cannot interpret the Bible.

Fourth, Philip explained from the Scriptures—not from some alien hermeneutical grid. Luke records, “Beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him” (Acts 8:35). Philip appealed to the Scripture itself—not to another source. This too undermines the position explained above.

Fifth, the Ethiopian eunuch never joined a formal organization. In fact, God supernaturally ripped Philip from the eunuch after his baptism. In the Watchtower society, we need to join their organization to be saved, while this text undermines this fact. After all, the Ethiopian man went away “rejoicing” (Acts 8:39).

[1] Your Will Be Done on Earth (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1958), p. 362. Cited in Ron Rhodes, Reasoning from the Scriptures with Jehovah’s Witnesses (Eugene, OR: Harvest Publishers, 2009), 34.

[2] George Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), p.66.

[3] G.K. Beale & D.A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos. 2007), p.1034.

[4] Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: HarperOne, 2012), p.166.