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Barnabas and Saul set out from Antioch to Seulcia, a port about 16 miles from Antioch. From there they sail to Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean about 100 miles from Selucia.
Why Cyprus? As Keener says, is simply makes sense for Barnabas to begin a mission by going to Cyprus since that was where he was from (2:1998). On the other hand, Cyprus had a large Jewish community dating to the second century B.C. (1 Mac 15:23). Both Josephus (Antiq. 18.31) and Philo (Legat 282) describe a large and wealthy Jewish population. Herod the Great was given half the income of Cyprus copper mines by Augustus (Antiq. 16.127-129). The Talmud indicates that Cypriot Jews regularly donated wine used for the incense offering on the Day of Atonement (y.Yoma 4:5; Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 2:1078).
Acts 11:19-20 indicates there were early Jewish Christians from Cyprus who began to do ministry in Antioch. Barnabas himself was from Cyprus (4:36-37). All this implies a Jewish-Christian presence on Cyprus before Acts 11:19, and possibly as early as Pentecost. Barnabas and Saul were going to an area already prepared for the Gospel.
Cyprus is also central to travel to the Mediterranean world. The island was a prosperous and many good harbors (Strabo 14.2.10, 14.6.6, Keener 2:1999). Salamis was a major port city on Cyprus. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 15 B.C., and rebuilt by Augustus and renamed Sebaste Augusta. Paphos was about 93 miles (150 km) from Salamis and was the seat of the Roman government on the Island. The old city was home to the most famous temple of Aphrodite in the ancient world, still attracting pilgrims even in the first century (ECM, 2:1082).
Luke tells us Barnabas and Saul visit synagogues in Salamis and Paphos, but they likely visited other locations as they traveled the length of the island. This is Paul’s regular missionary method, going to the synagogue first. While this may reflect Romans 1:16 (“to the Jew first, and then to the Greek,” it is also a practical strategy. By going to a synagogue first, Rabbi Saul will meet people who are already well-educated in the Scripture and (perhaps) anticipating the coming of the Messiah.
Paul will also find a few Gentile God-fearers in most of the synagogues. It is possible Paul targeted these Gentiles who want to worship the God of Israel without fully keeping the Law. His Gospel would have been very attractive to these Gentiles.
There is no report of success (or lack thereof), but we know that Barnabas and John Mark return to Cyprus later, perhaps indicating some churches had been established. A bishop from Cyprus attended the council of Nicea; by A.D. 400, Jerome reports that there are 15 bishops on Cyprus (ECM, 2:1080).
Are there any other motivations for this trip to Cyprus? What is Luke doing on a literary/theological level by describing a pair of missionaries going out from Antioch?
The church at Antioch was led by “prophets and teachers” (13:1). As Keener points out, the two roles were closely related as leadership gifts in a local church (2:1983). Synagogues would have had teachers, although the extent to which they were leaders is unclear. Later in the first century, overseers and deacons were appointed to “carry out for you the ministry of the prophets and teachers” (Didache 15:1).
Besides Barnabas and Saul, Luke lists three individuals as leaders in Antioch. Luke calls these men “prophet-teachers” of the church rather than elders. Acts 6:5 mentions Nicolas as one of the seven deacons in Jerusalem, but he is not mentioned in Acts 13. Keener points out Barnabas was a Hellenistic Jewish Christian who was sent by the apostles to Antioch and became a leader in the church there, but he was not named a deacon in Acts 6 (2:1833).
Simeon, called Niger. The word Niger is a Latinism which suggests that this Simeon was from Northern Africa, although the name could simply refer to a person with a dark complexion (BDAG, “Simeon the Dark,” Keener 2:1984). While it is possible, it is unlikely this is Simon of Cyrene, the man who carried the cross of Jesus (Luke 23:26). The name is spelled slightly differently, and the syntax (“being called Niger) indicates that Luke is trying to distinguish him from other Simeons already mentioned in his work (Witherington, Acts, 392.). The Greek word Νίγερ appears on a wood tablet referring to an army veteran called “Petronius Niger” (A.D. 94). Keener points out Niger was a common Roman birth name it does not designate ethnicity (2:1986).
Lucius of Cyrene. Cyrene was the capital of the Roman province of Cyrenaica in northern Africa (modern Libya). The city was prosperous and it is no surprise that merchants would turn up in Antioch. Ward Gasque suggests that Acts 6:9 implies enough Jews from Cyrene came to Jerusalem that they had their own synagogue (“Cyrene,” ABD 1:1231). It seems reasonable to assume that this Lucius was among those scattered by the persecution against the Hellenist believers in Acts 6-7.
It is unlikely that this Lucius is the author of the book. The name Luke is spelled differently in Col 4:14 and there is no tradition that Luke was from North Africa. On the other hand, F. F. Bishop argued that Lucius was from Cyprus, taking the Greek here to refer to Kyrenia, a town on the island of Cyprus (See “Simon and Lucius: Where Did They Come From? A Plea for Cyprus,” ExpTim 51 (1939-40): 148-53).
Manaen, a close associate of Herod Antipas. The word used to describe the relationship (σύντροφος) literally means that they shared the same wet-nurse, but it may mean they were foster-brothers. Josephus, Antiq. 15.373-370 mentions a Manaen who was an Essene and friend of Herod the Great. It is highly unlikely this is the same man, although it is possible this is the son of the man mentioned by Josephus. Usually it is suggested that Manaen was Luke’s source of information on Herod Antipas in Luke (for example, Polhill, Acts, 290). Antipas ruled as Tetrarch 4 B.C. – A.D. 39, so at this point he has already been banished. The name Manaen is a Greek form of Menachem, “Comforter” (Fitzmyer, Acts, 497, citing LXX 2 Kings 15:14).
Along with Barnabas (from Cyprus) and Saul (from Tarsus), this is a remarkably international group of leaders, although it is likely these are all Jewish men. This is in contrast to Bock who thinks that these Greek names indicate that “God is gifting the church without ethnic distinction” (Acts, 439). Each name has a Greek and Hebrew form (with the exception of Lukas, perhaps) and we are certain that three of the group are Jewish. While only one could be considered from Judea (Manaen), Barnabas would have spent considerable time there as a Levite and we know Saul was educated in Jerusalem. Three of the group could be considered wealthy (Manaen as a friend of Antipas, Barnabas owned property in Acts 4, Saul have had some wealth as well).
Are these five men the leaders of a single “church” in Antioch? I suspect that these are the leaders of multiple congregations throughout Antioch. That there are five names may imply there were five separate Christian synagogues in the city. That each man has a Hellenistic, Diaspora background implies that they considered themselves as missionaries in Antioch, establishing congregations in the city and surrounding region.
It is the Holy Spirit who sets Barnabas and Saul aside for their mission. While it is entirely possible the churches of Antioch had been considering such a mission, Luke is emphatic that this mission is based on the prompting of the Holy Spirit. As such, we know that the mission will be successful, even though the gospel is going to go beyond the geographical and social boundaries established at Jerusalem and Antioch. And as we might guess, there will be some growing pains.
When they were set apart for a special mission by the Holy Spirit, Saul and Barnabas were functioning as leaders in the church at Antioch. Before examining the first missionary journey I want to reflect a moment on this important but overlooked church. It is likely Hellenistic Jews who fled Jerusalem the stoning of Stephen simply returned to their homes in Antioch and Damascus (Acts 11:19). Some Hellenistic Jews may have shifted their ministry away from Jerusalem to Antioch since the city had a large Jewish population. Antioch, Damascus, and Alexandria were the best location for Hellenistic Jews to spread the gospel in Greek-Speaking Jewish synagogues.
While there is no tradition of a similar movement in Alexandria, Egypt, it may be important that at least two of the Christians mentioned in Acts 13 are from North Africa. Perhaps this is a hint most of the Hellenists moved to Antioch rather than Egypt. Schnabel suggests the prosperity of Antioch was the motivating factor. Christian Hellenistic Jews found a place where they could support themselves while participating in ministry in the synagogues of Antioch. Nicolas of Antioch was selected as a deacon in Acts 6:5. He was a proselyte to Judaism who then accepted Jesus as the Messiah and began to live with the Apostles in Jerusalem.
Although a few scholars have suggested Nicolas was the reason for outreach in Antioch (Blaiklock, for example), Antioch is just the best place possible for evangelism. Syrian Antioch was perhaps the third largest city in the Roman world, with population estimates running as high as 600,000. Keener indicates the Jewish population was as high as 45,000 at the time of Augustus, perhaps 7%-10% of the total population of the city (Keener, 2:1836). There was a synagogue in Antioch in the Selucid period (Jos. War 7.44, cf. Meeks and Wilken, Jews and Christians in Antioch, 8-9).
The church at Antioch seems to have done ministry among the Gentiles, but it is unclear they moved beyond the synagogue and God-Fearing Gentiles. Acts 11:19 indicates that initially they only spoke to Jews, but a few did speak to Hellenists (11:20). As in Acts 6, the word Hellenist refers only to Jews who spoke Greek, in contrast to the Jews who spoke Aramaic. While I cannot prove this, I suspect there were synagogues which used Aramaic, and others which used Greek. If this guess is close to the mark, then the same cultural divide found in Acts 6 was present in Antioch as well.
The Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to Antioch to encourage the church to remain true to the word do the Lord (11:22-26). Schnabel points out that Barnabas was not simply an “inspector” from Jerusalem, but a “coordinator, missionary leader, and theological teacher (Early Christian Mission, 1:787).” Perhaps, but there may very well have been suspicion of the Antioch movement since non-Apostles are establishing local congregations. It is unlikely the congregations in Antioch made any attempt to reach Gentiles beyond the God-Fearing Gentiles. For Luke, Paul’s mission on Cyprus is the dramatic turning to the Gentiles.
Nevertheless, Barnabas recognizes this as an opportunity for Saul and draws him into the ministry at Antioch. Saul was doing ministry among the gentiles prior to this, although Luke does not describe this ministry. Why bring Saul to Antioch? It may be as simple as Barnabas knowing that Saul would fit the situation in Antioch well. While these are Hellenistic Jews, they are not necessarily “liberal” on the Law. As I observed earlier in this series, the Hellenists may have been more conservative on the boundary markers than some of Hebrew-speaking Jews in Jerusalem.
As a former persecutor turned evangelist, Saul would have been a powerful testimony to the more conservative Jews.
After he is miraculously released from prison, Peter goes to the home of Mary and her son John Mark. This seems to have been a larger home where people have gather to pray for him. While Peter had no problems getting out of the prison, he has some (humorous) trouble getting into the house where Christians are praying for him! (For this story as Greco-Roman Comedy, see J. Albert Harrill, “The Dramatic Function Of The Running Slave Rhoda (Acts 12.13-16) : A Piece Of Greco-Roman Comedy.” New Testament Studies 46.1 (2000): 150-157.)
Peter reports to this group what has happened (12:16-17). The scene inside the house is of chaos. Everyone is asking the same question: How did Peter get out of prison? Did he deny the Lord (again)? He explains to the group how the Lord rescued him. Peter tells the group to report to James what had happened. This request is unexpected at this point in Acts. The reader is not aware that James, the Lord’s brother is a believer. James will, however, become one of the major leaders of the Jerusalem church by Acts 15.
Jesus’ brothers did not believe he was the messiah during his ministry, but after the resurrection at least James and Jude come to understand what Jesus was. Paul reports a tradition 1 Cor 15:3-5 that Jesus appeared his brother James at some point. This may be a kind of commissioning to ministry since the other two named people on this list (Peter and Paul) are commissioned to a particular ministry. In church history, James has a reputation for being an extremely zealous Jewish believer and a leader among the Pharisees and priests who accepted Jesus (cf. Acts 21:18-25).
After asking for the group to inform James, Peter goes “to another place” (v. 17). This is rather non-specific way to conclude a series of stories about Peter, almost like “riding off into the sunset” at the end of an old movie. There are several possibilities for understanding the phase. First, it might mean Peter simply went to another location in Jerusalem. If he remained in Mary’s home, she could have been in danger for harboring a fugitive. Second, Peter may have left the region, out of Herod Agrippa’s jurisdiction, Keener suggests out of Palestine (2:1952). Third, a traditional view is Peter began travelling as a missionary like Paul will in the next chapter. This might take him as far as Corinth (1 Cor 9:5), Asia Minor (1 Peter 1:1) and possibly Rome. This tradition comes from Eusebius (H.E. 2.14.5). But since he is in Jerusalem in Acts 15, he does not seem to have gone far. Perhaps he only returned to the coastal plain and Caesarea, within easy travel of Jerusalem and later made Pauline-like missionary tours.
Fourth, some scholars see this as an indication of a shift in leadership in the Jerusalem community from Peter to James. Luke does have a tendency to briefly introduce characters who will be important later in the story, so there may be simply literary device like foreshadowing. It is fascinating to observe Peter’s absence from the book of Acts after this point, in contrast to James’ importance in chapters 15 and 21. James is not an apostle, but he does seem to be the leader of the Jerusalem community from this point forward.
It is also significant there is no effort to replace James the son of Zebedee after he is killed. On the one hand, it is at least 13 years after the resurrection, so the pool of individuals who could be witnesses from John the Baptist through the resurrection is diminishing. Even James the brother of Jesus does not qualify as a witness under those requirements!
All this seems to point toward a dramatic shift in the Luke’s story. He is concluding the first major movement of the book and preparing for Paul’s mission to the Gentiles in chapter 13.
Herod Agrippa begins to persecute the church in Jerusalem (verse 1). The Herod of Acts 12 is Agrippa I. Later in Acts we meet Agrippa, he is Herod Agrippa II (Agrippa II is Marcus Julius Agrippa, Acts 25-26). Born about 10 B.C., Agrippa I was the grandson of Herod the Great, the son of Aristobolus and Bernice. He was raised in Rome, and was a fried of Caligula and Claudius as well as Tiberius’ son Drusus. He was able to exploit the relationships in order to gain wealth and power. He sought the favor of Caligula to the point that the Emperor Tiberius imprisoned him for six-months on charges of treason. In A.D. 41 Agrippa used his relationship with Caligula to help prevent the installation of a statue of the emperor in the Temple in Jerusalem. When Caligula was assassinated, Claudius made Agrippa ruler over considerable territory in Judea.
We are not told why he persecuted the church in Jerusalem, although it may be that Agrippa was in some respects interested in his Jewish roots. This piety was demonstrated upon his return to Judea. He donated a golden chain, given to him by Caligula when he was freed from his imprisonment, to the Temple. In addition, he undertook the sponsorship of a large number of Nazarite vows in the temple (Antiq., 12.6.1, Schürer 2:155). During a Sabbath year, Agrippa read from the book of Deuteronomy and was moved to tears when he read the words of Deut 17:15, forbidding the appointment of a stranger over the “brothers” (i.e., a non-Israelite over Israel.) The crowd which witnesses this responded “Thou art our brother!” (See m.Sota 7.8)
“He loved to live continually at Jerusalem, and was exactly careful in the observance of the laws of his country. He therefore kept himself entirely pure; nor did any day pass over his head without its appointed sacrifice.” Antiq. 19.7.3
Schürer argues Agrippa was favorable to the Pharisees and even to some extent a Jewish nationalism (2:159). This may be plausible given his zealous persecution of the Jewish Christians in Acts 12.
That James would be the first of the disciples to be martyred was anticipated even during Jesus’ ministry. In Matthew 20:20-28 James and John ask to sit and the right and left hand of Jesus in the Kingdom. Jesus’ response is to hint at the sort of service which he is about to offer–he is about to drink the bitter cup of God’s wrath as he gives up his life as a ransom for many.
The brothers say that they are able to do so, just as Peter thought that he would be able to go to prison or die for Jesus only a few days later at the last supper. All three of the inner circle swear ultimate loyalty, and at least initially, all three fail. Jesus grants them at least part of their request – they will drink the same cup, although it will be different for each of the brothers. James is the first to be martyred, John lives a very long life, and according to an early tradition, was persecuted greatly during the reign of Domitian.
James’ death is about eleven years after the martyrdom of Stephen. It therefore appears that the people of Jerusalem are no longer supportive of the Jewish Christians. Witherington makes this point; the city of Jerusalem has “turned against” the Jewish church (Acts, 386). Agrippa is therefore demonstrating his piousness by pursuing the leaders of the Christian community.
Bibliography: David C. Braund, “Agrippa” ABD 1:98-99; Schürer, 2:150-159.
If Luke has been tracking the story of the movement of the Spirit to the “fringes” of Judaism, then we might wonder what the point of chapter 12 is in that development. It is possible to see persecution from Herod (Agrippa I) as a demonstration of how far out of step the leadership of Israel was with the movement of the Holy Spirit. Herod was considered to be the best of his line with respect to Jewish roots. But as we shall see, he was quite Roman in his thinking. With this story, we have in many ways crossed the line to “outsiders,” and it is therefore quite surprising to find the “King of the Jews” on the outside of the growing movement of the Spirit.
Luke collected a number of stories about Peter into a mini-collection (9:32-12:25). In the first of these stories, Peter is something like the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha in that he goes to the boundaries of the nation and finds faithful people even there. In this finals story concerning Peter, he is back in Jerusalem at a time of persecution. Because the death of Herod Agrippa is well know from Josephus, we can date the events of this chapter fairly precisely to A.D. 43-44, some 14 years after Pentecost.
There are several Lukan literary features in this chapter. He introduces two key characters (John Mark and James) by simply mentioning them, knowing he will pick up both characters again in the following chapters. In addition, there are several stories of imprisonment for preaching the gospel, followed by a miraculous escape (twice for Peter, later with Paul in Philippi and Jerusalem, the shipwreck in chapter 27 may also be a miraculous escape story.) Finally, Acts 11:19-29 and 12:25 form a frame around this passage; this may be significant since Luke tells a very brief story of Saul’s involvement with the Antioch church and the growing importance of the ministry in that city.
Acts 12 is therefore more than an entertaining incident in the life of Peter, it anticipates a major transition in the book, from Peter to Paul.
When did the earliest believers begin to question the “boundary markers” of Judaism? By “boundary markers” I mean primarily circumcision, food laws and keeping Sabbath. It is not really possible to describe Peter and John as preaching to Jews in the Temple that what Jesus did on the cross freed them from the Law.
One reason for this is that there were few Jews who saw the Law as a slave master from which they longed to be free. For the men worshiping in the Temple, and likely for those in the Greek-Speaking Synagogue of the Freedmen, keeping the law was a privilege given to them by God. There were likely few Jews if any who would have relished the chance to throw off the constraints of the Law. In fact, the Maccabean Revolt indicates that the majority of Jews were willing to fight in order to be allowed to keep the Law!
For me, this indicates that the Jewish believers in Jerusalem continued to practice Judaism in every way. The question “should we continue to circumcise our children” or “should we eat prohibited foods” simply would never have come up in the early years. Jesus is Messiah and Savior, but he did nothing to cancel the Jewish believer’s commitment to the Law. Another indication of this is that many Pharisees and other “zealous” Jews joined the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:5, 21:20-21). If Peter, John, Stephen or Philip urged Jews to defect from the Law, the reaction to Paul is unintelligible.
The boundary markers only became an issue after a significant number of Gentiles joined the church, likely in Antioch first, but certainly in Paul’s first churches in Galatia. Acts 11:20 indicates that the church at Antioch limited their evangelism to Jews until men from Cyprus came and evangelized the Hellenists. The noun Eλληνιστής refers to Greek speaking Jews (BDAG), not Greeks. The ESV footnote says that the word refers to Greek speaking non-Jews, but this explanation is not correct and misses the point Luke is trying to make. The Christians at Antioch are targeting both Hebrew/Aramaic speaking and Greek speaking Jews just like what was happening in Jerusalem until the persecution scattered the believers.
Even if these Hellenists are Gentiles, it is likely that the Gentiles who were joining the church in Antioch were doing so as God-fearers. This was the recognized practice in the synagogues anyway. There was no compulsion for these God-fearing Gentiles to submit to circumcision, although it appears that in every other respect they kept the Law and traditions of the Jewish people. The fact that the apostolic representative Barnabas was pleased with the progress in Antioch indicates that the Law is still respected and kept in these Christian synagogues.
There is really no “questioning of the boundary markers” until the first Pauline mission, when the gospel is preached outside of the synagogue and Gentiles who were not already God-fearers accepted Jesus as savior. If Luke’s story ended in Acts 11, then Christianity would have remained a messianic sect of Judaism.
After Cornelius receives the Holy Spirit, Peter returns to Jerusalem. The “circumcised believers” there asked him about his visit to a Gentile’s home. To what extent is Peter defending himself in this section? Luke says that they the circumcised believers “criticized him” (διακρίνω). The verb used is in the imperfect, so “began to criticize” is possible, although it may be an ongoing judgment on Peter – they “were criticizing” him. Keener suggests this is an indication Peter’s influence in Jerusalem has waned (2:1818), perhaps foreshadowing the controversies after Paul’s first mission to establish Gentile churches.
The content of the criticism is that he enter the home of a Gentile and ate with them. Peter had been staying in the home of Simon the tanner and presumably eating with him. A Tanner is not a problem but table fellowship with a God-Fearing Gentile is a problem for the Jerusalem community. Keener points out this is ironic, since the Pharisees complained about Jesus eating with sinners (Luke 19:7, Zacchaeus); now the complaint comes from the “apostles and brothers” in Jerusalem (2:1821).
In fact, Peter himself is a bit disturbed by what happened with Cornelius. James Dunn entitles the section dealing with Peter’s vision as “the Conversion of Peter” (Beginning From Jerusalem, 26.3) There are more than a few parallels between Paul’s experience in chapter 9 and Peter’s in chapter 10. Both experience a visionary experience and both receive a command to go to gentiles, although Paul’s is a commission to a ministry, Peter is sent only to a particular individual. Both are obedient to their visions and both find themselves in trouble with the Jews as a result. Paul must escape Damascus, Peter must explain his actions to the (Christian) elders in Jerusalem.
Why was sharing a meal with Cornelius such a major problem for some of the believers in Jerusalem? If some of these were Pharisees, as Acts 15:1-2 implies, the sharing table fellowship with anyone who is not a Pharisee is going to be a problem. But there is not much evidence Pharisees imposed their table rules on non-Pharisees. Here are two examples of Jewish attitudes toward eating with Gentiles:
Jubilees 22:16 And you also, my son, Jacob, remember my words, and keep the commandments of Abraham, your father. Separate yourself from the gentiles, and do not eat with them, and do not perform deeds like theirs. And do not become associates of theirs. Because their deeds are defiled, and all of their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable.
Joseph and Asenath 7:1 And Joseph entered the house of Pentephres and sat upon the throne. And they washed his feet and set a table before him by itself, because Joseph never ate with the Egyptians, for this was an abomination to him.
In Joseph and Asenath, Joseph refuses to kiss his future wife Asenath saying “to kiss a strange woman who will bless with her mouth dead and dumb idols and eat from their table bread of strangulation and drink from their libation a cup of insidiousness and anoint herself with ointment of destruction” (Jos.Asen. 8:5). Not all Jews had such strong attitudes toward sharing food with Gentiles and there were many who would have no problem sharing hospitality with a prominent Gentile.
Peter, however, does seem to have a strong aversion to eating with a Gentile. In the first part of Acts 10, Peter struggles to understand the vision concerning clean and unclean foods (he is “deeply perplexed,” διαπορέω). After he obeys God by going to Cornelius’ home, he is reluctant to enter (10:28). Given this background, is it possible to describe Peter’s experience as a “conversion,” as James Dunn has? To what extent does Peter’s views about Gentiles change at this point in the story?
In a previous post, I sided with the consensus view that there were God-fearing Gentiles in Synagogues in the first century, although I am hesitant to describe this as a semi-official class, nor do I think there was a significant number of these Gentiles. Part of my reason for this is the controversy which developed as Paul’s mission began to have success among the Gentiles. If there was one or two Gentiles who wanted to worship in the Synagogue with the Jews that was manageable. But by the time Galatians is written, there are so many Gentiles accepting Christ that some begin to wonder about their relationship to the Law.
Cornelius, however, is described as a pious Jew. He performs “acts of kindness” not unlike Tabitha in Acts 9:36. Since the Angel tells Cornelius that these acts of kindness have come before the Lord, it appears that there is some connection between his efforts and his vision.
The giving of alms was thought to atone for sin in Second Temple period Judaism, (in addition to the Sirach texts below, see Tobit 14:10). This is important since he is unable, as a Gentile, to worship in the Temple. His only access to an “atoning sacrifice” is through prayer and alms – the equivalent of sacrifice for a Jew (Witherington, Acts, 348).
Sirach 3:14 For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, and will be credited to you against your sins,
Sirach 3:30 As water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sin.
Sirach 29:12 Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from every disaster.
When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus responded with the Shema, but as a second command he said “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:28-34). This reflects the common thinking of first century Judaism. The importance of charity and love as a practical outworking of the shema is seem in the many commands in the Old Testament concerning treatment of the poor.
As Ed Sanders points out, this love of neighbor and stranger is not a nebulous feeling of goodwill, it is to be expressed in concrete and definable actions: do not slander, oppress, rob, etc. (Judaism: Practice and Belief, 231). If one’s heart is right before God, then one will take care of the poor; alternatively, if one is not taking care of the poor, then it is obvious there is a heart-problem.
This story resonates with the Hebrew Bible in many ways. Like Elijah or Elisha, Peter is going to a righteous outsider. Cornelius’s righteousness is expressed in terms of the Hebrew Bible and the Covenant with Israel. Cornelius is on the boundary between what it means to be Jew or Gentile. He is a “model Jew” compared to Herod Agrippa or Simon the Tanner, except he is a Gentile!
Cornelius was part of the Italian Regiment (Acts 10:1), a cohort based in Syria and part of the Roman administration for the region. The centurion was the “backbone” of the Roman army and the most important tactical officer (Keener 2:1743). In the first century a soldier normally served about twenty years, although some centurions chose to stay longer in the military for a longer period of time. Officers were forbidden by Roman law to marry, although this law was not always enforced.
A centurion may have taken a local wife or concubine. In the case of Cornelius, his household may have included a wife and children along with slaves. Keener reports a soldier during the time of Augustus received 225 denarii a year and were responsible for their own clothing weapons and food, a centurion received 3,750 denarii (2:1749). Purchasing a slave may have been difficult for an average soldier, but not impossible for a veteran centurion.
It is possible Cornelius was retired from the army and living in Caesarea. If so, he was Roman citizenship and may have had some status in the community. Since he has a household with multiple servants and can devote himself to almsgiving, he may have been at least moderately wealthy.
But is it possible a Roman soldier would practice any form of Judaism? He was obviously not a proselyte since he remained uncircumcised. As a soldier, pork would have been a major part of his diet (Polybius 2.15.3), although Letter of Aristeas 13 indicates Jewish soldiers were present in Ptolemaic Egypt, presumably such a large force was provided appropriate foods. Keener gives quite a bit of evidence Roman soldiers were very religious as the rise of the Mithras cult indicates (2:1754). Soldiers appear to have been free to worship whatever gods they desired as long as these gods did not interfere with their loyalty to Rome as expressed in the imperial cult.
Could a person worship the God of Israel remain a loyal Roman soldier? It is possible to behave morally and to acts of kindness as a Roman. It is not as though participating in the imperial cult required immorality and cruelty! One could practice some Jewish practices without appearing to be disloyal to the Romans. But from the perspective of a Pharisee such a person was only playing at being a Jew.