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.

Peter's visionThe 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!

 

 

 

The CenturionCornelius 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.

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout - Vision of CorneliusLuke describes Cornelius as God-Fearing and devout. “Devout” (εὐσεβής, 10:2) indicates someone is devoted to a particular religion or god; a person who is “profoundly reverent” (BDAG), whether this is a person who is reverent towards the God of Israel or a Greco-Roman god. The description of Cornelius as a God-Fearer (φοβούμενος τὸν θεὸν) may mean he was a Gentile who was nearly a convert to Judaism, keeping as much of the Law as possible, but not submitting to circumcision. Julius Scott provides the more or less standard definition of a God-Fearer: “an unofficial class of Gentiles who stopped short of becoming full proselytes but were permitted limited participation in Jewish worship” (JETS 34 [1991]: 478). The key word here is “unofficial.” There was no recognized class of Gentile “near converts” in the first century, although it is likely that most synagogues had one or two of these God-Fearing Gentiles.

When Luke used the term “God-fearer” he has in mind Gentiles who worshiped the God of Israel in the Synagogue without practicing all the Jewish boundary markers. For the most part, a retired soldier could have kept Sabbath and observed dietary laws without attracting much attention.

I interacted with a 1981 article by A. T. Kraabel in a previous post. Kraabel examined the archaeological evidence from synagogues concluded that there was no class of “Gentile God-fearer” worshiping alongside Jews in Diaspora synagogues. After examining about a hundred synagogue inscriptions, he did not find a single example mentioning God-fearers (116). Based on his reading of the archaeological evidence, Luke created this class of “near convert” for theological reasons. “It is a tribute to Luke’s dramatic ability that they have become so alive for the later Church, but the evidence from Paul’s own letters and now from archaeology makes their historicity questionable in the extreme” (120).

Craig Keener cites Kraabel’s article as well , but he offers a wide range of evidence the term could be applied to proselytes (Test.Jos. 4:6) as well as “Gentile sympathizers” (Jos. Ant. 20.195; 14:110), concluding that it is “not accurate to claim the phrase we never applied to Gentiles” (Keener, 2:1752). In fact, archaeology since Kraabel’s article has cast doubts on his conclusions. At Aphrodisias there were at least 50 Gentiles described as God-Fearers (see my previous comments on this synagogue).

Luke is telling the story of the movement of the Holy Spirit from the Temple in Jerusalem were the Jewish audience would be the most godly to the fringes of Judaism (proselytes like the Ethiopian, Samaritans, magicians, Hellenists, etc.) and now a God-Fearing Gentile in Caesarea. Cornelius is the most likely candidate for a Gentile conversion to the followers of Jesus.  Cornelius is on the very edge of what makes one part of the people of God.

The question remains, for Luke, on which side of the Jew/Gentile line is Cornelius?  From a Jewish perspective, could he considered “right with God,” despite not submitting to circumcision?  Or, is this story a kind of “Pentecost” for the Gentiles?  Is it possible the conversion of Cornelius, a man farthest away from the Temple possible, can still be a part of the people of God?

Morocco Tannery

Tanning pits in Morocco

Peter stays in Joppa at the home of Simon the Tanner (Acts 9:43). This simple statement is important, especially in the light of what happens in chapter 10. This is significant since the occupation of leather-worker (tanner) was considered to be unclean by the Pharisees. In the Mishnah there are several references to tanners.

They put carrion, graves, and tanneries at least fifty cubits away from a town. They make a tannery only at the east side of a town. (m. B. Batra 2:9, Neusner, 561–562).

A man should not sit down before the barber close to the afternoon [prayer], unless he has already prayed. Nor [at that time] should a man go into a bathhouse or into a tannery, nor to eat, nor to enter into judgment. (m.Sabb. 1.2, Neusner, 178–179)

A tanner is just about the lowest possible job in any ancient society! Because of the stench of the tanner’s shop, most towns required that the tanner had to live on the outskirts of town, outside the walls and as downwind as possible. Keener reports the tanner is over listed along with other undesirables, including beggars and prostitutes (2:1725).

The tanning trade seems to have been good for Simon since he is able to show hospitality to Peter in his home. The home is large enough to have a gate and courtyard far enough away from the house that Peter did not hear Cornelius’ men arrive (10:17-18).

Simon is undoubtedly Jewish since he shares the same name as Peter, the most common name among Jews in the first century. But he is certainly not representative of normative Judaism. As C. K. Barret says, Peter is staying “in a low class area and with one of very doubtful repute in Jewish eyes” (Barrett, Acts, 486). Peter is therefore continuing the ministry of Jesus, reaching out to those who are on the fringes of Jewish society, sharing meals and hospitality with them.

It is therefore curious that Peter hesitates when he is told to God to Cornelius in chapter 10. This is a testimony to how far Jews and Gentiles were separated culturally. Peter has no problem staying in the home of a tanner, yet he is hesitant to enter the home of a Gentile God-fearer who was likely more “clean” with respect to the Law than the tanner.

Tabitha is described as a godly disciple who died suddenly (9:36-38). This is the only woman described as a disciple in the New Testament. The word μαθήτρια is used only here, it is used for female disciples of Plato (D. Lat Lives, 4.2). Luke is fond of telling two similar stories, one featuring a man and a second featuring a woman (cf., Luke 15:1-10). It is likely Peter did many other miracles during his ministry on the coastal plains, but Luke selected these two examples. Luke likely wanted his readers to take these two healings together as examples of the sorts of things Peter often did. In both cases Peter encounters potential uncleanliness, but this ceremonial uncleanliness does not prevent him from reaching out to people on the fringes of Judaism. I suggest Peter is simply following the pattern of ministry of Jesus who regularly crossed over cleanliness taboos during his ministry.

Tabitha Masolinode PanicaleTabitha was also known as Dorcas, both names mean “gazelle.” While the name may be drawn from Song of Solomon 2:9, Ben Witherington points out it was common to give female slaves animal names (Acts, 331, n.16).  He goes on to speculate that she may have been a freedwoman, although he settles on the name being of Jewish origin. It is possible Tabitha was wealthy since she is “always doing good works.” If she was a former slave set free by some prominent person, she may have had the time and means able to devote herself to charity work. She has a home with an “upper room” and her burial seems to be more opulent than expected if she was a pauper. It is possible she was a patroness of the church in Joppa, although this is not stated.  Luke mentions at least one other prominent, wealthy woman, Lydia, who may have become a patroness of the church at Philippi. In addition, it is possible that Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2 was a patron for the church in Cenchrea.

The description of her godliness is in line with Jewish indications of godly living. First, she was “always doing good.”  Paul urges women to do “good works appropriate for women who profess to worship God” in 1 Tim 2:10. Second, she was always “helping the poor,” specifically poor widows. It is likely the clothing the women show Peter in v. 39 are examples of these acts of compassion.  The description of Tabitha is similar to that of Tobit, a prototypical good man in the Jewish captivity (Tobit 1:3; 4:5-11).

Whatever Tabitha’s social position, her death was seen as a great loss to the believers in Joppa.  It is not clear that the believers called on Peter to raise her from the dead.  Peter comes quickly to Joppa and prays for Tabitha (9:39-42). Similar to Jesus in Luke 8:50-56, Peter tells Tabitha to arise. There are a few significant differences, however. Jesus commanded the girl to rise, using nearly the same words as Peter does in verse 40 (in Aramaic, there would have been a difference of only a since letter). Unlike Jesus, Peter prays prior to telling Tabitha to rise. Peter also takes Tabitha’s hand in order to help her up from the bed. This is significant since (until a few moments before) she was dead. Touching a corpse would have rendered Peter unclean, but he has no problem entering a home where a dead person was placed and even touching the woman’s hand.

As with the healing of Aeneas, we are left wondering what the point of the story is. Is Luke setting up Peter’s vision in Acts 10 and his visit to Cornelius? Or is Luke trying to consciously patterning the ministry of Peter after than of Jesus?

Lydda 1948

Lydda in 1948

Lydda was a large Jewish village in the Plain of Sharon. Lydda is on the main road from Jerusalem to Joppa, about 27 miles (44km) northwest of Jerusalem on the coastal plain. (The modern Lod, ten miles from Tel Aviv, is near the Ben Gurion airport.)  Lydda was a large village according to Josephus (Antiq. 20.130) and predominately Jewish (Schnabel, Early Christian Mission 1:688). It is mentioned several times in 1 Macc as one of the most significant Jewish cities in the region (1 Macc 11:34, Antiq. 13.127). The town was burned by the Romans in the Jewish War (A. D. 66) and repopulated with Jews loyal to Vespasian two years later. Later the town was the site of a rabbinic academy and synagogue, but there is no evidence for these at the time of Peter’s ministry.

Luke uses the word “saints” to describe these believers in Lydda (9: 32) and in Joppa (9:41). Luke does not tell us how the Gospel came to this region, although most commentators speculate Philip evangelized the area. The summary statement at the end of chapter 8 Philip went to Ashdod and eventually Caesarea, about 37 miles north along the coast from Joppa.

We know very little about Aeneas, other than his name. Aeneas is a common Roman name since the hero of Virgil’s Roman “national epic” The Aeneid shared this name. Sometimes this fact is used detect a foreshadowing of the future Gentile mission. But there is nothing in the text implying he was a Gentile, and given Peter’s hesitation to go to Cornelius in the next chapter, is seems unlikely Aenaes was a Gentile

The NIV says that Aeneas was “bedridden for eight years,” although it is possible to read these words as saying he was in bed since he was eight years old. Keener (2:1707) points out Luke often tells the reader how long a person was ill before they were healed (Luke 13:11, for example). The word for paralytic is not necessarily a paralyzed person, but one who is weak or disabled in some way (the word is rare in the New Testament, four of five times in Luke/Acts). Sometimes this refers the result of an injury. It is, however, the same word Luke used for the paralytic in Luke 5:18, the “parallel” story for this healing.

Peter heals the man in the name of Jesus and then tells him to “take care of your mat.” These words are reminiscent of Jesus in Luke 5, but may not be an accurate translation. The literal Greek here is “spread for yourself,” which in the context of a man lying in bed for eight years would imply making one’s bed. But the words can also have the sense of making a meal, “set the table” (BDAG, 949). The line might be plausibly translated “take up your mat” or “recline at the table and eat.” If the latter is the correct reading, then there some irony: he has been reclining for eight years, now Peter tells him to come and recline at the table!

Luke tells us that as a result of this healing, many in the region turned to the Lord. This is the same word used in 3:19 along with repentance. For example, in Luke 22:32 uses the word for Jesus’ prayer for Peter. After Peter’s denial, Jesus prays that he will “turn back” and lead his fellow disciples. This may indicate the Jews in the small villages in the area responded similarly to the Jews in Jerusalem who heard Peter’s preaching.

What is the point of this brief healing story? Out of all the things Peter did, why does Luke choose to include this story?

Saul’s conversion in the first part of this chapter is dramatic, but it will be many years before Saul’s missionary efforts are detailed by Luke. From 9:32 through chapter 12 Luke follows the story of Peter outside of Jerusalem among Hellenistic Jews as well as his arrest in Jerusalem. There is little here to help with chronology. These stories “fit” any time after Saul’s conversion, there is little more to be said about when they occur.

Peter and TabithaLuke continues to tell the story of the apostolic community moving out from Jerusalem geographically and culturally. While Lydda and Joppa are not too far from Jerusalem and certainly had Jewish populations, they would be Hellenistic Jews in comparison to Jerusalem. Caesarea was a thoroughly Roman city built by Herod as a tribute to the Roman Empire. We have not arrived at Gentile ministry yet, but we are certainly on the edges of what it means to be Jewish. Peter’s ministry here cannot be seen as directed to the Gentiles yet, although in chapter 10 he will be called to preach the gospel to a man who is in fact a Gentile.

This is a good example of Luke’s literary style as well. In these two stories we have a man and a woman healed. This “paired” set of examples is common in Luke’s gospel (Simeon and Anna in the temple in Luke 2, the “lost” parables in Luke 15, etc.) Later in Acts, Paul will preach the gospel to Lydia and the Jailer in Philippi. Luke is also showing that Peter does the same sorts of miracles which Jesus did, although he does them in the name of Jesus. Paul will do similar miracles later in the book (a healing and a resurrection / resuscitation.)

While these two episodes are miracle stories, they give a bit of insight into the way in which the apostolic office functioned in Acts. Peter is traveling in regions which may have been evangelized by Philip. It is possible this is simply to encourage the believers there, doing general pastoral teaching and preaching. But it is also possible that Peter is “inspecting” these believers to see that they have not strayed from the gospel as it was preached in Jerusalem. (Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul, 117; Schnabel disagrees, Early Christian Mission, 1:693; Witherington is open to the idea, Acts, 328).

That these locations are more Hellenistic than Jerusalem may be a hint that Peter is concerned that these “fringes of Judaism” have fully understood who Jesus was. In many ways, Peter is continuing to do ministry like Jesus did, reaching out to people who are Jewish, but on the fringes of society.

Bronze_Coin_of_Aretas_IV

Bronze Coin of Aretas IV

Luke tells us that Paul spent some time in Damascus proclaiming Jesus in the Synagogue, but was forced to leave the city because there was a plot to kill him (Acts 9:23-25).  Paul mentions these events in Galatians and 2 Corinthians in far more detail.  Luke compresses three years of ministry into a few lines!

How long was Paul in Damascus and the Nabatean kingdom? According to Gal 1:17 three years pass between the Damascus Road experience and Paul’s meeting in Jerusalem with Peter and James (Acts 9:26-30). Since the story of the escape over the wall is a unique event, it seems reasonable that Luke’s “many days” (9:23) extends a full three years. Since Aretas IV died in 39, the latest date for Paul’s conversion is 36, if not earlier.

After the initial confrontational ministry in Damascus, it is possible that Paul traveled from Damascus to other major cities in Nabatean territory. This likely included cities of the Decapolis, perhaps, Geresa and Philadelphia (modern Jeresh).  Philadelphia was a large Roman city, the type of city Paul will target later in his ministry. It is possible he visited Petra since it was a major trading center at the time. He may have used Damascus as a “base” since there was already a community of believers there. We simply have no real facts to deal with for this three year period, other than he was living in that territory for three years and that he did not consult the other apostles until three years after his experience n the road to Damascus.

As James Dunn observes, the more difficult question is why Paul spent three years in the Arabia. Paul makes an emphatic statement that after receiving a commission from the resurrected Jesus to be the “light to the Gentiles,” he did not “consult flesh and blood” but went to Arabia (Gal 1:7). Like Dunn, I think that Paul is simply following through on the commission he was given, to take the message of Jesus the Messiah to the Gentiles. The Nabatean kingdom provided him with ample opportunity to do just that.

Sometimes this period is described as a spiritual retreat into the desert, to work out the implications of his encounter with Jesus. I think that it is certain that Paul begins working through what “Jesus as Messiah” means, and what his role as the ‘light to the Gentiles” should be. He likely spent a great deal of time reading the scripture developing the material that he will use later in Antioch, then on the missionary journeys.

But this is far from a period of monastic retreat! Paul is preaching Jesus and being faithful to his calling as the light to the Gentiles.

After he is healed from his blindness, Paul immediately begins to do ministry in the same Damascus synagogue he intended to visit. His preaching “agitates” (συγχέω) the synagogues, a verb which has the sense of amazement and surprise. Sometimes Luke uses this verb to describe the confusion of a crowd about to riot (Acts 19:29, variant text, 21:27). What agitates the synagogues is Paul’s successful argument Jesus is the Christ. Paul teaches from Scripture and is empowered by the Holy Spirit in such a way that convinces people. This may not imply they believed, but it was hard to argue against Paul’s evidence.

Where did Paul get this evidence? On the one hand, boldness in preaching is one of Luke’s evidences that an individual is yielded to the Holy Spirit. Like Peter before the Sanhedrin, Paul is filled with the Holy Spirit and boldly speaks the message of Jesus. A second source for his preaching is likely the preaching of Peter, or better, Stephen in the Synagogue.

bible-thumping-26722Undoubtedly Paul has been arguing with Stephen and other Hellenists in the Synagogue for some time, Paul now accepts their arguments and begins to extend them to other scripture. A third source may be Paul’s own thinking about the Messiah and the Messianic age as a well-trained rabbi.

As observed in the last few posts, Paul does not go from totally ignorant of God to a faithful follower of Jesus. He was already aware of messianic texts and methods of argument in rabbinic discussions as well as how to present scripture in a synagogue context. Paul took what he already knew to be the truth and ran it through the filter of the resurrected Jesus and preached that Gospel in the synagogues in Damascus.

Once again, Luke presents powerful preaching and excellent scholarship working together to convince people of the truth of the Gospel. Paul is extremely confrontational – he goes right to the people who likely wanted the Jesus Community to be silent and announces that he is one of them! This is a boldness which is a direct result of the encounter with Jesus and the filling of the Holy Spirit.

There other elements of a “boldness” theme in Acts and clearly Luke is presenting the ministers of the Gospel as unusually bold in their confrontation with authority.  By way of application, should we use Paul’s boldness as a model for modern mission, and if so, what would that look like?  Does this sort of “boldness” work in a pluralistic society like modern America?

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Phillip J. Long

Phillip J. Long

I am a college professor who enjoys reading, listening to music and drinking fine coffee. Often at the same time.

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