Acts 10 – Cornelius and Almsgiving

In my 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 16:14 He makes room for every act of mercy; everyone receives in accordance with his or her deeds.
  • Sirach 29:12 Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from every disaster;
  • Sirach 40:24 Kindred and helpers are for a time of trouble, but almsgiving rescues better than either.

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.

I think this is a very “Old Testament” story, if I can describe it in that way. Peter is like Elijah or Elisha, going to a righteous outsider.  But this 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.  In some ways he is a model Jew, compared to Herod Agrippa or even Simon the Tanner.

12 thoughts on “Acts 10 – Cornelius and Almsgiving

  1. If God-fearers did not rank as full Jews within the synagogue community, then it is hardly surprising that there are few inscriptions that mention God-fearers since the term would not have been a term of honor.

    Why were non-Christian Jews upset with Paul? Was it because he had Gentiles in his churches, or what it because he gave equal status to those Gentiles? If the latter is a possibility, then is there any reason to suppose that God-fearers were few?

    • My cynical guess is that the few inscriptions we do have are from wealthy patrons of the synagogue. I think you are absolutely right that the real problem with Paul (from the Jewish perspective) is that he gave equal status before God to Gentiles apart from Law. I might go a step further and say that is the problem between Paul and James (or the men from James) in Galatians and Acts 21.

  2. I’m not sure if the point of this is to emphasize the number of God-fearing Gentiles, nor to argue their righteousness; but, rather its place, sequentially, in Acts is in the period of transition. The gospel was still thought to be for Jews only, but within the next few chapters, it is officially and evangelistically spread to the Gentiles. This occurence could, in fact, be foreshadowing, if you will, of the actual cnetrality of the gospel in Acts. No longer was there distinction between Jew and Gentile, but the two became equal and their union would be based on: firstly, the sacrifice of Christ, and secondly, alms… specifically, brotherly kindness and love.

  3. I can’t help but look at this from Peter’s perspective.
    Arnold points out in the Acts commentary that the word “sheet” used here to describe Peter’s vision is a term that describes a sheet of linen.
    We see that Peter struggled enough with the clear command of God, asking Peter to change a belief that was so foundational to his life at that moment.
    Yet God confirms this as an important change in various ways including the timing of events and symbolism.
    The best example of this might be Leviticus 16.32 which states, “The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments.”
    “Linen” also denotes cleanliness/holiness/sacredness. Peter would have understood the intention, coupling linen and unclean animals, as an extended emphasis of God’s message.
    And I am convinced as well that Peter had in mind Scripture passages that reiterated this idea as well.
    Hosea 6.6 “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
    and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”
    Also the passages from Sirach that you pointed out, 1 Samuel 16.7, and countless references to the heart and the importance of the attitude of the heart.

    • Absolutely correct, the condition of the heart is what makes a person right before God. Someone like Peter would have thought he was right with God because he was Jewish (God’s chosen people) but also because he was making an honest effort to keep the Law as best as he can. He did not willingly do things which broke the Law (eating unclean food) and made proper atonement if he inadvertently sinned. How is this different than Cornelius, who did all the same things but happened to be born a Gentile and therefore had never been circumcised? Very little indeed, and many Jews looked at these near-converts as right with God despite circumcision. (I’ll give the evidence later, for now, just know that this was a quite lively debate in the first century).

  4. In this post it talks about the second greatest commandment, love your neighbor as yourself and that goes for strangers as well. I agree that if someone is right with God then they will do good deeds if you want to call them that.

  5. I agree whole heartedly that the heart condition is really what God is concerned about. Numerous times throughout the prophets God speaks about abhorring the rites and sacrifices, the offerings and feasts, the very things that God implemented as worship of Him, because the Israelites were not right with God in their hearts and lives. This could be an allusion that Luke is subtly pointing out… or maybe not, who knows.

    However, I would like to point out that alms-giving as a form of atonement for sins makes me raise an eyebrow. How can the rabbis and teachers of the law even jump to this conclusion when it says that there is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood in Hebrews 9:22? The author of Hebrews knew this to be so and assuming that the writer was a Jew, in order for him to know this, he must have understood it from the text of the Old Testament. That being said, alms-giving as an acceptable replacement for the shedding of blood? Isn’t this the very same thing that Luther and other like minded Reformers spoke out against amongst the other grievances they had against the catholic church? If salvation could be attained through purchasing it via alms giving, what good is the work of the Cross? I would say that Cornelius was a God-fearing Jew who kept the law while still not having his sins atoned for because he did not have the work of Christ presented to and accepted by him. Even if this all had happened pre-Christ, Cornelius would have been seen as righteous because his heart was right with God, not because he gave to the poor.

  6. Yes, God is always looking at our hearts. If your heart is full of sin and evil, then you will not be right with God.
    I would have to agree, but would if Cornelius would have accepted Christ? If his heart was right, then would it had mattered to have Christ work presented to him or have him accept Christ?

    • I agree with what Jason is saying about his heart being right with God, but then wonder how Acts 11:14 fits into this. In regard to Peter telling them about Jesus Christ, “He will bring you a message by which you and all your household will be saved.” I wish I knew what the original translation was, but this one seems to imply that he is not saved yet. When he hears the gospel and accepts it, then he will be truly saved. I know that this is a time of transition from judaism to christianity, but this passage is confusing to me.

  7. I think there is some good discussion going on here. P-Long brought up the subject of the God-fearing gentile. Back then it was noted or least thought of, that the gospel was only for the Jews but later on it was for everyone and there was absolutely no division between Jew or gentile. I believe however that god looks more upon the heart than anything. I am reminded of the isralities and how their hearts were not in the right place and how they were not following God at all. I side with Jason on this possibly being the allusion that Luke is pointing out

  8. Like most everyone else on this post I am going in the direction of how God looks into our hearts. Obviously, we know from scripture that love is a very important command. As to Cary I must admit I am very confused by what you are trying to say. It sounds like you are saying that as long as Cornelius had a good heart then he did not need Christ. I really hope this is not what you are trying to say. Because, EVERYONE needs Christ even if their the nicest person EVER!! If you could clarify what exactly it is you are trying to say that would be great!!

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