Acts 9:43 – Peter and Simon the Tanner

At the end of chapter 9, Peter stays in Joppa at the home of Simon “the Tanner” (v. 43). It is significant that Peter would accept hospitality from Simon since the occupation of leather-worker (a tanner, βυρσεύς) was considered to be unclean by the Pharisees.

Simon the Tanner's Door

Traditional Site of Simon’s House

A tanner was one of the most unclean trades in any ancient society, the nature of their work kept them in a state of ritual uncleanliness (Lev 11:35), and the process of tanning leather resulted in a state of physical uncleanliness. The rabbis mention tanners or tanneries in the context of other “unclean things.” In m.Meg 3:2, a tannery is in the same category as a bathhouse and public urinal; in m.Ket 7:10 a tanner is lumped together with “he who is afflicted with boils, or who has a polypus, or who collects dog excrement.” Because of the stench of the tanner’s shop, most towns required that the tanner had to live on the outskirts of town, downwind! The Mishnah states “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.Batra 2:9).

It is possible that Simon owns a tanning business and does not work the trade himself. But business appears to be good for Simon since he is able to open his home to Peter. 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).

That Peter shares hospitality with Simon is significant. Just like Jesus, he is eating and drinking with the outcast, people who are Jewish but on the fringe of society from the perspective of Temple purity and Pharisaical tradition. While tanners are never included in the list of outsiders with whom Jesus eats, they might very well be in the same category as tax collectors and prostitutes.

It is therefore quite 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 who was unclean, yet will not enter the home of a Gentile God-fearer, someone who was likely more “clean” than the tanner, with respect to the Law. The difference, of course, is that even if Cornelius was a God-Fearer, he was still an uncircumcised Gentile.

17 thoughts on “Acts 9:43 – Peter and Simon the Tanner

  1. It is very interesting to see how Peter would live a Tanner who was considered unclean because of their job but would not eat with a God fearing Gentile. Peter had a strong conviction to follow the Law and that was not going to change easily. That is why God gave the vision of unclean food becoming clean to Peter, so he would go to the house of an uncircumcised Gentile even though it was against Jewish Law. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15) Peter obviously still had a mindset that the Kingdom was coming and the only way Gentiles could be saved was to become a Jew. This vision probably puzzled Peter, especially when he went and uncircumcised Gentiles received the Holy Spirit.
    One thing I noticed was evidence that Peter and Paul kept the mind set of following the Law for themselves even after the message of Grace was revealed. Paul same as Peter did not just give up the Law and stop following it. Even though God had told Peter that the unclean foods where now clean Peter refused to kill and eat any of it.

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  2. This idea of clean and unclean is often lost in our culture western cultures. I have friends who cross the road to pass an ‘unclean’ dog or take a bath to cleanse themselves from acts of adultery. In this context the blood of Christ washing us clean or his death presenting us spotless without blemish before God are very powerful.

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  3. After reading chapter ten and the post, my first question is whether Peter really did hesitate in going to Cornelius. When the men came to get Peter, he had just been commanded by the Spirit to not hesitate in going with the men. So Peter goes and meets them, but then invites them in to be guests and then they left the next day (v. 23). I’m not sure if this would be a sign of his hesitation or whether it was a practical issue in that the journey would be too long to be completed that day anyway. Either way, Peter eventually went on his way and met with Cornelius. HIs opening comments about it being against Jewish law to associate with a Gentile do seem to show Peter’s thinking is still filled with cultural separation between the Jews and Gentiles. In Galatians 2 we see Peter being hyprocritical when it came to associating with Jews and Gentiles. I am not sure of the timing of Galatians 2 when Paul and Peter meet in Antioch compared to Peter and Cornelius, but it is evident that Peter was trying to work out the Jew and Gentile cultures would look like after Christ came. But like P. Long says in this post, the Jew-Gentile separation was obviously huge at that time.

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  4. The passage in Acts 10 where Peter hesitates to go to Cornelius is an excellent demonstration of how Jews and Gentiles did not associate with one another, even though Cornelius was “a devout man who feared God…gave alms generously…and prayed continually to God”(Acts 10:2). In the previous chapter Peter stays with Simon a tanner, who I have just learned from the post that the profession was considered to be unclean by the Pharisees. Peter is clearly following the example of Jesus to eat and stay with people considered to be outcasts, but Peter has not yet learned that this includes the Gentiles as well. Peter’s vision is also very much foreshadowing, as God tells Peter, “what God has made clean, do not call common” (10:15). Peter is “inwardly perplexed” and clearly does not understand the vision until the Spirit tells him to go with the men to see Cornelius. Yet his faith precedes his obedience to the Law and without hesitation he obeys the Lord. I think this is a powerful lesson about times where we must follow what we feel the Lord is calling us to do, even if it does not match up to what we think is right.

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  5. I had never given much though to the fact that Peter stays with a tanner, probably because I, like the Jews, didn’t give much though to the business of tanning. I think Luke is, again, paralleling the teaching of each apostle in Acts with the teachings and life of Jesus. Though there is no recorded instance of Jesus eating, or staying with a tanner, I would say that, given the opportunity, He would have not hesitated. I think that it is also significant to notice Peter’s hesitation, immediately afterward, to go stay with a non-Jew. The Jewish disgust for anyone who was uncircumcised is even more extreme than their hatred for people whose career is to deal with dead animals, which is a strictly spoken against in Jewish Law. This becomes even more significant in chapter 10 because of Peter’s vision where he is told to “kill and eat”. God is starting to break down the walls between Jew and Gentile even more significantly here, and Peter staying with this tanner is just the beginning. This tanner is a sort of “gateway drug” for Peter into ministry to non-Jews. While the tanner is still a Jew, he is still considered very unclean, as are the Gentile. So, the tanner is, in a way, a sort of precursor to staying with the “unclean Gentiles”. Then, God, tells Peter not to “call anything impure that God has made clean”. Cornelius, though not a Jew, was still a God-fearing man, and held in high regard because of his prayer and generosity. So, Peter is beginning to realize that since God considers God-fearing Gentiles to be “clean”, he also should consider them clean, and be more willing to minister to them.

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    • Gateway drug…heh. If it was, Peter is slow to take the bait, really arguing with his own vision and dragging his feet when he finally gets to Cornelius’ house. Another problem is peter’s withdrawal from fellowship with Gentiles described in Gal 2. Maybe he had a legalistic relapse?

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  6. I think Luke uses this story to emphasize to his Jewish audience the importance of following God’s will over the Law. Throughout Acts, the entirety of Judaism is challenged by this new way of thinking. People are killed for even challenging the Law. The Jews are stubborn. This story is a great example of a Jew choosing God over the Law, as the Law is irrelevant when compared to God’s will.

    Peter’s faith in going to Cornelius’ isa testament to the Jews. It shows that God’s will supersedes the Law. Peter understood this when he left the home of a Jew to enter the house of a Gentile. Though he may have been hesitant, he still did it. We all can be hesitant when we follow God’s will, as we either don’t know what will happen or, in Peter’s case, it causes us to go outside our comfort zone. It seems as if Peter was okay with mingling among his people, whether they were clean or not. This makes sense, as the Jewish customs would be a comfort to Peter. It would be home to him. Leaving to go to Cornelius’ house was a step towards becoming more like Christ.

    btw, I am humored by Zac’s use of the term “gateway drug” to describe Simon.

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  7. It is interesting to learn about tanners. I didn’t know they were considered outsiders and had to live far away from the town because if the smell and uncleanliness of a tanner. Because of this I also find it interesting that Peter excepted his hospitality. I agree that Peter is following the ways of Christ in this way by eating with the outcasts. But I find it odd that Peter was a little weird about eating with cornilius. An uncircumcised gentile.

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  8. It is really interesting that Peter stays with a Tanner because of the generally culturally unacceptable career. Simply because Peter stays with an ‘unclean’ man makes me think that this is a parallel of Jesus’ life as well as a foreshadowing irony in the upcoming sequence of events. When God said in Acts 10:15 “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”, I feel like Peter was shocked. The thought of Peter staying with an ‘unclean’ person and not being worried about being with the ‘unclean’ man makes me a little confused as i think Peter should have seen it coming and even if he didn’t, he questioned God in the matter. It is weird for me to think that Peter would stay with a man marked as ‘unclean’ but not eat meat. That has a lot to do with the culture that I was brought up with though. It is so interesting to be able to see the difference in times as well as in culture.

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  9. I doubt that Peter thought anything of the fact that Simon was an “unclean” person just because his occupation, after all, he was will Jesus spending time with people that were unclean and not worthy. Peter was quite used to affiliating with these kind of people so I don’t think that he thought twice about going over there and spending time with him to begin with. I think that Peter hesitates because he is not used to spending time with the Gentiles because they were culturally separated. I mean, if slavery just ended, I doubt that someone wouldn’t not hesitate to go and associate with someone of the opposite race that. I think that Peter was all about going by the guidelines of what to do so he felt that it was better to go to a Jew than to a Gentile. I don’t think that he cared about who was considered clean or unclean but the fact that they did not associate themselves with Gentiles. I do believe that he does want to talk with them and associate with them but just maybe doesn’t quite know how because of the cultural separation between them.

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  10. It is a very interesting thought that Peter would enter the house of a Tanner, and not of a Gentile whom he was told to visit by God. It does make sense to me though that Peter would be heisitent to go there. I do not believe that it would have been an unlikely event for a Jewish man to recoil from going into a house of a Gentile.

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  11. I see this as a sanctification story. God has a plan of using Peter to share the gospel with a gentile family. But what stood in the way? Peters pride. He thought he was better than the Gentiles. Our pride often stands in the way of demonstrating the love of God. The cool part is that God didn’t send Peter straight to the house of Cornelius. He prepared him by sending him to a tanners house (unclean), than further prepared him with the vision of the sheet. God wants us to be a light to the world but it’s difficult when we’re full of pride. I love the gentleness of how God brings us along the path of sanctification.

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