Acts 10 – Jews and Gentiles

In Acts 10:27-29, Peter expresses his hesitancy to enter the home of a Gentile.  I think the key here is not simply talking with a Gentile, but receiving hospitality form a Gentile. Primarily this was because of food, but some Jews in the first century did in fact avoid contact with Gentiles in order to avoid impurity.  This was certainly true in Jerusalem where Temple worship could be a daily experience.  Josephus tells us that the Jews kept separate from the Gentiles: “[the Jews]…did not come into contact with other people because of their separateness.” (Antiq. 13:245-247; cf., Apion, 2.210) Witherington (Acts, 353) observes that the Greek word Luke chooses here probably has the sense of “taboo” or “strongly frowned upon.”

Kosher

But this is not to say that Gentiles were totally excluded from Jewish worship.  There was a huge “court of the Gentiles” in the temple complex itself, giving Gentiles a place of worship in the temple.  On a number of occasions in the gospels Jesus speaks with Gentiles, although usually the faith of the Gentile is in contrast to the unfaithfulness of the Jews.

One factor bearing on this issue is the long standing Jewish belief that purity laws did not apply to Gentiles even when they lived in Israelite territory.  The “sojourner laws” of Deut 5:14 ff define these Gentiles as resident aliens and require only a few general commands for them while they are living within the nation of Israel. (These are the same commands given by James at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:24-29.)

Rabbinic writers seem to have defined a category “gentile impurity,” but this does not appear in the eighteen benedictions (dating to the period just prior to the fall of Jerusalem.) Did Jews of the first century consider Gentiles impure and therefore exclude them from the inner courts of the temple?  Several Second Temple period texts indicate that Jews did not mix at all with Gentiles (Jubilees 22:16, Tobit 1:10-12, Judith 12:1-1).  Consider also Joseph and Asenath 7:1:  “Joseph never ate with the Egyptians, for this was an abomination to him”

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 their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable.

Tobit 1:10-12 After I was carried away captive to Assyria and came as a captive to Nineveh, everyone of my kindred and my people ate the food of the Gentiles, but I kept myself from eating the food of the Gentiles. Because I was mindful of God with all my heart . . .

Judith 12:1-4 Then he commanded them to bring her in where his silver dinnerware was kept, and ordered them to set a table for her with some of his own delicacies, and with some of his own wine to drink. But Judith said, “I cannot partake of them, or it will be an offense; but I will have enough with the things I brought with me.” Holofernes said to her, “If your supply runs out, where can we get you more of the same? For none of your people are here with us.”  Judith replied, “As surely as you live, my lord, your servant will not use up the supplies I have with me before the Lord carries out by my hand what he has determined.”

What I think is fascinating is that Cornelius, as a God-Fearer, might very well have followed the food laws as well as Peter did.  Yet there was still a hesitancy on the part of the apostolic mission to cross over the next social barrier and bring the gospel to Gentiles, even a God-Fearing Gentile like Cornelius.  These issues will erupt into the first major church controversy by Acts 15 and may stand in the background of Paul’s confrontation with Peter in Galatians 2.

10 thoughts on “Acts 10 – Jews and Gentiles

  1. Peter had a very strong aversion to dealing with Gentiles (Acts 10:28) and the wall of hostility was very high. That’s why it took a vision from God to get him to go. Thankfully Christ has torn down the wall of hostility with new gospel given to Paul and the creation of the Body of Christ (Eph. 2:11-15).

    Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

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  2. Re: “Rabbinic writers seem to have defined a category “gentile impurity,” but this does not appear in the eighteen benedictions” … well, why exactly is that a surprise to you (that it’s one of a few thousand Jewish things which don’t happen to be mentioned in this part, or other parts, of a Jewish prayer service)? I’m Jewish, and I can’t figure out why you think its absence bears on your argument. Please clarify.

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    • Along with the court of the Gentiles and presence of God-fearing Gentiles, the absence may indicate there is less evidence than expected that Second Temple period Jews were averse to contact with Gentiles or their presence in the synagogue.

      The point of the other contemporary literature (Jubilees, Tobit, Judith, Joseph and Asenath) indicates food was a serious complication for a Jewish/Gentile congregation in the first century. Consider these counter-evidence, or at least evidence of a range of opinion on the issue of fellowship with the Gentiles. (This will come up again in Acts 15 and Galatians 2).

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  3. Jews and gentiles would separate themselves. They did not want to run into each other, they did not want to talk to each other or exchange words. But even though they separated themselves, they would worship together. Some jews would not like the idea of having gentiles in the same room as them, but they would worship the same God, together. God fearing was both what they contained and also they would seek God and become obedient to their calling. Opinions would change based on what was happening between the two different types of people. Both gentiles and jews were encouraged to practice hospitality and take care of the poor and the ones in need. Welcoming people in their homes was something that was encouraged and showing the hand of God of the ones in need.

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  4. As the book progresses, we see that the gospel has gone out to the gentiles. The problem we see is the tension that has been building due to the various Jewish laws. Since the time of Moses this nation of Israel has kept the works of the law with the most scrutiny. Jews even looked poorly on those who ate, talked, and were around gentiles. Coming to this point in Acts, the Jewish people and leaders have rejected the message, and now the gospel is impacted the gentile people. The problem that arises is related to the Law. What are the gentiles supposed to do with the Law? Peter understands how the Jews disassociate with the gentiles, but he makes the statement that God told him there is no distinction from Jew or Greek. This must have come as a shock to the Jewish believers. The Law has been ingrained in their minds, and now this is a message of liberation that says the Law is not necessary. Among the Jewish Christians they still practiced the Law. We see Peter express this equality and liberation in chapter 10, but it is one thing for the Jewish Christians hear that the law is not necessary and another for them to practice that truth. This will be addressed in other letters, and this is the source of the conflict.

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  5. I think this idea of staying away from someone who does something different then us has not left, it just looks different for us today. In the Tobit quote that you included, I was so fascinated by the response to raise himself higher then those like him, his people. The issues of Jews and Gentiles were so demanding, when we talked about them in class, it just reminded me that “God-fearing” people can have these mindsets that are not aligned with others.

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  6. In chapter 5 of Joshua W. Jipp’s book, “Reading Acts,” he states that
    “Though he does not yet understand its meaning, Peter obeys the voice” (Jipp, 79). I think that this is very important to note because, although God is having him do something that may seem a shock to him or out of the norm, he proceeds to obey the voice telling him to do so. I wonder if any of the other Apostles would have obeyed, seeing how they thought Peter was a bit crazy for showing the Gentiles hospitality by eating and drinking with them (Acts 10:23). It makes me wonder if I were in Peter’s shoes back then, would I listen to the voice? When God is clearly pushing us towards something that may be scary, confusing, or out of our comfort zone, it is a test of trust and obedience. “If the Spirit is the defining mark of God’s activity and God’s people, then who can stand in God’s way if he has shared his Spirit with the Gentiles?” (Jipp, 80). God is clearly pushing to break the divide between Jews and Gentiles and all people. He wants all people to know Him and have a relationship with Him. It really shows how much tension there was between the Jews and Gentiles when you think about how Cornelius was a God-fearer (Acts 10:2) which, as you suggested, he could very well have been following the same dietary restrictions as the Jews. The thought of this implies tension because, even if Cornelius (a Gentile) followed the dietary laws that the Jews did, the Apostles were STILL hesitant and in shock that Peter entered his home. Simply just because he was a Gentile. “God is the one who has rendered insignificant the social divisions between Jew and Gentile, and his command requires that Peter’s understanding of God undergo transformation” (Jipp, 79).

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  7. As mentioned in the initial blog post, food laws and the status of clean vs. unclean foods had always been an issue between Jews and Gentiles. Initially, the law laid out by Moses dictated the kinds of food that were acceptable (Deuteronomy 14:1-21). This list included a large portion of foods unclean that neighboring people groups considered normal food. Daniel 1:8-21 also comes to mind as a circumstance in which a Jew (Daniel) would not partake in the food of another people group. However, Peter states that it is unlawful for him to be there. This seems far stretched….almost as though Peter is assuming that food laws and other laws of cleanliness somehow make it unlawful for Peter to associate at all with the Gentile.
    This is of course debunked by God Himself only a few verses prior (Acts 10:9-16).

    As people, it is easy for us to decide not to associate with other people because they are different than us. It seems that this is what Peter is actually concerned about. Cornelius is a God-fearing Gentile (to make some assumptions, let’s just say that Cornelius is not all that much different than Peter aside from the fact that he is not Jewish by blood). This is similar to many racial issues today, even down to just simple prejudice against people because they don’t do things the same way we do.

    Peter makes a brilliant conclusion to the matter, however, in stating that “everyone” who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness (Acts 10:43). This of course trickles over to human-to-human interaction. If God has forgiven the Gentile of His sin, then of course the Jew must also forgive the Gentile (otherwise the Jew would oppose God in a sense).

    The debate in Acts 15 is an important turning point in the story of Christianity. After the Jerusalem Council, it is deemed that Gentiles must simply believe, and begin to “act like Christians” in the sense that they would abstain from sinful things. The ritual act of circumcision would no longer define God’s people, but rather the circumcision of the heart. This is incredibly important as it fulfills the concepts of the Old Testament in which God would fulfill the law and instead write His law on the hearts of the people (Jeremiah 31:33), and rather than being circumcised in the flesh, they would be circumcised in the heart (Deuteronomy 10:21). The passage in Deuteronomy even declares that God loves the sojourner and commands His people to do so (Deuteronomy 10:18-19). This is actually in opposition to Peter’s initial stance, saying that it was unlawful to associate with the Gentile. Rather, it was commanded of Peter to love the Gentile, and if he was to do this he would treat the Gentile with grace, respect, and compassion.

    To conclude a bit of rambling, it is no surprise that Peter was uncomfortable (because what he was doing was very much against the cultural norms of the day). But it was commanded of him to love the Gentile because God loved the Gentile (just as we are commanded to love God because God loved us first [1 John 4:19-21]). Love fulfills the whole law, so therefore Peter should treat the Gentile just as he would treat a Jew and thereby fulfill the law, not break it! (Romans 13:8-10).

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  8. I think that Peter was following the good Jewish heritage that he had grown up with all of his life. A good lesson from this passage could be that God calls us to places that we are often uncomfortable with. But as regards to Peter, while Cornelius probably did follow the food laws just as well as Peter did, Peter did not know that. For all Peter knew this Gentile only followed the few laws set forth in Deuteronomy 5:14. With all of the things that Peter didn’t know it was only with his faith in Jesus that Peter decided to enter Cornelius’ home and minister to him.

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