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.

21 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.

  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.

    • 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).

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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).

  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).

  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.

  9. Acts 10:27-29 describe Peter as scared and unsure about entering the home of a gentile. This might strike modern readers, unaware of first-century Judaism and its ancient traditions, as strange and unnecessary. Why would Peter be hesitant to spread the gospel to someone, regardless of his gentile status, if they needed to hear about Jesus Christ the Jewish Messiah? When one observes the customs and long-standing traditions of the Jewish community, it becomes apparent that interaction between Jews and gentiles was very limited or non-existent. In the temple itself, existed an outer court which Gentiles were allowed to congregate in, while the inner-courts was reserved for Jewish people only. As Long notes, many second temple period texts suggest that Jews and gentiles did not associate at all. For example, Jubilees 22:16 speaks to Jacob saying to separate himself from gentiles, not eating the same food or associating with them at all. Furthermore, Tobith 1:10-12 speaks about the writer who was taken in captivity to the Assyrians, detailing that he kept from eating the food of the Gentiles, unlike his fellow Jewish companions. These texts, specifically the refraining from eating the food of the Gentiles, helps us understand the predicament Peter thought himself to be in. It should be noted that the issue is not simply speaking with a gentile but accept hospitality, which would include foods that Jewish people would not eat. This fear of impurity drove many Jews to disassociate from gentiles entirely, yet Peter’s fear could potentially be deeper rooted. Cornelius, who already feared the Lord, might have kept the food laws just as Peter. His fear to reach out to Cornelius might describe the greater cultural and social barriers and issues of the Jewish people.

  10. The way that Jews and Gentiles interacted in the first century reminds me of racial segregation from the 1950s to the 1960s. Racial segregation was ended by The Civil Rights Act of 1964 when all of the state and local laws existing related to segregation were banned. Segregation had been happening in some form ever since the Civil war, but the closer we drew near to 1964, the more people began to integrate until integrating was the only option. This is similar to the Jews and Gentiles of the first century as, they too, often found themselves segregating from one another. The Gentiles even had a separate place of worship in the temple called the “court of the Gentiles” (Long, pp. 2). Two main reasons for this separation are the Jew’s call to be a separate nation (1 Kings 8:53), and their strict food and purity laws (The Torah). What Peter should have noted about Jesus when He was on earth, was the fact that He spoke to, and even ate with Gentiles (Matt 15:29-39). If God Himself, loved the Gentiles and saw their worth regardless of the Jewish laws they kept, so should have Peter. I believe the social status that was connected to eating or communing with Gentiles was Peters’ biggest issue. Long (pp. 1), explains how “taboo” or “strongly frowned upon” engaging in this kind of activity was, but regardless of status, God calls Christians to love one another. This is also true for us as Christians today. Certain social situations may feel uncomfortable, or some conversations may seem politically inappropriate. Regardless of the outside factors or social situations, God still calls us to love one another as Christ loved us (John 13:34) and to share His love with everyone.

  11. There were so many different rules and religious laws to be kept by those in the Book of Acts. It is so interesting to see the difference of how people acted before they know about what Jesus did on the cross, and after. As Jews strictly keep all the laws, and Gentiles keep all but a couple, they still will not associate. I can see why it would be a controversy.
    Even relating to today, there are so many different “rules” and “laws” the church tries to get believers to buy into. Some are a part of the Law that were now paid for by the blood of Christ. Some are simply putting their own twist on what they believe a Christ follower should be boxed into. Despite the Gentile or Jew perspective, sometimes our beliefs can get in the way of seeing others the way Christ sees them. If we are fighting for what is right or wrong to do, we have missed the point.
    The more we fight to see the heavenly perspective and see how Jesus plays a role in our faith, I believe greater unity will come amongst many of the believers of many nations. No matter what, we are all fallen and broken, not knowing the full truth of right and wrong. This should propel us to get to know Jesus even more, so that we can become aligned with His heart for what the life of a believer should look like, and allow the Holy Spirit to do His work in each of us.

  12. Humankind is sinful by nature and the mistreatment of people groups has been sadly going on since the fall. Jeremiah 17:9 captures the depth of our sinfulness: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” However, God’s Word provides hope and guidance. Colossians 3:12 reads, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” Galatians 5:22-23 reminds us “the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Philippians 2:3 encourages us to “be humble, and honor others more than yourselves.” Mark 12:31 shares the second commandment (just after “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind soul and strength”) which is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Such verses give us guidance and encouragement to overcome the sinful desire to discriminate against people groups.

    Polhill (p. 2103) writes “The Jewish traditions of purity made it virtually impossible for them to associate with Gentiles without becoming ritually unclean.” In Peter’s vision, God revealed that this concept was wrong. “What God has made clean, do not call common.” (Acts 1-:15). Imagine Paul’s and Peter’s initial reaction when they were called to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles!

    Long writes, “some Jews in the first century did in fact avoid contact with Gentiles in order to avoid impurity.” This reminds me of Jonah who got himself in quite a predicament by trying to avoid going to minister to the people of Nineveh. Jonah was repulsed and ran to Tarshish rather than obey God and share God’s message with the likes of the Ninevites.

    Tension between people groups has been an issue since the fall when sin entered the world, it continued during Peter’s ministry, and it continues today. God’s word is filled with grace and encouragement to overcome that sinful nature as we seek to become more like Jesus each day by spending time with Him and in His Word. We cannot just accept the fact that people are sinful. We must endeavor to improve, aim to treat people equally, and strive to be more Christ-like.

  13. If there is one thing that stands out the most within the narrative of Acts 10 is that God is breaking huge barriers between the Jews and Gentiles, more so making the Jews feel extremely uncomfortable and breaking through centuries of laws and boundaries. At first, it takes Peter a second to comprehend and accept that God is telling him to preach to all people, Jews and Gentiles, but soon he comes to terms that “God shows no partiality” (10:34b). The way that Peter would live out the rest of his life was changed forever after this moment with God, and it would also change the lives of many Gentiles who were not accepted by the Jews until Peter preached to them. The moment that the Holy Spirit descended on the crowds surrounding Peter sticks out to me mostly because of what a unique moment that it was in history. Polhil states, “The Holy Spirit fell in a way that was visible and audible from the response of the people on whom he fell. These Gentiles had come to genuine saving faith in Christ and had recieved the new covenant power and fullness of the Holy Spirit” (p. 2104). Again, this was a huge moment and the genuine acceptance of the Holy Spirit that the Gentiles displayed was something that Peter had never witnessed before. Not only were the rituals of things being clean and unclean being made null, but God was showing that salvation had no partiality and anyone was saved by Jesus’ sacrifice. What an amazing moment!

  14. One of the important things to note about Peter is that although he is a disciple of Jesus, he still makes mistakes and comes into the house of Cornelius with an unconscious set of biases. He grew up just like any other Jewish boy, learning the ways of the clean and unclean, and it may have been taught to him that Gentiles were unclean. At this point in the story of Acts, the ministry to the Gentiles would not have been extensive yet as Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles had not yet begun (Acts 13). Very similar to how they would have worshiped in the temple, this same expectation could have also been extended into the new church. This idea that they were willing to share the message of Jesus, but they would still hold on to the practices of their Jewish traditions in respect to clean and unclean, Jew and Gentile, food laws and eventually circumcision traditions as well. Despite Peter’s hesitancy to enter the house of Cornelius he so because God showed him that no person is common or unclean. He also states to Cornelius that, “God shows no partiality” (10:34). I find this very interesting that despite Peter knowing that God shows no partiality that he still has hesitancy in going to Cornelius’ house and then later disagreeing with Paul on circumcision of Gentile converts (Gal. 2). Peter’s stubbornness has always been what has gotten him into trouble but it’s also what has aided him in being so steadfast in his preaching of the message of Jesus Christ.

  15. When looking at the social barriers between the Jews and the Gentiles I am truly surprised how much tension went on between these two groups of people. Obviously, converted Gentiles were given enough respect to be given a court at the temple and were acknowledged to be “converted Jews”. Although I am curious if Gentiles actually followed the laws of clean and unclean foods. They did have “sojourner laws” but these applied to them when they lived in Israel. When converted Gentiles did not live in Israel I wonder if they kept to their culture and ate what they always had. Connecting this to today we see christians from all around the world eating differently and keeping to customs they always grew up with. But this does not make anyone wrong. I think that here we finally see God communicating to His people that different culture food practices are not bad. God gave us all sorts of food on Earth and He wants us to enjoy these gifts. We see a step away from the traditional Jewish law and a step towards faith in Jesus, which recognizes that we are saved by faith not works.

  16. I think that the biggest leap of faith that the people had to make in Bible times, such as Peter, was changing their beliefs and religious tendencies or traditions. Peter had a hard time, as you mention, receiving hospitality from a Gentile (since he was a Jew). The reason that Peter was so concerned was because of purity laws and other issues that he saw socially with interacting with Gentiles. Even though this is after God made us all equal through Christ’s redemptive work on the cross it would take a while for society and the world to catch on to the immediate change that happened with Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. Peter and others who knew God’s plan through revelation knew the importance of interacting with Gentiles, but they had to be careful to appeal to both the worldly laws and regulations against it while trying to treat Jews and Gentiles equally as God revealed to Peter with the vision of the sheet (Acts 10) and to Paul at his “conversion” (Acts 9).

  17. The encounter between Peter and Cornelius seems like it would have been a bit socially awkward. Cornelius is fully expecting Peter to come and was told this in a vision. When Peter arrives, he is hesitant to accept hospitality from Cornelius because it is “unlawful” for a Jew to associate with a Gentile. Later however, Peter makes the statement that “God shows no partiality” and that “anyone who fears him…is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). This shows how Peter realizes that God also used Cornelius as a “God fearing man.” Peter’s statement shows how he was raised to think something that was not necessarily from God. Polhill adds that unlawful was “not in terms of violating Old Testament commands, but not following the later customs of strict Jewish traditions about uncleanness” (Polhill 2103). This shows how the Jewish religion took ideas and made their own “rules” with them. It was something that Peter did not know any different from and had a type of implicit bias with the Gentile community. Long adds that the rule was more intended with food, but many “avoided contact with Gentiles in order to avoid impurity” (Long 2019). The concept of this rule makes me think about rules put on religions today. Whether that be implementing ideologies from a previous dispensation that Jesus dying for us covered, or twisting and interpreting scripture to fit their own agenda. Ultimately, we should be encourage to draw close to Jesus and see where he leads us and convicts us to not fall into rules apart from God’s teaching.

  18. Reading throughout this passage and seeing how these types of people just stayed away from each other because they were different is honestly not shocking to me but is something I cannot relate to because I actually enjoy other people’s cultures that are different than my own. I understand the issues Peter had with the purity laws that conflicted with his beliefs and socializing with the gentiles was definitely not something jews did so I can see why He may have been up tight about it. Knowing that we are all created equal amongst each other

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