Acts 10 – What is a “God-Fearing Gentile”?

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.

A. T. 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.

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?

22 thoughts on “Acts 10 – What is a “God-Fearing Gentile”?

    • That was horribly written, I should be marked down for lack of clarity. “would be” = “could he”!!! Thanks for asking…what do you think? At this point in the book of Acts, no Gentile has accepted Jesus as Messiah without being a full proselyte to Judaism. Now Cornelius gets the Holy Spirit without being circumcised first, an unprecedented event in Acts, even if he is the “best Gentile imaginable.”

  1. I think that Cornelius would be considered a Gentile. Peter seems to believe he is going to the house of a Gentile and recognizes their encounter as being unlawful (10:28). Luke’s presentation of Peter’s experience seems to recognize this man as a Gentile. In verse 45 Luke specifically describes the people there as Gentiles and differentiates the Jewish believers as being circumcised. There shock involved the fact that uncircumcised people were getting saved. Luke’s presentation of the story seems to lean toward the idea that Cornelius was a Gentile.

    • Mary, great job on your discussion post this week. I noted that you think Luke believes Cornelius to be a Gentile. I agree with you regarding this point. This is seen throughout Acts 10. For example, it is seen when Peter realizes God now permits Jews and Gentiles to eat and gather with one another (Acts 10:28). Also, this is seen again in Acts 11 when Peter tells the other Jews why it is now acceptable to eat with ‘uncircumcised men’. However, this now brings us to the point of would Jews see him as being “right with God” even though he is uncircumcised? I believe before Acts 10 and 11 the answer to this question would have been no. Be that as it may, once Peter experienced the vision and the days with Cornelius he realized Gentiles could now be right with God. Other Jews started to believe this as well when Peter came back and told his tale. “And they glorified God, saying ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life (Acts 11:18).’” After all this took place Jews no longer saw Gentiles as unholy, uncircumcised men; rather, they saw them as God’s people who could receive repentance just as they could.

  2. I would say that Cornelius was technically a Gentile. Especially considering that Peter states how unlawful it is to be among them in verse 28. However, he was obviously a devout follower of YHWH who prayed and practiced obedience to God regularly (10:2). And even had a great reputation among the entire Jewish Nation (10:22). Sounds to me like he was literally as close to becoming a convert to Judaism without actually converting. And probably was a better practicing Jew than some Jews given his devotion to prayer and taking care of the poor. In light of all this, the important thing to acknowledge is that this is the first official time that Gentiles have heard the Good news and received the Holy Spirit. So on the matter of whether or not Cornelius is a Gentile or a Jew seems to not be important anymore. Peter tells them that God has just told him to show no partiality and to not call one person clean or unclean (10:28).

    • Andrew,
      I would agree with your statement in that, it really does not matter at this point on whether or not Cornelius was a Gentile or not. In Galations, Paul wrote that there is no difference between the Jews and Gentiles because of Jesus Christ and the unity in that (Galatians 3:28).

  3. God Fearing. Most of us today use this term in a “respectful” sort of manner. As in when we become God fearers, we know that we ought to be aware of what God can do. The power and authority that he has over us. In this case in Acts 10, Cornelius is indicated as “a God fearing and devout.” The article then writes on the definition of the word Devout. What I find very interesting is that being devout means you take pride essentially into a region or “god” who you want to show interest in basically. However, does this make Cornelius a God-fearing Gentile? Since we know in Acts 10 Cornelius was obedient to God. In verse 2 he is known for praying continuously, he gave alms generously. He is doing just about all that he can do. Now, the factor of being a Jew, Or Gentile comes into play. Since, it was a practice to become circumcised as a Jew, and if you were a gentile, you looked at circumcision as a negative aspect. And as the article writes, Cornelius did not take part in circumcision. However, the article clams that he “kept as close to the law as possible” This gets me thinking of a few things, If he isn’t considered a Jew, or Gentile, can he still be considered part of God? I think of different things that Christians do today, can one still be considered a Christian if they don’t get baptized? Can they still be a Christian if they don’t partake in communion every time that it is taken? We obviously know that the way to God isn’t through actions, or circumcision it’s through the heart. Certain things had to be done to be considered either a Jew or Gentile. I think he did everything right besides circumcision. He technically would be considered a Gentile then. But I think we should look at it as being a legit God fearer, or person of God. I think he did just that.

  4. The questions that you asked are extremely tricky. The Jews held to their heritage very proudly and knew that they were God’s chosen people, by passing down the past generational laws and scriptures. It is hard to decide what an exact Jew is, it is like trying to understand the nation of Israel. Many Jews would state that it is all the descendants of Abraham, and everyone not in that line are Gentiles or pagans. Yet, there has been Gentiles and foreigners who have become a part of the Jewish nation without having descended down from Abraham, Ruth and Rahab would be a couple examples of those. I would say according to the heritage of Cornelius and how the nation of Israel is defined Cornelius would be known as a Gentiles. I would say because of his faith and the theology that the resurrected Jesus was bringing about Cornelis could be seen as right with God in the Jewish perspective. Especially in the eyes of Paul who states that it is about having your heart circumcised.

  5. The whole idea of a God-fearer being created by Luke was new to me. I guess that I had just thought that because it was in the Bible it must have always been a fact, but Luke created this term for theological reasons and clarification. As stated, this term was not found at any synagogue. Being a Gentile and wanting to believe in God before there was a ministry or opportunity for the Gentiles to come to Christ is an interesting life style choice to look into. Obviously, we now view it as very important for everyone to believe in God and not just any god, but these Gentiles were put in a little bit of a tricky situation, which seems counter to the idea that we have that God wants everyone to come to know Him. However, even though these Gentiles were not accepted by the Jewish people, they did seem to barely tolerate them. They were allowed in the outer most court of the Temple to worship God, but they were still seen as unclean by the Jews, and not people that should be associated with. One would think that because the people that believed in God wanted nothing to do with the outsiders, then that would have been a good reason for the Gentiles to not want to believe in their God. But, there were things that a lot of outsiders did like about the Jewish faith and beliefs; because there were so many aspects such as high moral standings and constancy in worship that drew these people in. The question that remains is, can these Gentiles, that followed God and wanted to believe in Him be considered as Jews because of the time period and the fact that they were usually doing most of the same practices that the Jews were doing? Or does that even matter because God did send people to go an witness to the Gentiles?

  6. God-Fearing means that God is in the forefront of your life, mind, choices, heart, and body. It is often seen as a respect thing, or perhaps the whole Christian-ese ideology that we simply should try to sin less– which is a good thing no doubt– but being God-Fearing is more than just wanting or trying to sin less. It is more so the mindset and action of, “I am not going to sin because it is against the will of God, because of the grace he gives me I should strive not only to not sin but I should thrive in doing good and living for Christ.” That kind of ideology I think goes a long way when thinking about living in a God-Fearing way, and in terms of Cornelius, it was his lifestyle of desiring to grow closer to God I think that led him to his conversion to Christ. Cornelius was a man who desired to know the truth, but he was a Gentile and he was on the fence of really being a Hellenistic Jew, but he did not want to be circumcised. Does this disqualify Cornelius from being a Christian even back then? I do not think so, but in a period where Peter and Paul were preaching in a way that directed people to still understand and obey the Law, while also understanding that we are under a new Law through Jesus Christ, it is quite plausible and some might say absolutely needed that to be apart of the initial early church developing in Acts that you might need to conform to Jewish customs still. Does this make Cornelius less of a Jew, most likely, does that make him not a real Christian though, I do not think so.

  7. In Acts 10, Cornelius is described by Luke one who is devout and God-fearing. As Long notes, the word for devoted denoted someone who has committed to a particular religion and has deeply rooted veneration to either Greco-Roman or the God of Israel. It is probable that Cornelius was a near-convert to Judaism but had not been circumcised, yet still followed the law quite strictly. A “God-fearer”, as defined by Julius Scott, is roughly an unofficial class of Gentile who had limited participation in the worship but did not become a proselyte. The main topic of interest is that this class of Gentile was “unofficial”, no first-century document are author recognized this class of gentile, although it is believed that one or two of these individuals would exist in any given synagogue.
    According to A.T. Kraabel, after examining the archeological evidence, concludes that a “God-fearing” Gentile class did not exist in Diaspora synagogues. His investigation led to Kraabel examining over 100 synagogue inscriptions, none of which mentioned the term “God-fearing Gentile”. This leads to the assumption that Luke may have used this term for theological reasoning. However, this assertion, along with Paul’s letters, creates uncertainty and doubts about the historicity of God-fearing Gentiles.
    Craig Keener, who cited Kraabel’s article, offers evidence to suggest that these terms and similar were used to describe Proselyte gentiles and sympathizers. Suggesting that it would be inaccurate to assume the term was never used in application to Gentiles. Furthermore, recent archeological evidence may work against Kraabel’s conclusion. It was discovered that in Aphrodisias that at the minimum 50 gentiles were described as “God-fearers”.

  8. From what I see, it is clear that Cornelius was a gentile. When the Lord had given Peter a vision, when he spoke of not “calling anything impure that God has made clean” (15), Peter then realizes in verse 28, when he goes into a house of gentiles that God is speaking about making Gentiles pure, and even receiving the Holy Spirit after believing. The fact that the two main characters of this passage (Paul, and Cornelius) and the main point about the passage is about Gentiles, specifically ones not circumsized, receiving the Holy Spirit. I think that gives a lot of contextual evidence that Cornelius was a gentile. What is difficult about this is the title given to him and his family as “God-Fearers”. Does this make Cornelius just barley on the outskirts of being a believer, or does this refer to him “being right with God”? I think this would be considered a type of “pentecost” for the gentiles. Their’s a lot of similar events that happened compared to the pentecost story in Acts 2. The receiving of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, being baptized, and further spreading of the gospel. No matter what though, the point of what Cornelius was is minor compared to the point of the whole story. That no matter if you’re Jew or Gentile, you’ve been made pure in Christ’s blood, “God show no favoritism” and his spirit is not limited by any circumstances other than faith in Christ

  9. From a Jewish perspective, as mentioned in another blog post “[F]rom the perspective of a Pharisee such a person [as Cornelius] was only playing at being a Jew” since he wasn’t circumcised (Phillip Long). One of the things I thought about after reading this post was Paul recommending that Timothy get circumcised “because of the Jews who were in those places” (Acts 16:3, ESV).
    We know from Galatians that even Peter struggled considering Gentiles on the same level as circumcised Jews when he “separated himself, fearing the circumcision party” (Gal. 2:12, ESV). Even in Acts, we are told that “some men were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1, ESV). Thankfully, however, this was discussed and debated with Paul and Barnabas and the men (Acts 15:2, ESV).
    As far as was this a Pentecost for the Gentiles, I believe that, in a way it was because at least as far as we know, no Gentile had received the Holy Spirit until then which is why it was such an impactful and surprising event for the Jews when Peter tells them about it in Acts 11.
    Yes, I do believe that Cornelius could and was a part of the people of God. According to Galatians “it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” and therefore “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (3:7, 29, ESV). When Cornelius believed in and gave his life to Jesus, he was accepted into the covenant that very day as well.

  10. I find Luke’s use of “God-fearing” when describing Cornelius, something that would seem out of place to most Jews when describing a Gentile. However, this term may be appropriate because Cornelius was a man who believed in God and practiced some traditions but had not yet received the Holy Spirit. The story of Cornelius must be significant because of its repetitiveness in Acts (Polhill, p. 2102) and I would have to say that Luke used this choice of words to firstly show the significant difference of following God’s laws (which Cornelius was doing at this time) and receiving the Holy Spirit (which would happen to Cornelius towards the end of the chapter), and secondly, because it would be a term never used for someone who is a Gentile. From a Jewish perspective, Cornelius would be considered not “right with God” because of the fact that he was not circumcised, and this is especially proven later in chapter 11 when the “circumcision party” would criticize Gentiles being saved despite them not being circumcised (11:2-3). Obviously, it is possible for Cornelius to receive salvation because he later does accept the Holy Spirit, despite him being a Gentile. The story of Cornelius perhaps is a leeway or statement that God shows no partiality, whether a person is a Jew or Gentile, and Cornelius showed that this proved to be true. The salvation of Jews would be extremely controversial among Jews, and Cornelius is just one example of how “far” the grace of God will reach.

  11. You bring up some very interesting points regarding the phrase “God-Fearing” Gentile. I have never gone in depth on the history of this phrase and the different archaeological views on it. I like the definition you gave from Julius Scott above. Although they were unofficial, they still wanted to learn more about the God of the Jews. I think from the Jewish perspective in that day, Cornelius could not be considered “right with God” because he was not circumcised. I think this story opens up a whole new freedom for the Gentiles and a whole new thinking for Jews.

    This is such a great segway into the next part of Acts. The Jewish God thought to be so far away from Gentile God-Fearers was no longer so far away. They no longer needed to follow every custom of the Jewish religion to discover this new relationship. Luke does a great job of leading the readers into this new way of thinking. There is this huge paradigm shift. Gentiles are now able to have a relationship with God; and this relationship does not require being circumcised. Luke shares little by little this new expansion of the Church. This story also leads into Paul’s new thinking of no longer requiring Gentiles to be circumcised and Peter’s revelation about the food laws. When Christ died on the cross there was freedom. Freedom from old rules and the old way of thinking into a new beginning with both Gentiles and Jews able to worship God together.

  12. When I originally learned what the term “God-fearer” meant, I understood it as someone who knows of the power of God and lives their life obeying Christ because they know of the possibilities of His power. The apostle Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV). Just because someone is a God-fearer and obeys God, does not make them a follower of Christ (“Christian”, “believer”, whichever term you prefer). In this case with Cornelius, it is specifically mentioned that he is a “devout man who feared God…a Gentile who worshiped Israel’s God” (Polhill, p. 2103). Because Cornelius prayed fervently and committed to giving alms to the poor, it would still not determine his conversion to Judaism (especially since he is uncircumcised). It has been made a bit clearer to me that Christianity and Judaism are not the same thing, which is why I must readdress the passage in Ephesians – Cornelius’ works without faith is what prevents him from having salvation (Christianity) and him being uncircumcised is what sets him apart from the Jews. With all of this in mind, I believe that Cornelius was simply a Gentile because he was uncircumcised.

  13. This moment could indeed be considered a type of “Pentecost” for Gentiles for two reasons, which come from later chapters of Acts. In Acts 11, Peter reports the events at Cornelius’ home to the Jewish-Christian Church in Jerusalem, and they express doubt and uncertainty toward his claims that Gentiles received the Spirit. However, it is not the “apostles and brothers” who raise these objections, but rather the “circumcision party”, who maintained that Gentiles must be circumcised and must follow the Mosaic Law in order to receive Salvation (Polhill, 2008, p. 2105). Essentially, these Pharisaical Jewish-Christians believed that to become a Christian, one must first become a Jew (Polhill, 2008, p. 2105). This passage is important for Gentiles as it is made clear in verse 12 that the Spirit makes “no distinction” between Jew and Gentile, and so therefore neither are we. This episode from Acts could also be seen as a type of Gentile Pentecost due to the fact that this moment kicked off the missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas. After Peter witnesses the Spirit falling upon the Gentiles at Cornelius’ home, he reports his experience to the Christian brothers back in Jerusalem (Acts 11:1-18). The Hellens in Antioch are also being converted, and so both these events are told to Barnabas, who is sent to Antioch to validate the claims (Acts 11:19-24). Barnabas finds Paul in Tarsus and relays this information (Acts 11:25-26), leading to the beginnings of Paul’s missionary journeys to the Gentiles, fulfilling the Lord’s words to Ananias that Paul would be a light to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15).

  14. Cornelius was one of the first Gentile Christians to help spread the Gospel, including sharing the message that no one is to be excluded from the love and grace of God. Previously, the view that only Jews could be saved and have a relationship with Christ was shut down when the Holy Spirit fell upon those who heard the word and believe. The Gentiles heard the good news in Acts 10:34-48, and the Holy Spirit fell on them even though they were Gentiles. Peter reported this story to the church in Acts 11, sharing how the Holy Spirit fell not only on Jews, but now also the Gentiles. Acts 11:18 states, “And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life’” (ESV). When the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles, including Cornelius, this meant that Cornelius was considered “right with God” as a Gentile, despite not submitting to circumcision and Jewish tradition. It was still possible for Cornelius to be a part of the people of God because the Holy Spirit was upon him. It did not matter that he was far away from the Temple because they no longer needed to be near the temple to access God and connect with Him. The Holy Spirit within believers allows us to have a relationship with Him as he works through us to accomplish his plan of spreading the Gospel and expanding his kingdom. Our physical location does not matter because the Lord allows us to connect to Him with the Holy Spirit, no matter where we are. So, Cornelius could still be a part of the people of God even though he was far away from the Temple.

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