Acts 10 – Roman Soldiers and Religion

The CenturionCornelius was part of the Italian Regiment (Acts 10:1), a cohort based in Syria and part of the Roman administration for the region. The centurion was the “backbone” of the Roman army and the most important tactical officer (Keener 2:1743). In the first century a soldier normally served about twenty years, although some centurions chose to stay longer in the military for a longer period of time. Officers were forbidden by Roman law to marry, although this law was not always enforced.

A centurion may have taken a local wife or concubine. In the case of Cornelius, his household may have included a wife and children along with slaves. Keener reports a soldier during the time of Augustus received 225 denarii a year and were responsible for their own clothing weapons and food, a centurion received 3,750 denarii (2:1749). Purchasing a slave may have been difficult for an average soldier, but not impossible for a veteran centurion.

It is possible Cornelius was retired from the army and living in Caesarea. If so, he was Roman citizenship and may have had some status in the community. Since he has a household with multiple servants and can devote himself to almsgiving, he may have been at least moderately wealthy.

But is it possible a Roman soldier would practice any form of Judaism? He was obviously not a proselyte since he remained uncircumcised. As a soldier, pork would have been a major part of his diet (Polybius 2.15.3), although Letter of Aristeas 13 indicates Jewish soldiers were present in Ptolemaic Egypt, presumably such a large force was provided appropriate foods. Keener gives quite a bit of evidence Roman soldiers were very religious as the rise of the Mithras cult indicates (2:1754). Soldiers appear to have been free to worship whatever gods they desired as long as these gods did not interfere with their loyalty to Rome as expressed in the imperial cult.

Could a person worship the God of Israel remain a loyal Roman soldier? It is possible to behave morally and to acts of kindness as a Roman. It is not as though participating in the imperial cult required immorality and cruelty! One could practice some Jewish practices without appearing to be disloyal to the Romans. But from the perspective of a Pharisee such a person was only playing at being a Jew.

14 thoughts on “Acts 10 – Roman Soldiers and Religion

  1. Interesting…

    Have you read Thomas Kazen’s Jesus and Impurity Halakah? He suggests that while the Gospels and Luke-Acts narrative were being written, Pharisaism was a rising political entity as the Temple was no longer a viable center of worship. Such ideas are apparent through the differences of Gentile treatment in SibOr3 and SibOr5. That said, how may the increase in Pharisaic power as the early Church developed have influenced Luke’s presentation of Cornelius?

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  2. Good questions and good insides. (very small mistake in the first sentence (is/was)but don’t want to mention mistakes! 🙂 ) I loved the article.Do you have a list of the references you are citing?

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    • For the most part I am following Craig Keener’s new Commentary on Acts, published by Baker. It is four volumes (about 1000 ages each!), although only three are currently available. The book has a wealth of primary source material in the footnotes.

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  3. In Acts 10:2 the Bible tells us that Cornelius and his family were God fearing, generous, and prayerful. Later Peter says in Acts 10:34-35 that God does not show favoritism and that God accepts those from any nation. In reading the Bible it is clear that God accepts anyone who comes to him. In the previous chapter, Acts 9, we see that God works in Saul’s life. Saul was definitely not welcomed quickly by the Jews once he began to follow Christ. It is clear through both of these examples that God was choosing unlikely people for his ministry. I think in the cultural sense people might not have believed Cornelius at the time. In this blog post it says that “Soldiers appear to have been free to worship whatever gods they desired as long as these gods did not interfere with their loyalty to Rome.” From reading Acts 10 it does not appear as if Cornelius is just playing at being a Jew. Peter’s speech from Acts 10: 34-43 illustrates that Cornelius and those with him were truly interested in following the Lord.

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  4. It is definitely possible somewhere along the way Cornelius and his family had converted. It was mentioned before that the transition from the Saul story to Peter was about three years. Yet, it was also anticipated in the Hebrew Bible that Gentiles would participate in a worship of God (Num. 15:13-16; Long, p. 69). So while it is definitely difficult to understand how a Roman centurion could be God-fearing, Cornelius shows his quickness to learn more from Peter about what really has gone on. Calling Peter to his house, Cornelius seeks to understand the ways and maybe also wants to disregard his life before as part of the Italian Cohort.

    Sounds much like a Christian-conference of our day where we would go to learn more of (insert certain subject of ministry) and to understand such subject more from (insert famous ministeral person).

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  5. Acts 10: 1-8 shows God’s faithfulness to those who believe in Him. Acts 10: 4b says, ” Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.” God still answers the prayers of those that we think do not deserve to have answered. God also reaches out to people that are from any household whether wealthy or poor. God provided help for a soldier who was having trouble being a soldier and believing in the almighty God. God made it even more possible for Peter to be comfortable entering Cornelius’ household by sending Peter a vision in Acts 10:10. God puts people in our lives for a reason, and we can learn good things from them.

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  6. I agree with Bubba when he says that is is definitely possible that Cornelius and his family were converts to Judaism. As stated in the main post, Roman soldiers were allowed to worship any God of their choosing as long as it did not interfere with their loyalty to Rome.
    to me this really is what we are facing as Christians today. We are living in a country that is moving away from God. We are able to practice our own religions but that does not allow us to do illegal things because of our religion. The Bible says in Romans 13:1-2 to submit to the governing authorities because God has placed them in that position over us for a reason. It seems that Cornelius would have been going through the same thing. Yes, being a centurion presented it’s own obstacles against Christianity but I think that Cornelius was submitting to his governing authority to the point that he was not disloyal and was also following God as a God-fearing Gentile.

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  7. I think it is interesting that Tyler pointed out that being a centurion and practicing Judaism is similar to being a Christian in America. Though I do see the similarities, and I am NOT saying that I disagree, I do not think that a centurion could fully practice Judaism. As pointed out in the original post, pork would be a big part of the diet of a soldier thus making it nearly impossible to practice kosher so Pharisees would say that the soldiers were just pretending to be Jews. I think that I would probably say that Cornelius and his family probably converted to Judaism after he retired from the military.
    Going along with all of that, I think that, as it was pointed out in the original post, just because you are part of the army at this time, you are not automatically a terrible person. It is completely possible that Cornelius was a good guy who maybe even wanted to observe Judaism during his time in the military and just waited until he was out to do it.

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  8. It was mentioned that Cornelius was possibly retired from serving Rome. God could have spoken to his heart during this time and when he was able to retire he accepted the Lord. Because of this, it is likely that Cornelius was a new believer which would make sense as to why he was looking to learn from Peter. The charge from Jesus was to reach the ends of the earth. If that is the case then it has to be possible.

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  9. I think it is possible for Cornelius to be a Roman Soldier and a follower of God. I think it more of like a Christian being in a position of power to make change. However, it was mentioned that he was retired and maybe in between this time, he came to know Christ. Peter was charged to bring the gospel to everyone, so being a follower of God and a Roman soldier is not a terrible thing.

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