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.

23 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?

  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?

    • 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.

  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.

  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).

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  10. I think this is an interesting question. My first reaction was of course Cornelius could have remained a loyal Roman solider while worshipping the God of Israel. However, after reading a bit on the imperial cult it does make me rethink my initial thoughts. While you do say that soldiers appear to have been free to worship who they chose, if the imperial cult was the overarching force behind Rome I wonder if one could truly be devoted to Roman while worshipping God? According to Westfall, a direct worship of the emperor “was embedded in complex religious, social, economic, and political systems”. In that sense, I cannot see how Cornelius, who is described as fearing God, would have been able to remain a true and loyal Roman solider? Yes, he could have remained a solider, but was he loyal in the way that was expected of Roman soldiers? In Matthew 6:24, Jesus says that no one can serve and be devoted to two different masters. I may be completely wrong here, but with this verse in mind I believe that Cornelius did appear, on the outside, committed in the sense that duty would demand. However, as evident through his desire to hear Peter’s message in Acts 10:35, he was not truly loyal as his heart and devotion was ultimately to God.

    Westfall, Cynthia Long. Roman Religions and the Imperial Cult. Ed. John D. Barry et al. The Lexham Bible Dictionary 2016.

  11. There seems to be no reason why Cornelius should not be able to worship God and still be a loyal Roman citizen. As stated in the blog, the Roman soldiers appear to be allowed to worship whatever gods that they desire as long as it did not interfere with their duty to the country. It is known that there are many gods in the Roman culture as addressed in Acts 17:22-23 (as Beroea was also part of the Roman territory) so Cornelius’s worship to GOD would not have phased anyone. It seems that this thinking is played out some in Mark 12:17 as there is a small clash between the Roman lifestyle and the teachings of Jesus. However, in the end, there was nothing that Jesus said that contradicted the duty that people had to Rome nor the worship that they gave to God.
    The real question in my mind is, did Cornelius know who he was worshiping? If there are so many gods that he could choose from, did he choose God to worship at random and then later actually understand what he was doing, or did he pick God because he understood who He was from the beginning? Polhill noted that Cornelius is praying and giving alms according to Jewish customs, but as a gentile, he has not converted over to Judaism (2103). This relates then to what Long was saying about the thinking that the Jews would have had about him only playing the role of Jew rather than believing that he worshiped the same God that they did. However, it is clear that God has favor on Cornelius as he is given visions of Peter coming to him making it the first account of the Holy Spirit being poured out on Gentiles. This makes me think then that from the beginning, Cornelius had a true understood who God was even though we do not know how he knew. This was most likely the same way Abraham knew God and it was only officiated for Cornelius by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.

  12. It is interesting that religious freedom was allowed as long as it did not affect imperial worship and loyalty to Rome. I would imagine that was not a big deal to most people groups conquered by Rome, since they were polytheists. One of the big distinctives of Jews and Christians was the belief in one and only true God, which would definitely raise the question of their submission to the emperor and loyalty to Rome. As much as the Jews did not like living under Roman rule at that time, it still worked out well for them because they were still allowed to maintain their Jewish religious practices. Even Pilate did not seem bothered by Jesus being the king of the Jews (Luke 23:14-15). On the other hand, Jesus himself said, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” This indicates that one can remain faithful to God while maintaining their responsibilities to earthly authorities. The apostle Paul claims that Christians ought to respect governing authority out of submission to God (Romans 13:1), since their authority is instituted by God. In Acts 5:29, Peter says, “We must obey God rather than men” in response to the Sanhedrin demanding that they should not teach in the name of Jesus. This is a case of human authority going against God’s. Since all authority is from God, Peter and the apostles were justified in their stand. But might prove to be a complicated for a believing Roman centurion or soldier to explain if they found themselves in that situation.

  13. Something that stood out to me was the fact that Cornelius continued to “fear God” even as a Roman centurion. As you had mentioned, P. Long, Roman soldiers could worship any god that they wanted as long as they were loyal to serving Rome. I think that this freedom of religion is something that encouraged Cornelius to venture into Judaism practices which also led him to becoming so loyal to the Italian Cohort. Cornelius regularly prayed and gave alms to the poor, but he had yet to submit to Jewish conversion rites (Pohill, p. 2103). I think that Cornelius’ testimony is honorable in the way that it is a great example of a person that is learning the history of the crucifixion of Christ. While Christians urge non-believers to have faith and surrender their life to Christ, it is also really normal for individuals to have to initially learn about God on their own. My point is that Cornelius had his foot taking the first step toward Judaism but needed someone (in this case, Peter) to encourage him. Because the Roman soldiers had that “freedom of religion”, Cornelius was free to worship God and follow the law. I think this is very comparable to following man’s law. Mankind is ultimately instructed to obey God, but we are also told to submit to authority on earth. In Peter’s first letter he says, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be the emperor as supreme…” (1 Peter 2:13-25, ESV). Cornelius worshipped God when he regularly prayed and gave alms to the poor. Cornelius was able to worship God but also submit to mankind’s authority.

  14. There is definitely good reason to believe that someone such as Cornelius could be someone who worships God. In Acts 10:2 we are told that Cornelius and his family were God fearing, generous, and fearful which would give insight to the fac that you could be a Roman soldier and worship God. Even though Cornelius has committed terrible things while being a soldier that does not take away from the fact of what Saul had done. Peter states in Acts:34-35 that God does not have favorites and that He will accept anyone from any nation from any past. Back to Saul we can see that no matter what someone may commit God is willing to work in your life even when people would not believe so. Cornelius and Saul are perfect examples of God choosing the unlikely people to do His work, but I believe this was a part of the plan. God using these imperfect people would allow people to see that no matter what you may have done He will accept you for who are you if you devote your life to Him. Cornelius is not playing the part as a Jew either. Peter’s speech in Acts 10:34-45 gives us insight to the fact that Cornelius and the others that were with him were wanting to follow the Lord and even with your past God will accept you for who you are.

  15. “[F]rom the perspective of a Pharisee such a person was only playing at being a Jew” (Phillip Long). I believe that this statement is the key to answering the question of “Could a person worship the God of Israel and remain a loyal Roman citizen?” (Phillip Long). Yes, I believe so, because Cornelius was remaining loyal to God, not necessarily to the Jewish laws, but he was remaining loyal to both God and Rome. The Bible does not describe unworthy or evil men as “a devout man who feared God and prayed to God continually” (Acts 10:2, ESV). It also says further down in the chapter that Cornelius was even “well-spoken of by the whole Jewish nation” (Acts 10:22, ESV). I think that it was because of Cornelius’s fear and loyalty to God that God sent an angel to him in order that he might meet Peter and be saved along with his household, close friends, and relatives whom he visited to be there to hear Peter speak that day. Polhill comments on this by saying that Peter is saying that “God’s favor is made available to Gentiles also (those in ‘every nation’) [who] fear [H]im and does what is right” and this was proven when the Holy Spirit fell on and was received by the Gentiles who Peter was preaching to (2104). To conclude, I do believe that it probably was and is possible for someone to be both loyal to God and to his country.

  16. I have always loved the story of Cornelius, not only because it introduces the first Gentile into the Christian faith, but also because it shows the diversity of God’s people. “A devout man who feared God identifies Cornelius as a ‘God-fearer’, a Gentile who worshiped Israel’s God and was in some way attached to a synagogue but who had not submitted to Jewish customs” (Polhill, 2103). Cornelius is a wealthy Roman soldier. He is a good person. He prays and he gives away a lot of money to the poor. He is not Jewish, not circumcised, but he does worship the Jewish God. Overall it seems as though Cornelius may not have fit into either world in which he was living. As a Roman soldier practicing Judaism, it must have been very difficult to participate in a culture that believes you are oppressive. As a soldier Cornelius may have had to do things that were not Jewish, and the Pharisee would have never accepted him. But the Lord knew Cornelius’ heart, and the world could see his actions. That really is the beauty of the cross, although of course we are all sinful beings, Jews and Gentiles alike, the Lord created a plan that encompassed all, so that we can be seen as Christ. The Lord knew Cornelius’ heart and chose him to be the first Gentile to hear the message of the gospel. The Roman soldier turned into a dedicated follower of Jesus.

  17. The story of Cornelius has always been very interesting to me when reading and hearing about him about him and his Christian Faith. When I read this blog it makes me think about the versatile and how different God people is when it comes to this word. In the book of Acts they talk about how Cornelius is this very rich strong soldier that tries to do everything the right way. He gives back to the less just like I want to do when I make it in life. I believe that Cornelius is one of one and doesn’t really seen as a person that could adapt to any world but he comfortable in his own skin and is blessed at what he does while doing Gods work.

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