Acts 11 – Cornelius and Judaism’s Boundary Markers

When did the earliest believers begin to question the “boundary markers” of Judaism?  By “boundary markers” I mean primarily circumcision, food laws and keeping Sabbath. It is not really possible to describe Peter and John as preaching to Jews in the Temple that what Jesus did on the cross freed them from the Law.


One reason for this is that there were few Jews who saw the Law as a slave master from which they longed to be free.  For the men worshiping in the Temple, and likely for those in the Greek-Speaking Synagogue of the Freedmen, keeping the law was a privilege given to them by God.  There were likely few Jews if any who would have relished the chance to throw off the constraints of the Law.  In fact, the Maccabean Revolt indicates that the majority of Jews were willing to fight in order to be allowed to keep the Law!

For me, this indicates that the Jewish believers in Jerusalem continued to practice Judaism in every way.  The question “should we continue to circumcise our children” or “should we eat prohibited foods” simply would never have come up in the early years. Jesus is Messiah and Savior, but he did nothing to cancel the Jewish believer’s commitment to the Law.  Another indication of this is that many Pharisees and other “zealous” Jews joined the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:5, 21:20-21).  If Peter, John, Stephen or Philip urged Jews to defect from the Law, the reaction to Paul is unintelligible.

The boundary markers only became an issue after a significant number of Gentiles joined the church, likely in Antioch first, but certainly in Paul’s first churches in Galatia. Acts 11:20 indicates that the church at Antioch limited their evangelism to Jews until men from Cyprus came and evangelized the Hellenists.  The noun Eλληνιστής refers to Greek speaking Jews (BDAG), not Greeks.  The ESV footnote says that the word refers to Greek speaking non-Jews, but this explanation is not correct and misses the point Luke is trying to make.  The Christians at Antioch are targeting both Hebrew/Aramaic speaking and Greek speaking Jews just like what was happening in Jerusalem until the persecution scattered the believers.

Even if these Hellenists are Gentiles, it is likely that the Gentiles who were joining the church in Antioch were doing so as God-fearers. This was the recognized practice in the synagogues anyway.  There was no compulsion for these God-fearing Gentiles to submit to circumcision, although it appears that in every other respect they kept the Law and traditions of the Jewish people.  The fact that the apostolic representative Barnabas was pleased with the progress in Antioch indicates that the Law is still respected and kept in these Christian synagogues.

There is really no “questioning of the boundary markers” until the first Pauline mission, when the gospel is preached outside of the synagogue and Gentiles who were not already God-fearers accepted Jesus as savior.  If Luke’s story ended in Acts 11, then Christianity would have remained a messianic sect of Judaism.

13 thoughts on “Acts 11 – Cornelius and Judaism’s Boundary Markers

  1. Many Christians have the simplistic understanding that the law was somehow an unwanted constricting confinement on the lives of Israel. But to read a post like this and realize that most Jews saw abiding by the law as an honor, changes our perspective on the switch that was made in Acts 11 when Peter has the vision of clean and unclean animals. Like Dr. Long said in class, it was not as though the Jewish people threw up their arms and hollered joyous shouts at the news of being able to eat bacon. It is fascinating to think that if the progress of the gospel’s reach would have stopped in Acts 11, we would be a Messianic sect of Judaism that included Gentiles – those who had put their faith in God as Gentiles and were considered God-fearing Gentiles (11:1). It is obvious that it took a miraculous revelation to Peter here in Acts 11 for there to start to be the cessation between clean and unclean. The vision of the sheet coming down with the animals, the angel speaking to Peter, and the men who come to his door from Caesarea and received the Holy Spirit were all necessary in order to make such a huge change. God’s plan of salvation was being revealed only through the power of the Holy Spirit.
    “And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction” (Acts 11:12).

    • Leah I really like how you described Christian’s in your first sentence. “Many Christians have the simplistic understanding that the law was somehow an unwanted constricting confinement on the lives of Israel.” I definitely agree with you! I thunk many times we forget that that was how life was for the Jews, that’s what they knew to be the “norm” and the law. Almost the same way many of us who eat meat thing veagnism is strange and unordinary. In my family it’s not a meal without meat on the table. But what is normal for us now was never normal for the jews. I would imagine that although Peter had the vision of the meat on the blanket and having been given God’s permission to eat it, it took a lot for the Jews to eat it….or maybe they were super excited! Who knows!

  2. I think that it’s far too common for Christians today to view the dispensation of Law as the “dark ages” in history, but it’s a good reminder to see here that Jews didn’t see it that way. A lot of the time we have this mindset that Grace is good and Law is bad but both dispensations had a proper time and purpose and both accomplished what God intended them to. Romans 5:20 (NASB) says “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more”. The whole idea of the dispensation of grace wouldn’t even work if mankind didn’t know that they needed it. Christianity relies on the big picture, God’s master plan as a whole. The Jews were honored to uphold the Law of God and we are humbled to be under Grace.

  3. The fact that many of these Gentile converts were probably God-fearers helps explain why people seemed to be so upset about Paul’s preaching to pagans. If those converts had previously been trying to live lives that lined up closely with those of the Jews it would probably have been a big surprise to them that a pagan could get saved and be saved without following the rituals that many of the God-fearing gentiles had committed to following. I would agree that should the rest of acts not been written, we would see a much more Jewish church. The Jewish people, including Paul, did not see the law as a bad thing. Paul had to explain that the law had its purpose saying “But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Galatians 3:22). However it became apparent over time that the gentiles were not bound to follow the law. In response to Peter deciding not to eat with Gentiles Paul said “But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”” (Galatians 2:14). At the time, no one was being asked to conform to the Jewish way of living they came to it voluntarily and in the process were converted to Christianity. I agree that the boundary markers did not come into question until those not living as Jews got saved.

  4. I really like what you said about how the Jewish people saw it as some sort of their right given o them by God to keep these laws that God has given them. even though it is something that did not particularly need to be done. it is like the example that you gave in class today about eating a cat, you just do it… it’s just gross. when I think of the GREAT American equal to this is the right to bear arms, it is like our right and duty as great American people to have guns, but what happens when all the world is at peace, and we don’t need to ever carry another gun, all of us Americans will freak out and say but why? we love to do it.

  5. This is a great example of the importance of studying and understanding the differences between our culture and the culture of those in these passages, particularly the Jews. I think that, because we have always had a large amount of ‘freedom’ compared to the Jews that whenever we read of restrictions, they endure we view it as a negative thing. We don’t see the meaning behind it or the significance of it and it is so countercultural we naturally assume it as a bad thing. It is interesting to read about how the Jews really felt about the Law at that time.

    In class today there was an interesting comparison between how Peter seemingly was disgusted by the thought of eating unclean foods in his dream. When observing this passage, we should understand that, because Peter was Jewish, he culturally never ate these types of foods and was taught that to do so was not good. In class we compared this to eating meat from a dog or a cat. In our culture (if I understand correctly) this is not against the law, but it is very much so against our culture. In the same way was the Jews and unclean foods. Again, it is important to understand their thought process and their culture when reading about them in these passages.

    • In your first paragraph, I like that you point out that we don’t recognize the significance of the rules/ laws. We simply see that they are restrictive and assume the restrictions are a bad thing. I’ve noticed as a believer that when I first started reading the Bible, I never took the time to stop and realize it was written in a completely different time period and culture. The specific struggles and needs of the church back then don’t necessarily apply to our struggles. The overall meaning and broad theme of the passage and teachings do but not the exact specifics. If we dug into more of the specifics of why the laws were in place we honestly gain a deeper understanding of Jesus. They were also in place to hold the people of that time period accountable. This is supercritical because the reason for holding someone accountable is to bring them closer to Jesus or strengthen a bond among believers. Accountability is a good thing but a lot of times can be viewed just like the laws as restrictive or a negative thing.

      The breakdown you give in your second paragraph helps to put in perspective your thoughts in the first. With my first observation of the text, I would have no idea why Peter is disgusted by unclean foods. Being an immature Christian, I would account for the taste or smell but being more mature I would do as you did and dive deeper into the text. Acts 11:12 is a great example of this. After researching the passage and using outside knowledge I see that all kinds of animals would include both clean and unclean animals (ESVSB notes), but I would not have known that from quickly reading the passage.

  6. Gentiles keeping the law didn’t become a problem until a large number of Gentiles joined the church. The debate was do the Gentiles keep the sabbath? what about food laws? what of circumcision? Now that the Gentiles became part of the church does that make them free of the law. When Barnabas was sent to Antioch to validate the claims of the Gentile believers. “When he arrived he saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts (Acts 11:23).” According to what scripture tells us Barnabas didn’t see a problem with the Gentiles keeping the law.

  7. Boundary markers for the Jews really din’t come into play until Gentiles who didn’t want to keep the law came into play. I think the real question that needs to asked when considering what laws do these Gentiles need to abide by and which laws don’t apply to them, is which laws did Jesus reiterate and makes points on. Loving God and loving others are at the top of that list, but when it comes to food laws and circumcision I don’t think they need to apply to Gentiles. I do think that following a general sabbath would be a good idea, but the Gentiles do not need to keep many of the sabbath traditions, rather they should just need to keep a day of rest.

  8. I believe that the markers didn’t really matter until Gentiles felt some type of way and didn;t want to use the Laws that was created because they felt it wasn’t fair laws for them. It makes me wonder what Laws does the gentiles want? Why can’t they follow the rules like everyone else. I don’t feel like the rules was very hard and it was asking you was to obey and love your neighbor and God with the most respect and that just some simple rules that they asked fo

Leave a Reply