One of the basic assumptions most Christian have about Jews in the first century is they kept separate from the Gentiles. Josephus says Jews “did not come into contact with other people because of their separateness” (Antiq. 13:245-247). Any Gentile who chooses to live according to the Law of Moses may be admitted, but otherwise there is no real fellowship with Gentiles.
Josephus, Against Apion 2.210 Accordingly our legislator [Moses] admits all those that have a mind to observe our laws, so to do; and this after a friendly manner, as esteeming that a true union, which not only extends to our own stock, but to those that would live after the same manner with us; yet does he not allow those that come to us by accident only to be admitted into communion with us.
But perhaps the situation was not as strict as Josephus would have us believe. Gentiles were not totally excluded from Jewish worship. The Temple in the first century was expanded to include a large “court of the Gentiles” providing a place for Gentiles to worship. 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 (see for example the story in Mark 7:24-30 or the parallel in Matthew 15:22-28)
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” (Deut 5:14) define Gentiles as resident aliens and require only a few general laws for them while they are living within Israel. These are similar to the commands given by James at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:24-29 for Gentiles. Although it seems odd to a modern reader, the two biggest factors for avoiding Gentiles were food laws and circumcision. Because Gentiles ate food the Jews considered unclean, for some Jews contact with Gentiles was to be avoid.
Did Jews of the first century consider Gentiles impure and therefore exclude them from the courts at the temple? In the Second Temple re-telling of the story of Joseph known as Joseph and Asenath we are told Joseph never ate with the Egyptians, for this was an abomination to him” (7:1). In fact, he refuses to even kiss the lovely Egyptian Asenath because her lips have touched unclean food.
Several Second Temple period texts indicate Jews did not mix at all with Gentiles:
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, every one 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.”
In any case, it was certainly not normal for a Jewish missionary from Jerusalem to turn up in the home of a Gentile to teach them about the God of the Hebrew Bible (as did Peter in Acts 10). If a Gentile was worshiping in the Temple or synagogue, such as Cornelius, then that Gentile would be welcome to hear the gospel. But for the Jewish mission in Judea as described in the book of Acts, the home of a Gentile is not really the normal venue for missionary activity!
Yet Paul is called to be the “light to the gentiles” and planned to take the Gospel to places where it has not gone before. He immediately goes to the Roman province of Arabia and begins to do evangelism among the Gentiles. On the island of Crete Paul intentionally approaches the Roman governor Sergius Paulus, and in both Lystra and Iconium he targets Gentiles outside of the Synagogue with the Gospel.
If the examples listed above are a fair reading of Judaism in the first century, then how radical was Paul’s Gentile mission strategy? Is the reaction of both Christian and non-Christian Jews to his interaction with Gentiles a hint at how radical Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was for Second Temple Jews?