In a previous post, I sided with the consensus view that there were God-fearing Gentiles in Synagogues in the first century, although I am hesitant to describe this as a semi-official class, nor do I think there was a significant number of these Gentiles. Part of my reason for this is the controversy which developed as Paul’s mission began to have success among the Gentiles. If there was one or two Gentiles who wanted to worship in the Synagogue with the Jews that was manageable. But by the time Galatians is written, there are so many Gentiles accepting Christ that some begin to wonder about their relationship to the Law.
Cornelius, however, is described as a pious Jew. He performs “acts of kindness” not unlike Tabitha in Acts 9:36. Since the Angel tells Cornelius that these acts of kindness have come before the Lord, it appears that there is some connection between his efforts and his vision.
The giving of alms was thought to atone for sin in Second Temple period Judaism, (in addition to the Sirach texts below, see Tobit 14:10). This is important since he is unable, as a Gentile, to worship in the Temple. His only access to an “atoning sacrifice” is through prayer and alms – the equivalent of sacrifice for a Jew (Witherington, Acts, 348).
Sirach 3:14 For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, and will be credited to you against your sins,
Sirach 3:30 As water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sin.
Sirach 29:12 Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from every disaster.
When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus responded with the Shema, but as a second command he said “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:28-34). This reflects the common thinking of first century Judaism. The importance of charity and love as a practical outworking of the shema is seem in the many commands in the Old Testament concerning treatment of the poor.
As Ed Sanders points out, this love of neighbor and stranger is not a nebulous feeling of goodwill, it is to be expressed in concrete and definable actions: do not slander, oppress, rob, etc. (Judaism: Practice and Belief, 231). If one’s heart is right before God, then one will take care of the poor; alternatively, if one is not taking care of the poor, then it is obvious there is a heart-problem.
This story resonates with the Hebrew Bible in many ways. Like Elijah or Elisha, Peter is going to a righteous outsider. Cornelius’s righteousness is expressed in terms of the Hebrew Bible and the Covenant with Israel. Cornelius is on the boundary between what it means to be Jew or Gentile. He is a “model Jew” compared to Herod Agrippa or Simon the Tanner, except he is a Gentile!