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.

Fence

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.

Acts 10 – Peter and Salvation of the Gentiles

After Cornelius receives the Holy Spirit, Peter returns to Jerusalem. The “circumcised believers” there asked him about his visit to a Gentile’s home. To what extent is Peter defending himself in this section? Luke says that they the circumcised believers “criticized him” (διακρίνω). The verb used is in the imperfect, so “began to criticize” is possible, although it may be an ongoing judgment on Peter – they “were criticizing” him. Keener suggests this is an indication Peter’s influence in Jerusalem has waned (2:1818), perhaps foreshadowing the controversies after Paul’s first mission to establish Gentile churches.

Peter's visionThe content of the criticism is that he enter the home of a Gentile and ate with them. Peter had been staying in the home of Simon the tanner and presumably eating with him. A Tanner is not a problem but table fellowship with a God-Fearing Gentile is a problem for the Jerusalem community. Keener points out this is ironic, since the Pharisees complained about Jesus eating with sinners (Luke 19:7, Zacchaeus); now the complaint comes from the “apostles and brothers” in Jerusalem (2:1821).

In fact, Peter himself is a bit disturbed by what happened with Cornelius. James Dunn entitles the section dealing with Peter’s vision as “the Conversion of Peter” (Beginning From Jerusalem, 26.3) There are more than a few parallels between Paul’s experience in chapter 9 and Peter’s in chapter 10. Both experience a visionary experience and both receive a command to go to gentiles, although Paul’s is a commission to a ministry, Peter is sent only to a particular individual. Both are obedient to their visions and both find themselves in trouble with the Jews as a result. Paul must escape Damascus, Peter must explain his actions to the (Christian) elders in Jerusalem.

Why was sharing a meal with Cornelius such a major problem for some of the believers in Jerusalem? If some of these were Pharisees, as Acts 15:1-2 implies, the sharing table fellowship with anyone who is not a Pharisee is going to be a problem. But there is not much evidence Pharisees imposed their table rules on non-Pharisees. Here are two examples of Jewish attitudes toward eating 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 of their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable.

Joseph and Asenath 7:1 And Joseph entered the house of Pentephres and sat upon the throne. And they washed his feet and set a table before him by itself, because Joseph never ate with the Egyptians, for this was an abomination to him.

In Joseph and Asenath, Joseph refuses to kiss his future wife Asenath saying “to kiss a strange woman who will bless with her mouth dead and dumb idols and eat from their table bread of strangulation and drink from their libation a cup of insidiousness and anoint herself with ointment of destruction” (Jos.Asen. 8:5). Not all Jews had such strong attitudes toward sharing food with Gentiles and there were many who would have no problem sharing hospitality with a prominent Gentile.

Peter, however, does seem to have a strong aversion to eating with a Gentile. In the first part of Acts 10, Peter struggles to understand the vision concerning clean and unclean foods (he is “deeply perplexed,” διαπορέω). After he obeys God by going to Cornelius’ home, he is reluctant to enter (10:28). Given this background, is it possible to describe Peter’s experience as a “conversion,” as James Dunn has? To what extent does Peter’s views about Gentiles change at this point in the story?

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.

Acts 10 – Almsgiving as a Gentile Sacrifice?

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!

 

 

 

Acts 10 – What is a “God-Fearing Gentile”?

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout - Vision of CorneliusLuke describes Cornelius as God-Fearing and devout. “Devout” (εὐσεβής, 10:2) indicates someone is devoted to a particular religion or god; a person who is “profoundly reverent” (BDAG), whether this is a person who is reverent towards the God of Israel or a Greco-Roman god. The description of Cornelius as a God-Fearer (φοβούμενος τὸν θεὸν) may mean he was a Gentile who was nearly a convert to Judaism, keeping as much of the Law as possible, but not submitting to circumcision. Julius Scott provides the more or less standard definition of a God-Fearer: “an unofficial class of Gentiles who stopped short of becoming full proselytes but were permitted limited participation in Jewish worship” (JETS 34 [1991]: 478). The key word here is “unofficial.” There was no recognized class of Gentile “near converts” in the first century, although it is likely that most synagogues had one or two of these God-Fearing Gentiles.

When Luke used the term “God-fearer” he has in mind Gentiles who worshiped the God of Israel in the Synagogue without practicing all the Jewish boundary markers. For the most part, a retired soldier could have kept Sabbath and observed dietary laws without attracting much attention.

A. T. Kraabel examined the archaeological evidence from synagogues concluded that there was no class of “Gentile God-fearer” worshiping alongside Jews in Diaspora synagogues. After examining about a hundred synagogue inscriptions, he did not find a single example mentioning God-fearers (116). Based on his reading of the archaeological evidence, Luke created this class of “near convert” for theological reasons. “It is a tribute to Luke’s dramatic ability that they have become so alive for the later Church, but the evidence from Paul’s own letters and now from archaeology makes their historicity questionable in the extreme” (120).

Craig Keener cites Kraabel’s article as well , but he offers a wide range of evidence the term could be applied to proselytes (Test.Jos. 4:6) as well as “Gentile sympathizers” (Jos. Ant. 20.195; 14:110), concluding that it is “not accurate to claim the phrase we never applied to Gentiles” (Keener, 2:1752). In fact, archaeology since Kraabel’s article has cast doubts on his conclusions. At Aphrodisias there were at least 50 Gentiles described as God-Fearers.

Luke is telling the story of the movement of the Holy Spirit from the Temple in Jerusalem were the Jewish audience would be the most godly to the fringes of Judaism (proselytes like the Ethiopian, Samaritans, magicians, Hellenists, etc.) and now a God-Fearing Gentile in Caesarea. Cornelius is the most likely candidate for a Gentile conversion to the followers of Jesus.  Cornelius is on the very edge of what makes one part of the people of God.

The question remains, for Luke, on which side of the Jew/Gentile line is Cornelius?  From a Jewish perspective, could he considered “right with God,” despite not submitting to circumcision?  Or, is this story a kind of “Pentecost” for the Gentiles?  Is it possible the conversion of Cornelius, a man farthest away from the Temple possible, can still be a part of the people of God?

Acts 10 – Jews and Gentiles

In Acts 10:27-29, Peter expresses his hesitancy to enter the home of a Gentile.  I think the key here is not simply talking with a Gentile, but receiving hospitality form a Gentile. Primarily this was because of food, but some Jews in the first century did in fact avoid contact with Gentiles in order to avoid impurity.  This was certainly true in Jerusalem where Temple worship could be a daily experience.  Josephus tells us that the Jews kept separate from the Gentiles: “[the Jews]…did not come into contact with other people because of their separateness.” (Antiq. 13:245-247; cf., Apion, 2.210) Witherington (Acts, 353) observes that the Greek word Luke chooses here probably has the sense of “taboo” or “strongly frowned upon.”

Kosher

But this is not to say that Gentiles were totally excluded from Jewish worship.  There was a huge “court of the Gentiles” in the temple complex itself, giving Gentiles a place of worship in the temple.  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.

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” of Deut 5:14 ff define these Gentiles as resident aliens and require only a few general commands for them while they are living within the nation of Israel. (These are the same commands given by James at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:24-29.)

Rabbinic writers seem to have defined a category “gentile impurity,” but this does not appear in the eighteen benedictions (dating to the period just prior to the fall of Jerusalem.) Did Jews of the first century consider Gentiles impure and therefore exclude them from the inner courts of the temple?  Several Second Temple period texts indicate that Jews did not mix at all with Gentiles (Jubilees 22:16, Tobit 1:10-12, Judith 12:1-1).  Consider also Joseph and Asenath 7:1:  “Joseph never ate with the Egyptians, for this was an abomination to him”

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, everyone 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.”

What I think is fascinating is that Cornelius, as a God-Fearer, might very well have followed the food laws as well as Peter did.  Yet there was still a hesitancy on the part of the apostolic mission to cross over the next social barrier and bring the gospel to Gentiles, even a God-Fearing Gentile like Cornelius.  These issues will erupt into the first major church controversy by Acts 15 and may stand in the background of Paul’s confrontation with Peter in Galatians 2.

Acts 10 – Cornelius and Almsgiving

In my 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 16:14 He makes room for every act of mercy; everyone receives in accordance with his or her deeds.
  • Sirach 29:12 Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from every disaster;
  • Sirach 40:24 Kindred and helpers are for a time of trouble, but almsgiving rescues better than either.

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.

I think this is a very “Old Testament” story, if I can describe it in that way. Peter is like Elijah or Elisha, going to a righteous outsider.  But this 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.  In some ways he is a model Jew, compared to Herod Agrippa or even Simon the Tanner.