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 9:32-35 – Healing Aeneas

Lydda 1948

Lydda in 1948

Lydda was a large Jewish village in the Plain of Sharon. Lydda is on the main road from Jerusalem to Joppa, about 27 miles (44km) northwest of Jerusalem on the coastal plain. (The modern Lod, ten miles from Tel Aviv, is near the Ben Gurion airport.)  Lydda was a large village according to Josephus (Antiq. 20.130) and predominately Jewish (Schnabel, Early Christian Mission 1:688). It is mentioned several times in 1 Macc as one of the most significant Jewish cities in the region (1 Macc 11:34, Antiq. 13.127). The town was burned by the Romans in the Jewish War (A. D. 66) and repopulated with Jews loyal to Vespasian two years later. Later the town was the site of a rabbinic academy and synagogue, but there is no evidence for these at the time of Peter’s ministry.

Luke uses the word “saints” to describe these believers in Lydda (9: 32) and in Joppa (9:41). Luke does not tell us how the Gospel came to this region, although most commentators speculate Philip evangelized the area. The summary statement at the end of chapter 8 Philip went to Ashdod and eventually Caesarea, about 37 miles north along the coast from Joppa.

We know very little about Aeneas, other than his name. Aeneas is a common Roman name since the hero of Virgil’s Roman “national epic” The Aeneid shared this name. Sometimes this fact is used detect a foreshadowing of the future Gentile mission. But there is nothing in the text implying he was a Gentile, and given Peter’s hesitation to go to Cornelius in the next chapter, is seems unlikely Aenaes was a Gentile

The NIV says that Aeneas was “bedridden for eight years,” although it is possible to read these words as saying he was in bed since he was eight years old. Keener (2:1707) points out Luke often tells the reader how long a person was ill before they were healed (Luke 13:11, for example). The word for paralytic is not necessarily a paralyzed person, but one who is weak or disabled in some way (the word is rare in the New Testament, four of five times in Luke/Acts). Sometimes this refers the result of an injury. It is, however, the same word Luke used for the paralytic in Luke 5:18, the “parallel” story for this healing.

Peter heals the man in the name of Jesus and then tells him to “take care of your mat.” These words are reminiscent of Jesus in Luke 5, but may not be an accurate translation. The literal Greek here is “spread for yourself,” which in the context of a man lying in bed for eight years would imply making one’s bed. But the words can also have the sense of making a meal, “set the table” (BDAG, 949). The line might be plausibly translated “take up your mat” or “recline at the table and eat.” If the latter is the correct reading, then there some irony: he has been reclining for eight years, now Peter tells him to come and recline at the table!

Luke tells us that as a result of this healing, many in the region turned to the Lord. This is the same word used in 3:19 along with repentance. For example, in Luke 22:32 uses the word for Jesus’ prayer for Peter. After Peter’s denial, Jesus prays that he will “turn back” and lead his fellow disciples. This may indicate the Jews in the small villages in the area responded similarly to the Jews in Jerusalem who heard Peter’s preaching.

What is the point of this brief healing story? Out of all the things Peter did, why does Luke choose to include this story?

Acts 9:36-35 – Raising Tabitha

Tabitha is described as a godly disciple who died suddenly (9:36-38). This is the only woman described as a disciple in the New Testament. The word μαθήτρια is used only here, it is used for female disciples of Plato (D. Lat Lives, 4.2). Luke is fond of telling two similar stories, one featuring a man and a second featuring a woman (cf., Luke 15:1-10). It is likely Peter did many other miracles during his ministry on the coastal plains, but Luke selected these two examples. Luke likely wanted his readers to take these two healings together as examples of the sorts of things Peter often did. In both cases Peter encounters potential uncleanliness, but this ceremonial uncleanliness does not prevent him from reaching out to people on the fringes of Judaism. I suggest Peter is simply following the pattern of ministry of Jesus who regularly crossed over cleanliness taboos during his ministry.

Tabitha Masolinode PanicaleTabitha was also known as Dorcas, both names mean “gazelle.” While the name may be drawn from Song of Solomon 2:9, Ben Witherington points out it was common to give female slaves animal names (Acts, 331, n.16).  He goes on to speculate that she may have been a freedwoman, although he settles on the name being of Jewish origin. It is possible Tabitha was wealthy since she is “always doing good works.” If she was a former slave set free by some prominent person, she may have had the time and means able to devote herself to charity work. She has a home with an “upper room” and her burial seems to be more opulent than expected if she was a pauper. It is possible she was a patroness of the church in Joppa, although this is not stated.  Luke mentions at least one other prominent, wealthy woman, Lydia, who may have become a patroness of the church at Philippi. In addition, it is possible that Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2 was a patron for the church in Cenchrea.

The description of her godliness is in line with Jewish indications of godly living. First, she was “always doing good.”  Paul urges women to do “good works appropriate for women who profess to worship God” in 1 Tim 2:10. Second, she was always “helping the poor,” specifically poor widows. It is likely the clothing the women show Peter in v. 39 are examples of these acts of compassion.  The description of Tabitha is similar to that of Tobit, a prototypical good man in the Jewish captivity (Tobit 1:3; 4:5-11).

Whatever Tabitha’s social position, her death was seen as a great loss to the believers in Joppa.  It is not clear that the believers called on Peter to raise her from the dead.  Peter comes quickly to Joppa and prays for Tabitha (9:39-42). Similar to Jesus in Luke 8:50-56, Peter tells Tabitha to arise. There are a few significant differences, however. Jesus commanded the girl to rise, using nearly the same words as Peter does in verse 40 (in Aramaic, there would have been a difference of only a since letter). Unlike Jesus, Peter prays prior to telling Tabitha to rise. Peter also takes Tabitha’s hand in order to help her up from the bed. This is significant since (until a few moments before) she was dead. Touching a corpse would have rendered Peter unclean, but he has no problem entering a home where a dead person was placed and even touching the woman’s hand.

As with the healing of Aeneas, we are left wondering what the point of the story is. Is Luke setting up Peter’s vision in Acts 10 and his visit to Cornelius? Or is Luke trying to consciously patterning the ministry of Peter after than of Jesus?

Acts 9:23-12:24 – Peter’s Ministry Outside Jerusalem

Saul’s conversion in the first part of this chapter is dramatic, but it will be many years before Saul’s missionary efforts are detailed by Luke. From 9:32 through chapter 12 Luke follows the story of Peter outside of Jerusalem among Hellenistic Jews as well as his arrest in Jerusalem. There is little here to help with chronology. These stories “fit” any time after Saul’s conversion, there is little more to be said about when they occur.

Peter and TabithaLuke continues to tell the story of the apostolic community moving out from Jerusalem geographically and culturally. While Lydda and Joppa are not too far from Jerusalem and certainly had Jewish populations, they would be Hellenistic Jews in comparison to Jerusalem. Caesarea was a thoroughly Roman city built by Herod as a tribute to the Roman Empire. We have not arrived at Gentile ministry yet, but we are certainly on the edges of what it means to be Jewish. Peter’s ministry here cannot be seen as directed to the Gentiles yet, although in chapter 10 he will be called to preach the gospel to a man who is in fact a Gentile.

This is a good example of Luke’s literary style as well. In these two stories we have a man and a woman healed. This “paired” set of examples is common in Luke’s gospel (Simeon and Anna in the temple in Luke 2, the “lost” parables in Luke 15, etc.) Later in Acts, Paul will preach the gospel to Lydia and the Jailer in Philippi. Luke is also showing that Peter does the same sorts of miracles which Jesus did, although he does them in the name of Jesus. Paul will do similar miracles later in the book (a healing and a resurrection / resuscitation.)

While these two episodes are miracle stories, they give a bit of insight into the way in which the apostolic office functioned in Acts. Peter is traveling in regions which may have been evangelized by Philip. It is possible this is simply to encourage the believers there, doing general pastoral teaching and preaching. But it is also possible that Peter is “inspecting” these believers to see that they have not strayed from the gospel as it was preached in Jerusalem. (Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul, 117; Schnabel disagrees, Early Christian Mission, 1:693; Witherington is open to the idea, Acts, 328).

That these locations are more Hellenistic than Jerusalem may be a hint that Peter is concerned that these “fringes of Judaism” have fully understood who Jesus was. In many ways, Peter is continuing to do ministry like Jesus did, reaching out to people who are Jewish, but on the fringes of society.