Acts 9:43 – Peter and Simon the Tanner

At the end of chapter 9, Peter stays in Joppa at the home of Simon “the Tanner” (v. 43). It is significant that Peter would accept hospitality from Simon since the occupation of leather-worker (a tanner, βυρσεύς) was considered to be unclean by the Pharisees.

Simon the Tanner's Door

Traditional Site of Simon’s House

A tanner was one of the most unclean trades in any ancient society, the nature of their work kept them in a state of ritual uncleanliness (Lev 11:35), and the process of tanning leather resulted in a state of physical uncleanliness. The rabbis mention tanners or tanneries in the context of other “unclean things.” In m.Meg 3:2, a tannery is in the same category as a bathhouse and public urinal; in m.Ket 7:10 a tanner is lumped together with “he who is afflicted with boils, or who has a polypus, or who collects dog excrement.” Because of the stench of the tanner’s shop, most towns required that the tanner had to live on the outskirts of town, downwind! The Mishnah states “They put carrion, graves, and tanneries at least fifty cubits away from a town. They make a tannery only at the east side of a town” (m.Batra 2:9).

It is possible that Simon owns a tanning business and does not work the trade himself. But business appears to be good for Simon since he is able to open his home to Peter. The home is large enough to have a gate and courtyard far enough away from the house that Peter did not hear Cornelius’ men arrive (10:17-18).

That Peter shares hospitality with Simon is significant. Just like Jesus, he is eating and drinking with the outcast, people who are Jewish but on the fringe of society from the perspective of Temple purity and Pharisaical tradition. While tanners are never included in the list of outsiders with whom Jesus eats, they might very well be in the same category as tax collectors and prostitutes.

It is therefore quite curious that Peter hesitates when he is told to God to Cornelius in chapter 10. This is a testimony to how far Jews and Gentiles were separated culturally. Peter has no problem staying in the home of a tanner who was unclean, yet will not enter the home of a Gentile God-fearer, someone who was likely more “clean” than the tanner, with respect to the Law. The difference, of course, is that even if Cornelius was a God-Fearer, he was still an uncircumcised Gentile.