HAVING LOOKED (Parts 1-6 of this series) at evidence in the Gospel accounts of the New Testament regarding whether non-Jews were ever invited to be followers of Jesus, we now turn to the narratives of the book, the Acts of the Apostles, which takes up the story after the departure of Jesus from his Twelve Disciples—those who had been charged with spreading Jesus’ message to all the people of the Israelite community.
The story of Jesus’ [Jewish] chief Apostle Peter and the Roman army [Gentile] captain Cornelius is found in the New Testament book, Acts of the Apostles, chapter 10, verses 1-48. Before we look at the story itself and its meaning—whether or not this event is evidence for an opening up of a Gentile mission, as claimed by Christians—let us ask what was the function of the book of Acts. This book recounts how responsibility for Jesus’ mission was definitively transferred to the Twelve and how the message was spread and received, far and wide. Peter as chief spokesman for the Twelve is the lead player in this story—at least it started out that way in the book of Acts.
The Place and Placement of the Narrative of Peter and Cornelius
The story of Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10) is said to signal the supposed shift from a Jews-only mission to an all-the-nations-of-the-world mission. This narration is sometimes referred to as “the Conversion of Peter,” implying that Peter, due to a visionary dream, had come to see his mission as something beyond what Jesus had instructed him!
The Peter-Cornelius account is placed within the composition of Acts after the account of the conversion of Paul (Saul) to the “Way of the Lord” (Acts chapters 8-9), which story itself serves to splice Paul [‘Saul”] into the story of the early successors to Jesus’ mission. Paul had been a chief persecutor of Jesus’ followers; failing to stamp them out; then, Paul switched sides and claimed to have joined them. In a matter of years he had worked his way up, according to the Acts account, to head-honcho missionary and Christian theologian.
As one would anticipate, Peter is prominent in the early story (Acts, chapters 2-5, 8, 9b, 10-12), being first among the Disciples, so designated by Jesus (Gospel of Matthew 16:18-19) to carry on the spreading of Jesus’ reform message to the worldwide Jewish
Then [Jesus] said to [his disciples] … the message about reformation/repentance and the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem… (Luke 24:44-49)
…disciple all the nations… and teach them to observe everything I have commanded you…. (Matthew 28:19)
Recall from Parts 3 and 4 of this series that the phrase “the nations” is a term used in the Hebrew Bible to refer characteristically to the twelve tribes [or “nations”] of the Israelites.
By the time the reader reaches the second half of Acts (chapters 13-26), it is Paul who has become the lead actor, with Peter last appearing in chapter 12 (in an angel-mediated escape from King Herod’s detention) and in chapter 15, with Peter in opposition to Paul over the issue of circumcision and with it, Christians believe, the question of counting the [non-Jewish] “Gentiles” among those to be reached with Jesus’ teaching.
In many passages of Acts, Christian translators employ the term “Gentiles” where the wording of the text is literally “the nations.” But is it really non-Jewish “Gentiles” who are being referenced here, as indiscriminate Christian interpretation and translation would lead us to believe? If so, then this would be in spite of the fact that Jesus himself had explicitly instructed his Disciples to go only to “the lost sheep of the people of Israel” (Gospel of Matthew 10:1-7).
“The Nations” Translated as “the Gentiles”: Non-Jews or Jews?!
In Acts chapter 10 (the Peter-Cornelius narrative)—and also in Acts 15 (the Jerusalem Council narrative)—we again run into multiple occurrences of the term “the nations” (meaning the twelve tribes of the Israelites) commonly mistranslated by Pauline Christians as “Gentiles” (meaning non-Jews)! Examples in the first story are found in Acts 10:22, Acts 10:45. The reader is advised to compare standard Bible translations of these passages (“the Gentiles”) against a literal translation of the same words (“the nations”), such as what is found in Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible (updated version, 2012)—see linked passages.
Jumping ahead to the account of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), a number of instances occur of the literal wording “the nations” being translated as “the Gentiles” In the two links below compare verses 3, 12, 14, 17, 19 and 23 for the rendering of this phrase.
Standard translation (“the Gentiles“):
Literal Translation (“the nations“):
For a clear reference to a non-Jew (a true ‘Gentile’), compare below the literal wording in Acts 10:28 where the wording (not “the nations”) is properly translated “Gentile”:
[Peter] said to [Cornelius and his people], “You yourselves know very well that a Jew is not allowed by his religion to visit or associate with Gentiles. But God has shown me that I must not consider any person ritually unclean or defiled.
And [Peter] said unto [Cornelius and his people], ‘Ye know how it is unlawful for a man, a Jew, to keep company with, or to come unto, one of another race, but to me God did shew to call no man common or unclean…’
Jews as Misfits in a Gentile World, and “God-Fearing” Gentiles
The situation in the Jewish worldwide Diaspora was that Jews were pressured to conform and fit in with the surrounding Gentile majority culture in which they had become participants. This could be a problem in a setting where lip service to the pagan gods in everyday life was taken for granted and where men competed in athletic events in the nude, thus exposing circumcised competitors to ridicule.
Nevertheless, the other side of the coin was that a number of Gentiles (non-Jews) were attracted to the One God and attended events at the synagogue. These “God-fearers” –like Cornelius—were all but converts in the classic sense; the thorny requirement of circumcision held back many “God-fearers” from full membership in the Jewish community.
In this socio-political reality, many Jews who had not kept themselves isolated from their Gentile surroundings had all but become Gentiles in their lifestyle. In this context, the reform message of Jesus was calling all Jews to return to trust in God—who could save them from Roman oppression—and to return to their Jewish roots, neither keeping the Law in extreme outward fashion, nor opting out of their Jewish-ness. The story of Peter and Cornelius must be understood in this historical context.
The Agenda of Acts
Nevertheless, the New Testament book, the Acts of the Apostles, uses the story of Peter and Cornelius (10:1-48) with an agenda. The book is organized and constructed so as…
- to explain how Paul—who had never met Jesus—became inducted into the ranks of Jesus’ “Apostles” first by association with Jesus’ chosen and personally mentored men, including Peter…
- and then, to phase out the chronicle of Peter and the Twelve true Apostles in favor of phasing in Paul as the heroic missionary ‘apostle’ of Christianity—the new amalgamation of religion that could unite the Roman world.
As we have seen previously in this series, Paul is the founder of what is now labeled ‘Christianity,’ whereas the Jewish reform movement of Jesus—recounted in the four Gospel books of the New Testament—has a different audience and a different message.
Similarly, the story of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:1-52 –in which Peter, plays a significant role (15:6-11)—must be understood in the Jewish framework in which Jesus taught his Twelve. The words of James (brother of Jesus) in Acts 15:13-21 are also to be understood in the same Jewish context of the time. In this second Peter story—related to the question of whether non-Jews are excluded from the mission of the Twelve as per the instructions of Jesus—both Peter and James are quoted as referring to “the Gentiles” (literally, “the nations”). Study the references and links above (Acts 15, verses 3, 12, 14, 17, 19 and 23), where “the nations” is misleadingly translated “Gentiles.”
Jesus’ message was aimed at bringing lapsed Jews back into conformity with the Law of Moses and the with Abraham’s trust in God.
These twelve did Jesus send forth, having given command to them, saying, `To the way of the nations go not away, and into a city of the Samaritans go not in…” (Matthew 10:5, literal translation)
These twelve men were sent out by Jesus with the following instructions: “Do not go to any Gentile territory or any Samaritan towns…” (Matthew 10:5, standard translation)
If “Gentiles” in these verses in Acts is meant to refer to Jews who lived among pagan Gentiles and who had taken on Gentile ways, then perhaps one could defend the standard translation “Gentiles.” But one cannot defend rendering “the nations” as “Gentiles” if one means pagan peoples, non-Jews.
To be clear, Jesus himself told his Disciples that God will be merciful to Gentiles on the Day of Judgment—to all peoples, not exclusively to Jews, (Matthew 10:15)—but the mission of Jesus was exclusively to his own Jewish people Matthew 10:6).
“Lord” and “Christ”?
Aside from the problematic term “the Gentiles” as used in Acts, there is another phrase put in the mouth of Peter in Acts (see 15:11; also 2:38; 3:6; 4:10; 4:27) which is translated to sound like the terminology of Paul in his writings, namely his phrase, “the Lord Jesus Christ.” In fact, “Jesus of Nazareth” is rightly to be called “Master” or “Rabbi” in his role as their messianic prophet—but not “Lord” in the same sense that God is called “LORD.” For “LORD” [with all capital letters] is the standard translation of the Hebrew name-device “Jehovah” for God in the Hebrew [Jewish] Bible.
Likewise, to recognize Jesus as the foretold “messiah”—the one chosen by God for a particular mission—is similarly appropriate in the Jewish context; but to turn the term “Messiah” into a title “Christ”  and thereby to embed it with Paul’s theological meaning (as in the Letter of Paul to the Colossians 1:15) is a distortion of the Hebrew meaning.
Circumcision in the Diaspora?
Whether the Abrahamic covenantal practice of circumcision (Genesis 17:9-14) was to be retained under the Law of Moses (Exodus 12:43-44; Joshua 5:2-9) was the question put to the Jerusalem Council by the followers of Jesus who had belonged to the party of the Pharisees. It had been the Jewish sect of the Pharisees with whom Jesus had often sparred due to their fanatical concern with the letter of the Law at the expense of the Law as a mercy.
For those Jews who accepted the reform teaching of Jesus—and were returning to the intent of the Law of Moses—was God requiring them to undergo circumcision so as to keep the Law of Moses, even under difficult living conditions in Gentile [non-Jewish] societies? That was the question laid menacingly before the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:2 by Paul and his party. Note again that a literal translation of this passage does not mention [non-Jewish] “Gentiles”—it mentions “the nations,” meaning the tribes of Israel– as established in previous parts (3-4) of our series.
In order to parse the meaning of the two Peter stories in Acts let us turn first to the story of Paul and Cornelius.
To be continued, insha’Allâh, in Part 8…
 The English term ‘Christ’ is an Anglicization of the Greek term Christos, a translation equivalent of the Hebrew term ‘Messiah’ meaning a chosen one. As a title for Jesus, ‘Christ’ takes on theological meaning at the hand of Paul.