HAVING LOOKED AT evidence in the Gospel accounts of the New Testament regarding whether non-Jews were ever invited to be followers of Jesus (Parts 1-6), we turned in Part 7 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 Israelites.
We continue in our study looking at two relevant stories, as found in Acts chapters 10 and 15.
Difficulties with the Story of Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10)
Some Bible translations start this story in Acts 10 under the editorial sub-heading, “The Inauguration of the Gentile Mission,” thus stamping the New Testament text with the Church’s acceptance of Paul as a spokesman for Christianity and accepting Paul’s subsequent Gentile mission as legitimate.
The essence of the story is as follows. There was a Roman army centurion serving with the “Italian Cohort” by the name of Cornelius who was a God-fearing Gentile in the Roman garrison town of Caesarea. One day he got instructions in a vision to meet with Peter, chief of the twelve Apostles of Jesus. Then “he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa,” a Jewish coastal city where Peter happened to be visiting. While Cornelius’ men were on their way, Peter, too, saw a vision in which numerous animals were announced to him as [ritually] “clean” –meaning halal for eating. After a few days, Peter met with the centurion and accepted him as a believer under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Acts of the Apostles 10:1-49).
Now, we turn to scrutinize the story whether it is true to historical possibility and accuracy within its Jewish context.
Historical Date and Identifiable Figure?
The story takes place in Caesarea, located on the Mediterranean coast of Judea. The date of the story is set by scholars at 37 AD.
However, historical records assert unanimously that there was no Roman army station in Caesarea during this period. The ‘Italian regiment’ is generally identified as cohors II Italica civium Romanorum, a unit whose existence in Judea was installed there no earlier than 69 AD. That means that the Roman army would have been placed there after 69 AD—some 30 years after the purported Peter and Cornelius event.
Furthermore, Peter would have died before the stationing of the Roman army in Caesarea: According to early Church tradition, he died by crucifixion at the time of the Great Fire of Rome in the year 64. Margherita Guarducci, who led the research in its last stages (1963–1968) leading to the rediscovery of Peter’s reputed tomb, concludes that Peter died on 13 October AD 64 during the festivities on the occasion of the “dies imperii” of Emperor Nero. This took place three months after the disastrous fire that destroyed Rome for which the emperor (Nero) wished to blame the Christians.
Accordingly, it would have been impossible for a Roman centurion to live in Caesarea with his battalion before the death of Peter. It also would have been impossible for Peter to have met the Roman centurion in Caesarea since Cornelius would have come there only after Peter’s death.
That’s why, the prolific American Church historian Robert M. Grant states on this issue,
The most important difficulty in the early part of Acts has to do with the conversion of Cornelius, described as a centurion of the Italian cohort (10.1). But during the reign of Herod Agrippa (died 44 AD), no Roman troops were stationed in his territory.
The whole story has been elaborated by Luke in an effort to show that the church of Jerusalem was responsible for the gentile mission. This mission did not involve circumcision (10:45; 11:18). How, then, could the question of circumcision be discussed anew at the ‘council of Jerusalem’? How could the Jerusalem Christians have forgotten the story of Cornelius (though Peter alludes to it in Acts 15.7)? (Grant, Robert M. (1963) A Historical Introduction to the New Testament, p 145)
A German theologian Alexander J. M. Wedderburn brands this issue “historically suspect.” (Alexander J. M. Wedderburn, (2004) A History of the First Christians,” p. 217. Wedderburn also says, in general (p. 10) and relative to our discussion on Acts 15, regarding the Jerusalem Council:
…the Pauline letters … are often uncompromisingly partisan accounts. Nowhere is that clearer than in the account which Paul gives of his quarrel with Peter and the other Jewish Christians in the church of Syrian Antioch in Gal 2.11-14 … It is hardly to be imagined that this is a description of their behaviour and actions with which [Peter and the others] would have concurred. Without an alternative version from the hand of Peter or one of the others, however, it is left to us to try to reconstruct as best we may how they would have interpreted and defended their actions.
1.3.2 The Book of Acts
It is often asserted that the evidence of the Book of Acts is of secondary value and to some extent this assessment is correct. Yet … the use of its evidence is not, in my opinion, to be treated with the extreme scepticism which one sometimes encounters, as if its account could never be correct.
Of course the dating of events recounted in Acts is an academic reconstruction, and takes the events in Acts to have been ordered chronologically. So, let us assume that the events in the Acts 10 story might somehow be placed after 69 AD, or, more likely, that the identification of Cornelius with his regiment was somehow misinterpreted. For example, Cornelius might have served in the Roman army during 37 AD and met Peter in that year, but that he only later belonged to the regiment that was moved to Caesarea, 30 years later, in 69 AD. To identify Cornelius with an elite regiment would be true, but would omit explaining that this happened years after the time when he met with Peter.
So, presuming that the historical issues might be surmountable, let us see what content issues are to be found within the text of Acts 10 as we now have it.
Meaning of the Vision of Peter: No More Separatism from Gentiles Vs. Opening a Gentile Mission
Let’s focus on the vision of Peter which is believed to be a fountainhead of the concept of calling the Gentiles [non-Jews] to [Pauline] Christianity. Note that the vision itself has no implication of allowing non-Jews to be among the followers of Jesus. We read the essentials of the narration of the vision:
He [Peter] was hungry and wished to eat, and while [his hosts] were making preparations he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something resembling a large sheet coming down, lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all the earth’s four-legged animals and reptiles and the birds of the sky. A voice said to him, “Get up, Peter. Slaughter and eat.” But Peter said, “Certainly not, sir. For never have I eaten anything profane and unclean.” The voice spoke to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.” This happened three times, and then the object was taken up into the sky. (Acts of the Apostles 10:10-16)
In this narration Peter was challenged on Jewish dietary regulations of eating clean and unclean animals relative to what had been ordained in the Old Testament. There was no reason to understand that the vision extended the mission of Jesus to include the [non-Jewish] Gentiles. The vision was focused explicitly on the Jewish dietary rules and how that impacted a Jew’s mixing with non-Jews. After all, the account itself admits, “Peter was in doubt about the meaning of the vision.” (Acts of the Apostles 10:17). But later, Peter himself gives the interpretation of the vision:
[Peter] said to [the people gathered in Cornelius’ house] “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. Acts 10:28)
As we saw previously, the literal wording, “one of another race” is being faithfully translated here in Acts 10:28 as “Gentiles,” meaning non-Jews. Contrary to Peter’s upbringing as an observant Jew, then, he was now to understand that it was acceptable for him to socialize with and to eat with non-Jews.
The Peter-Cornelius incident does not indicate that non-Jews (true Gentiles) were being solicited to join the [Jewish] followers of Jesus. Nor does this story support Paul who had created his own version of a message which was seductively rivaling that of Jesus. One reason for Paul’s initial success as a charismatic speaker –as recounted in the narratives of Acts— was that his message rode on the wave of popularity raised by the “God-fearing” persons –like Cornelius–who had attached themselves to the synagogue and could be persuaded by innovative teaching.
Connections to the Story of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15)
Interestingly enough, the Acts narratives give us no reason to think that the vision of Peter played any part in the judgments of the Jerusalem Council when it was making a ruling on the question (Acts 15:1-6) of circumcision. In a standard translation:
Some men came from Judea to Antioch and started teaching the believers, “You cannot be saved unless you are circumcised as the Law of Moses requires.” Paul and Barnabas got into a fierce argument with them about this, so it was decided that Paul and Barnabas and some of the others in Antioch should go to Jerusalem and see the apostles and elders about this matter. They were sent on their way by the church; and as they went through Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported how the Gentiles had turned to God; this news brought great joy to all the believers. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, the apostles, and the elders, to whom they told all that God had done through them.
But some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “the Gentiles must be circumcised and told to obey the Law of Moses.” The apostles and the elders met together to consider this question. (Acts 15:1-6)
A more literal translation of the above passage –specifically verse 5– betrays the more standard translation of “the Gentiles”:
And certain having come down from Judea, were teaching the brethren — `If ye be not circumcised after the custom of Moses, ye are not able to be saved;’ there having been, therefore, not a little dissension and disputation to Paul and Barnabas with them, they arranged for Paul and Barnabas, and certain others of them, to go up unto the apostles and elders to Jerusalem about this question, they indeed, then, having been sent forward by the assembly, were passing through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the nations, and they were causing great joy to all the brethren. And having come to Jerusalem, they were received by the assembly, and the apostles, and the elders, they declared also as many things as God did with them; and there rose up certain of those of the sect of the Pharisees who believed, saying — `It behoveth to circumcise them, to command them also to keep the law of Moses.’ And there were gathered together the apostles and the elders, to see about this matter, … (Acts 15:1-6)
It was Jews in the Diaspora who were being admonished to keep their own Law, including the requirement to be circumcised, marking them as Jews. The “Gentiles” here (15:5) are to be identified as diaspora Jews (“the nations”) whom Jesus instructed his apostles to seek out and to “disciple” in the ways of their ancestral religion (Matthew 28:19).
Leaders of the Council wrote a letter to Antioch requiring adherence to some of the Mosaic laws, again without mentioning the vision of Peter:
It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell. (Acts of the Apostles 15:28-29)
Nor did Paul, on the other side of the circumcision argument, ever mention the vision of Peter, which Paul could have marshaled in favor of extending Jesus’ mission to the Gentiles (non-Jews) –even though he faced much danger from Jews because of preaching his message to [non-Jewish] Gentiles.
 Jesus had himself pronounced on the touchstone subject of the existing Jewish dietary laws in confrontation with the Pharisees, who demanded to know why some of Jesus’ disciples did not wash before eating (Gospel of Mark 7:1-23) –in accordance with the traditions handed down from their Jewish ancestors. To this Jesus responded with a general principle which took a stand against the corruption of the Pharisees’ teaching:
“You put aside God’s command and obey the teachings of men. … In this way the teaching you pass on to others cancels out the word of God. And there are many other things like this that you do.” (Gospel of Mark 7:8, 13)