This is the thirty-first entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. This entry deals with the initial meeting between Cornelius and Peter.
For previous entries, please now go to the Complete Acts of the Apostle Commentary, where you can find links to each of the entries updated after each new blog post.
E) Preparation for the Gentile Mission: the Conversions of Paul and Cornelius (9:1-12:25): Cornelius sends men to fetch Peter (10:17-29):
17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. 18 They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. 19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. 20 Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” 21 So Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?” 22 They answered, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” 23 So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging.
The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him. 24 The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshiped him. 26 But Peter made him get up, saying, “Stand up; I am only a mortal.” 27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28 and he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?” (NRSV)
Richard Pervo says of this scene that “the narrative is lively, pivoting back and forth between the visitors and Peter. Direct speech predominates” (Pervo, Acts, 271). This is a good overall summation of a scene that can easily be overlooked, since the only action is Cornelius’s men going to bring Peter to see their master. The liveliness, though, comes from the interplay of divine action, which drives the whole narrative of Acts, and the human response, especially of Peter, as he begins to puzzle out what is taking place. Robert W. Wall, in The New Interpreter’s Bible. Volume X, states that “several coincidental incidents occur that that gradually illumine Peter’s understanding of his vision” (Wall, The New Interpreter’s Bible, 164), except that the point of these incidents is that they are not coincidental, but directed by God from beginning to end, yet the human participants must make sense of them and respond to God’s action.
Luke’s first great piece of scene making is to show us Peter still confused by his vision – “Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision” – when “the men sent by Cornelius appeared” (Acts 10:17). Although we as readers have a better sense of the overall picture, since we are privy to Cornelius’s experiences, Peter remains confused. He does not gain immediate clarity about what he has seen.
Cornelius’s men were “asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate” (Acts 10:17); supposedly they are asking for Simon the tanner’s house, where Simon Peter is staying. They called out to see whether Simon Peter was there and it is at this point “Peter was still thinking about the vision” (Acts 10:18-19). This is what Wall means by “coincidence,” but for Luke it is the Spirit that directs even this minor action. Whether Simon Peter heard them or not, “the Spirit said to him, ‘Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them’” (Acts 10:19-20).
It is not odd that the Spirit speaks to Peter directly, for all of this information, of course, such as where to find Peter and sending men on to locate him, has been passed on to Cornelius via a previous angelic visitation (Acts 10:4-6). Joseph Fitzmyer says rightly that “heaven’s guidance moves the story” (Fitzmyer, Acts, 456) and Pervo points to the “interchangeability” of the Spirit and Jesus in Acts (Pervo, Acts, 272).
Still this literary alignment is significant for understanding how God directs all of the players; we must remember Peter and Cornelius have never met. As far as we know, Cornelius has never met a follower of Jesus before. But even more directly, it is the Spirit who actually guides Peter, vetting Cornelius’s men and supporting their bona fides as from God also. Peter is directed to accept these men by God’s command in Acts 10:20. Indeed they have been “sent” (apostellô) by God, just as the apostles were (Pervo, Acts, 272). Peter is basically told not to question the course of the events which will soon unfold (Johnson, Acts, 185) for “the message these men bring him accords with divine purpose” (Wall, The New Interpreter’s Bible, 164). He was told, in fact, to go “without hesitation” (mēden diakrinomenos), which “means to act without pausing to doubt its merit” (Wall, The New Interpreter’s Bible, 164).
The “Commentary on Acts” in The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford Biblical Studies Online makes another important point about the phrase mēden diakrinomenos, saying it is “an ambiguous verb whose double meaning is important for the story's development (Johnson 1992: 185): it can simply mean ‘without hesitation’ (so NRSV), but also carries the sense ‘without making distinctions’, ‘without discrimination’.” This sense is already implicit in Peter's action in inviting his guests in and making them welcome” since we know they are Gentiles, which Peter obviously does as well.
Wall suggests that “Peter’s question, ‘Why have you come?’ (Acts 10:21) challenges the Spirit’s earlier instruction, “Go with them without hesitation’” (Wall, The New Interpreter’s Bible, 164), but that need not be the case. Peter did what the Spirit said; Peter is seeking meaning not rejecting his call. Peter, recall, is still puzzling over the meaning of his vision, so it is not odd to follow the Spirit’s urging but yet wonder and ask, “What is the reason for your coming?” (Acts 10:21).
Peter identifies himself as the one they are seeking and then the men identify Cornelius as the agent who has sent them, and describe who Cornelius is, but also that an angel sent Cornelius to find Peter (Acts 10:21-22). The word translated as “directed,”chrêmatizô, is a much stronger word than our directed, however, and “denotes a revelatory word from God” (Wall, The New Interpreter’s Bible, 164; see also Johnson, Acts, 185).
Cornelius is also described not as a “devout man,” as he was in Acts 10:2, but as a “righteous man,” usually used to describe someone who has followed the Torah (Wall, The New Interpreter’s Bible, 164). Pervo sees “righteous” as related to Cornelius’s charitable activity (Pervo, Acts, 272) on behalf of the Jewish people, but Fitzmyer (Acts, 457) sees it as “observant,” a religious term, which I think could include Cornelius’s charitable activity.
Peter trusts them and invites them in (Acts 10:23), specifically Wall thinks because Peter accepts that Cornelius has received a word from God (Wall, The New Interpreter’s Bible, 164; also Pervo, Acts, 272). Pervo makes the point that Peter offers them hospitality in someone else’s home (Pervo, Acts, 272; see also Fitzmyer, Acts, 457), but that “hospitality implies the acceptance of social bond” (see also Johnson, Acts, 185). Just as important, I think, for the later development of the story is that though they are Gentiles, Peter “has no hesitation in dining with such guests” (Fitzmyer, Acts, 457).
Wall believes that “the reader must presume that Peter now understands the intent of his vision and has accepted the prospect of a Gentile mission as a feature of God’s plan of salvation” (Wall, The New Interpreter’s Bible, 164), but that seems a little strong! Peter has been puzzling over his own vision, and he has asked why they are there and trusts they are from God, but they have not yet answered what their purpose is in seeking Peter. It is certain that they do not yet know their broader purpose in getting Peter, since Peter and Cornelius do not know themselves yet.
What Peter is willing to do, however, is follow the Spirit’s commands and travel with them accompanied by some fellow believers from Joppa to Caesarea (Acts 10:23). The day after “they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends” (Acts 10:24). Cornelius has a crowd waiting and as Wall says importantly, “his relatives and close friends” comprise his extended household and oikos (“household”) is a prime location of God’s saving actions in Acts for Luke (Wall, The New Interpreter’s Bible, 164, n.415). Indeed, the focus on the extended “household” in Acts is something to pay close attention to in the Gentile environment.
When Peter arrived, “Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshiped him” (Acts 10:25). Cornelius’s mistake, trying to “worship” Peter, will appear again in Gentile contexts in Acts. Pervo sees this as connected to the eastern Roman practice of ruler cult activity and not necessarily to indicate that Peter is a god (Pervo, Acts, 273). The verb is proskynein, which was often used to describe obeisance made especially to an eastern ruler (Fitzmyer, Acts, 461). Wall says that “for all his religious devotion Cornelius is not yet a believer and still makes theological mistakes” (Wall, The New Interpreter’s Bible, 164), but I think the point here might be broader. Jesus was already being worshipped and on the surface, he seems just a human. This is not just about Gentile worshippers, however, but also about the Jewish believers’ worship of Jesus. This scene contains an implicit claim about the nature of Jesus: if he is worshipped, it is because he is not just a human being.
Peter rejects the worship of Cornelius, saying “Stand up; I am only a mortal” (Acts 10:26). Peter rejects worship just as Moses, according to Philo of Alexandria, also spurned deification (Pervo, Acts, 274). Peter then finds out that “many had assembled” and then tells them that “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?” (Acts 10:27-29).
Peter says it is not lawful “for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile,” but is that actually true? Given that Peter has just travelled a day with the representatives of Cornelius and supposedly eaten with them, what are we to make of this blanket statement? Whether Gentiles are inherently ritually unclean is a disputed question. Many scholars say no and Fitzmyer sees the claim as problematic (Fitzmyer, Acts, 461; see also Wall, The New Interpreter’s Bible, 165, n.418). But Wall says that if we are speaking in a cultic context it could be true (Wall, The New Interpreter’s Bible, 165). Pervo states, rightly, that “there was no specific commandment against intercourse with Gentiles. Observance of purity codes prevented the strictly observant from such activities as eating in gentile homes” (Pervo, Acts, 274). Johnson agrees, saying it depended on the Jewish group (Johnson, Acts, 190).
Gilbert, however, in Acts, JANT, 219, offers the best summary statement, accounting for all of these aspects of thought: “fear of committing idolatry and desire to avoid prohibited foods required care in how Jews associated with Gentiles. Peter’s statement, however, is rarely reflected in Jewish writings (cf. Jub 22:16), but represents a common perspective among Gentiles (e.g., Philo, Spec. Law. 2.167; Tacitus, Hist. 5.1-13). Actual practice among Jews would not have supported this view, as for instance the existence of a “Court of the Gentiles” at the Temple would indicate.” It seems as if Peter is saying that he no longer needs to take care in associating with Gentiles, but a new stage in relationship between Jews and Gentiles has been achieved somehow.
For Peter then connects his vision of unclean animals to Gentiles and that he should not call “anyone” profane or unclean (Fitzmyer, Acts, 461). Wall says that Peter recognizes the “subtext” of what God has shown him by declaring all animals “clean” (Wall, The New Interpreter’s Bible, 165; Johnson, Acts, 190), but I think it is a more interesting step by Peter. As Pervo says, Peter is not a puppet here “despite all the apparatus of divine control” and “Acts sets forth the understanding that the impetus for the gentile mission resulted from a decision that a revelation was to be interpreted in a symbolic manner” (Pervo, Acts, 275; see also “Commentary on Acts” in The Oxford Bible Commentary).
This is such an important point since the fact that foods are no longer “unclean” does not necessarily move directly to the belief that Gentiles whatever they eat or however they worship are in a state of purity; it is an interpretive step. And even having made that interpretive step, Peter is still not sure what the import of it is, as he still asks, “Now may I ask why you sent for me?” (Acts 10:29). We might think it is obvious, but I believe Luke has properly set up the early Christian dilemma: how can Gentiles be invited into the community of believers as Gentiles? Peter’s question, basically, “so what do you want?,” does not have an easy or obvious answer for him.
Next entry, Cornelius explains himself and Peter shares the Gospel.
John W. Martens
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This entry is cross-posted at America Magazine - The Good Word