The First Christians in Their Social Worlds: Social-Scientific Approaches to New Testament Interpretation

By Philip F. Esler | Go to book overview

Chapter 3

Glossolalia and the admission of Gentiles into the early Christian community

THE CORNELIUS EPISODE IN ACTS

According to the Acts of the Apostles, the first Gentile to become a Christian was the centurion Cornelius, who was stationed in Caesarea. The story of his conversion, told in the tenth chapter of the work, begins with a brief description of Cornelius, a devout and God-fearing Gentile, already closely aligned with the Jews, who is told in a vision that his prayers have been answered and that he must send someone to Jaffa (a town 30 miles south along the coast) and fetch Peter, then lodging with a tanner. So Cornelius sends off two slaves and a soldier. The next day while they are approaching Jaffa, Peter has a vision of a sheet descending to earth from heaven containing all sorts of animals, some of them unclean, and is told in the vision to kill and eat, which he is unwilling to do, not having before eaten anything unclean. When the emissaries from Cornelius arrive, Peter lets them in, although they are Gentiles, as he has received an instruction to do so from the Spirit in his vision. The next day he sets off with some fellow Jewish Christians to Cornelius. Peter and his group are met in Caesarea by Cornelius and his friends and relatives and are brought into the house of Cornelius. Peter notes that ‘It is forbidden (athemiton) for Jews to mix with people of another race and visit them, but God has made it clear to me that I must not call anyone profane or unclean’ (10.28; The Jerusalem Bible [JB]). A little later Peter delivers an address in which he makes a remarkable leap outside the tight bounds of the Jewish ethnic identity of the time by saying: ‘The truth I have now come to realise is that God does not have favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him’ (10.34-5; JB). Peter then continues to preach about the life, death and

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