The Conversion of Cornelius
The story of the centurion Cornelius in Acts 10:1—11:18 obviously has a special importance in the Book of Acts. This fact clearly emerges from the detailed apology with which Peter justifies his attitude before the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. It is also obvious from the emphasis with which both speakers in the “Apostolic Council,” Peter and James, refer to the conversion of Cornelius as decisive evidence of the acceptance of the Gentiles by God. Why the writer of Acts—I call him Luke—favors the story in this way presents a problem which can be solved only if we discover what material Luke had at his disposal and how he treated it.1
The story of the centurion Cornelius was certainly not invented by Luke, for he enriched it by additions which are recognizable as such because they clash, to some extent, with the original story. This must have been born in tradition—presumably in the tradition of those Hellenistic communities which would have been interested in a story set in this particular locality and with this particular content. We must see first how Luke dealt with this story.
The speech in which Peter justifies himself before the authorities in Jerusalem is certainly Luke’s own work, for the Jewish Christians charge Peter with associating and eating with Gentiles. In the story itself, this act of eating together does not play an essential part at all. In the old tradition, Cornelius is a Gentile, but a devout and God-fearing man who, because of these virtues, is honored by God with a special message brought by an angel. The tradition speaks of him most sympathetically, and it is unlikely that it would have perceived any necessity for Peter to defend himself for having associated with this man. Someone who wanted to give major importance to the story added the defense. In view of Acts 11:1–18, we must assume that this was Luke.