Exegetical Exercise (Acts 10 19-33)

Painting of an angel visiting the soldier Cornelius
Cornelius, looking not particularly 1st century or Roman here, seeing a vision, which does look considerably brighter than the surrounding room

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, August 27 (last Sunday of the Summer quarter) is Acts 10:19-33, a smaller piece of the longer narrative of Cornelius’ and Cornelius’ household’s acceptance into the Christian community, featuring Peter’s vision of the thing like a large sheet filled with treif animals, etc.

Here are my very few notes on this:

Compare the text we looked at last week: some significant similarities, especially in the instructions to Ananias and Peter (“rise, go …”) – not identical, but similar. Ananias is instructed to go alone; Peter is instructed to go with the people who have come from Cornelius; as it turns out, he takes people from Joppa with him as well (v 23); witnesses? Ananias’ instructions specify what Ananias is to do when he gets to Saul’s house. The recorded instructions to Peter, and to Cornelius, don’t include that Peter’s going to speak; but everyone seems to think he will, and to be ready to listen (vv 22, 24, 33). Was this mentioned but not recorded? Or implied in the other instructions that were given? Or just implied by the remarkable character of the visions involved in the story – so, something else must be going to happen?

There is a lot of time, and a lot of sociability, involved in this story – so, a lot of flexibility, from my point of view. Cornelius has a vision (specifically, around 3 in the afternoon, call it day 1). Sends people to Joppa: two slaves, and a “devout soldier” from the ranks, to get Peter. [And by the way: why three people? Why slaves? Were the slaves Gentiles or Jews? Why a soldier, too? Presumably, surely, a Gentile? Isn’t this group kind of strange??] Peter has a vision (specifically, around noon, day 2). Then, after that vision has managed to puzzle Peter significantly, the three visitors show up at the gate. Peter has another special instruction, explicitly identified with the Spirit, telling him to go with these men and that it’s the Spirit who has sent them. Although Cornelius has also sent them. [Aside: Proof text for the idea that when God does things, people do things, or that things that people do can be said to be things that God has done.] Peter invites them in [to someone else’s house, where he’s a guest – “my house is your house” takes on a whole new meaning] to spend the night. Presumably they have to eat dinner. And breakfast. Assuming without looking it up that 1st century Mediterraneans ate both dinner and breakfast. Presumably Simon the tanner does NOT make them go outside to eat [the way we these days make smokers go outside to smoke – for identical reasons – namely, the eww-gross-nasty factor – some overcoming ethnic boundaries starting to happen already, maybe]. So, lots of hospitality going on. Then Peter and the three apostles-of-Cornelius-and-the-Holy-Spirit (ones sent) and “believers from Joppa,” presumably Jewish, head off to Caesarea (day 3). An ethnically mixed group of travelers. Presumably they have to eat along the way. Lunch. Dinner. And stay somewhere. Not mentioned, but we know this has to be happening, maybe they go to someone’s house on the way … again, hospitality. To a bunch of people, now. And finally, “the following day” (day 4) they arrive in Caesarea and by this time Cornelius has also assembled all his kin and close friends (v 24), so now there’s a small crowd, and we know it’s got to be an ethnically mixed small crowd (Peter and the Joppans, Cornelius and family, friends maybe of both groups … his synagogue pals and his more religiously-minded friends from the officers’ club, possibly).

[My point here is … I cannot really even imagine this happening today, but that may be because I am too much of an introvert. If someone, even God, said here, have some people over for two meals and an overnight, and then go on a 2-day road trip and when you get there hang out at a good-size party at a complete stranger’s house, that would stress me out. Especially on no more notice than that. But maybe there are people these days for whom this would feel more or less OK, or even fun. If anyone was one of those people, Peter was probably that person. Either way, this part of the story is presented as fairly unremarkable. So whether this is the time-and-place, or the nature of the community, or those members of the community, or the responsiveness to the special circumstances of the visions …?]

Cornelius repeats almost word for word (vv 30-32) the vision described in vv 3-6. Leaving out the “terror.” [Which Peter surely would have empathized with, having had plenty of experience with terrifying supernatural experiences, so he didn’t really need to leave that out on Peter’s account …]. Peter is going to repeat almost word for word (Acts 11:5-15) the events in his own vision and the trip … As our former pastor used to say, “the Bible is not exactly Charles Dickens, so when the Bible takes the time to repeat a whole story, that story is important.” Luke really wants us to get the message that God authorized this.

Peter says it is “unlawful” (NRSV) for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. It’s not against the Torah, though. It appears that the underlying Greek might mean something more like “not customary” or “not acceptable” [the eww-gross-nasty factor again] and that Peter is referring to pretty well established practice of the day. So maybe it was “unlawful” the way we would say “Christians aren’t allowed to play cards” – that’s one I grew up with – and that “law” isn’t actually anywhere except in people’s minds and possibly the Westminster Longer Catechism, but being in people’s minds still meant we only played Rook – which is not actually cards – and Christian Family Stores only sell Dutch Blitz decks. So that party in Caesarea isn’t just a party, it’s the equivalent of a non-card-player going over to someone’s house for three tables of bridge and snacks. Chocolate covered bacon bits, possibly.

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