In this part of the series on the Speeches of Acts, I will be looking at the two speeches given by Peter in chapters 10 & 11. As speeches, they are quite different from each other, but they are both essential to the overall narrative in these chapters—the episode of Cornelius, which begins the early Christian mission to the Gentiles. In order to understand the context of this episode within the overall structure of Acts, I offer the following outline of the first half of the book:
- Introduction—the Disciples with Jesus (Acts 1:1-11)
- The Believers in Jerusalem (Acts 1:12-8:3)
Acts 1:12-26: The reconstitution of the Twelve, with a speech by Peter
Acts 2:1-47: The Pentecost narrative (the coming of the Spirit), with a speech by Peter
Acts 3:1-4:31: The healing miracle and the Apostles before the Sanhedrin, with two speeches by Peter and a prayer
Acts 4:32-5:11: Conflict among the Believers—Ananias/Sapphira
Acts 5:12-42: Miracle(s) and the Apostles before the Sanhedrin, with two speeches (by Peter and Gamaliel)
Acts 6:1-7: Conflict among the Believers—the appointment of the Seven (incl. Stephen and Philip)
Acts 6:8-8:3: The Stephen narrative, with a major speech, concluding with onset of persecution
- The Early Mission outside of Jerusalem (Acts 8:4-12:25)
Acts 8:4-40: Two episodes involving Philip (in Samaria and on the road to Gaza), along with an episode of the Apostles in Samaria (Peter and Simon Magus)
Acts 9:1-31: The Conversion and early Ministry of Saul Paulus (Paul) (around Damascus)
Acts 9:32-43: Two episodes (healing miracles) involving Peter (in Lydda/Sharon and Joppa)
Acts 10:1-11:18: Peter and Cornelius (in Caesarea): first outreach to Gentiles, with two speeches by Peter
Acts 11:19-30: Introduction to the Church in Antioch
Acts 12:1-25: The arrest (and miraculous release) of Peter, followed by the death of Herod Agrippa
- Paul’s (First) Mission to the Gentiles (Acts 13:1-15:35)
These two speeches by Peter emphasize the importance and centrality of the Cornelius episode, marking the beginning of the mission to the Gentiles, and the first clear Gentile converts to Christianity. It is noteworthy that this episode appears prominently in the so-called Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 (cf. vv. 7-9, 14ff), serving to legitimize the mission of Paul and Barnabas. The main speech of Peter in chapter 10 concludes an extensive narrative, which I divide as follows:
- The vision of Cornelius, 10:1-8
The vision of Peter, 10:9-16
- The visit (of Cornelius) to Peter, 10:17-23a
The visit of Peter to Cornelius, 10:23b-33
These are two interconnected pairs, each scene serving to draw Peter and Cornelius (Jew and Gentile) closer together. Before proceeding to the speech itself, I will briefly discuss each of the narrative scenes.
Scene 1: The vision of Cornelius (10:1-8)
The personal character of Cornelius (vv. 1-2)—A Roman military commander stationed in Caesarea, Cornelius is described (in verse 2) as:
- eu)sebh/$ (euseb¢¡s)—This word is a bit difficult to translate literally, but fundamentally it would be rendered something like “(having/showing) good/proper respect”, especially in religious matters (i.e. “pious, devout”); though originally the root verb se/bomai would have more concretely indicated “fall back (in fear/awe)”. It is generally synonymous with qeosebh/$ (theoseb¢¡s, shorthand for sebome/no$ to\n qeo\n, “showing fear/respect for God”). For the eu)seb- wordgroup elsewhere, see Acts 3:12; 10:7; 17:23; it is especially common in the later (Pastoral) writings, 1 Tim 2:2; 3:16; 4:7-8; 5:4; 6:5-6, 11; 2 Tim 3:5, 12; Tit 1:1; 2:12; 2 Pet 1:3, 6-7; 3:11; for qeoseb- see John 9:31; 1 Tim 2:10. On the similar use of se/bomai, cf. Acts 13:43, 50; 16:14; 17:4, 17; 18:7, 13; 19:27.
- fobou/meno$ to\n qeo\n (“[one who] is in fear of God”, i.e. ‘God-fearer’)—This concrete expression is parallel to eu)sebh/$/qeosebh/$ (and the similar sebome/no$ to\n qeo\n); it also appears in Acts 13:16, 26, and generally seems to derive from the LXX (cf. Psalm 115:11 [113:19]; 118:4; 135:20). On the idea of “fearing God” in the New Testament, see Rom 3:18; 2 Cor 5:11; 7:1; Heb 11:7; 1 Pet 2:17; Rev 14:7; 19:5, etc.
- “one doing (act)s of mercy [e)lehmosu/na$] for the people”—in such a context, the Greek word is typically understood as charitable gifts or contributions (“alms”); here “the people” specifically means the Jewish people.
- “making request of God through all (things)”—The verb de/omai means to ask or request from someone (out of need); in a religious context, of course, it means requesting from God, but can have the more general sense of “prayer” as well as the specific sense of “petition”.
—”prayer and almsgiving” came to be a typical expression of religious piety in Jewish tradition (cf. Tobit 12:8-9, 12, 15; Sirach 35:6; 38:11; 45:16, etc).
The vision of Cornelius (vv. 3-6)—He receives his vision at the Jewish hour for prayer (Acts 3:1); the angel specifically mentions his prayer and “gifts of mercy” (alms) which have gone up (like a sacrificial offering) as a memorial before God. For a similar angelic visitation and message, see Luke 1:13ff (and note Acts 9:10-12).
Cornelius’ response to the vision (vv. 7-8)—Cornelius’ obedience and care in responding is narrated simply (cf. Acts 9:17; 10:21; 11:12).
Scene 2: The vision of Peter (10:9-16)
Peter’s vision is something of a different character than that of Cornelius—it is a symbolic, revelatory vision, one which also takes place during a time of prayer (v. 9). It is also specifically related to food (note Peter’s hunger and the time setting for the noon-day meal), touching upon the dietary regulations in the Old Testament / Jewish Law (Lev 11:1-47; Deut 14:3-20). The revelatory character is indicated by:
- Heaven being “opened” [a)new|gme/non] (cf. Acts 7:56; Lk 3:21)—v. 11
- The vessel “stepping down” [katabai=non] (i.e., descending) out of heaven (cf. Mark 1:10 par; Jn 1:32-33, 51, and frequently in John)—v. 11
- The vessel was “taken up” [a)nelh/mfqh] into heaven (cf. Acts 1:2, 11)—v. 16
Elsewhere in the Gospels, this sort of language and imagery is associated with the incarnation and theophanous manifestation of Jesus. The vision occurs three times (an echo of Peter’s three-fold denial? cf. Jn 21:15-17), each time accompanied by a (divine) voice. There is a two-fold aspect to the symbolism of the vision, marked by the adjective pa=$ (“all”):
- “All [pa/nta] kinds of animals” (v. 12)—this indicates a removal of the clean/unclean distinction in the dietary laws; note Peter’s objection (“I have never eaten anything [pa=n] common or unclean”).
- “All parts of the earth”—as symbolized by the vessel as a “great sheet” with four corners set down upon the earth (v. 11); this indicates the universality of the Christian mission (to the Gentiles), cf. Lk 24:47; Acts 1:8; 2:5ff; 9:15.
Note in particular the structure of Peter’s objection (following the dietary laws) and the divine response (vv. 14-15):
- Not anything common [koino/$]
- Not anything unclean [a)ka/qarto$]
- God has cleansed [kaqari/zw]
- Do not call/consider common [koino/w]
- Not anything common [koino/$]
Some commentators have tried to suggest that the vision does not abolish the dietary laws, but is simply meant as an example that the Gentiles should be accepted into the Church. This is most unlikely; while the symbolism regarding acceptance of the Gentiles is certainly correct (see vv. 28b, 35, 45 and 11:1ff), the argument related to the dietary laws themselves seems abundantly clear and specific. I will deal with this question in more detail as part of my series on “The Law and the New Testament” (in the article “The Law in Luke-Acts”).
Scene 3: The visit (of Cornelius) to Peter (10:17-23a)
This visit, of course, is made by Cornelius’ representatives—two servants and a soldier (v. 7)—rather than Cornelius himself. It is interesting how the drama of the scene is heightened by verse 17a, reflecting Peter’s uncertainty regarding the vision (“as Peter was thoroughly without answer in himself [as to] what [the meaning of] the vision might be…”); this may well reflect the joining of a separate tradition (Peter’s vision) into the fabric of the narrative, but it is most effective—note how this motif repeats in verse 19 (“and [at] Peter’s being thoroughly aroused in [thought] about the vision…”). There are perhaps several other subtle echoes of the vision in this scene:
- Another revelation, here by the Spirit—”See, three men are seeking you” (v. 19)
- Three men, just as the vision appeared three times
- Peter “steps down” (i.e. goes down) to meet them (vv. 20-21), just as the vision “steps down” out of heaven—in both instances the verb katabai/nw is used
There is an additional parallel to Scene 1 with the description of Cornelius in verse 22, which now also characterizes him as “just/righteous” (di/kaio$).
Scene 4: The visit of Peter to Cornelius (10:23b-33)
The narrative builds as Peter’s arrival and his reception is described in solemn fashion (vv. 24-27); the “Western” text of Acts shows many differences in these verses. Peter states the central issue (and the basic conflict) clearly in verse 28:
- It is contrary to law/custom [i.e. unlawful, a)qe/mito$]
- for a Jewish man
- to join [kolla=sqai] or come toward [prose/rxesqai]
- (one) of another fulh/ [i.e. tribe/clan/race, etc]
- It is contrary to law/custom [i.e. unlawful, a)qe/mito$]
Peter interprets or applies his vision in terms of people—no person should be treated as common or unclean. In verses 30-33, Cornelius reprises his own vision, setting the stage for the speech of Peter to follow.
The Speech of Peter (10:34-48)
Verses 34-48 could be broken into two scenes (5 and 6): the speech of vv. 34-43 and the effect/result of the speech (the manifestation of the Spirit) in vv. 44-48; however, I will deal with both under a single heading. Here is an outline of the speech, which loosely follows the basic sermon-speech pattern I have recognized and used earlier throughout this series:
- Narrative introduction (vv. 30-33)—the entirety of the narrative in Acts 10:1-33 (esp. vv. 23b-33) really should be considered here (see above), but I isolate verses 30-33 as the proper introduction to the speech itself.
- Introductory Address (vv. 34-35)
- [Citation from Scripture] (vv. 36-42)—instead of a Scripture citation (and exposition), we have a central kerygma (Gospel proclamation), the most complete and developed thus far in Acts.
- Concluding Exhortation (v. 43)
- Narrative Conclusion (vv. 44-48)
The two speeches of 10:34-38 and 11:1-18 will be examined in detail in the next part of this article.