This post continues my exploration of Acts 9-11. At its base is the sense that, even now, we have barely understood what it means when God says to Peter, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." What follows is more notes than anything complete.
Peter always was unreliable. He denied our Lord, you know, but what else would you expect from a Galilean? As they say, nothing good can come from Nazareth. No— Jesus was born in Bethlehem; that makes all the difference. He came from a good family.
Peter never understood how one thing leads to another. You have to stay true to the Faith, and keep the traditions, or you can end up who knows where. Take that Aeneas incident, for example. Another one of those Greeks. I know they've been circumcised and all, but the leopard never changes its spots, as the scroll of Jeremiah1 tells us. And that's where it starts to go wrong because then— after that, Peter's off to Joppa, always impetuous, never thinking it through.
Did it never occur to him what that the fact that half the widows in the town called that woman Dorcas actually means? I've heard people suggest she was Greek, too. And to call her a disciple!? Even the women at the cross are not called that. Anyway— Greeks again, and he's raising her from the dead. What about all the good orthodox Jewish Christians who missed out; was she the only one who died that day? It's not a small city, you know.
One thing really does lead to another: it all went to his head, and he went and stayed with that stinking Simon the tanner. Well, both Simons stink. Some upstart Roman Centurion thought he had a vision from God— all those rumours from Lydda andJoppa, I suppose— and sent to ask for Peter... who actually gave this fantasy credence, and went off to Caesarea.
Simon was as lost as the tanner. He couldn't tell the difference between a dream from God and his mind wandering in the midday sun. Didn't the fact that he was hungry and staying with a tanner explain the dream? Was it not a warning of what happens when you live with barely observant riff raff— the idea that God would suggest he eat unclean meat! Yes, I do know Genesis says 'God saw that it was good,' but that doesn't mean it was clean! Are you suggesting now, that excrement is clean!—after all, God made it. The man was a fool. Yes, Genesis says what Genesis says, but the scroll of Leviticus says
When any of you touch any unclean thing—whether the carcass of an unclean beast or the carcass of unclean livestock or the carcass of an unclean swarming thing— and are [even] unaware of it, you have become unclean, and are guilty...
We Christians are bound by the whole Bible. Have you not read where it says
If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean for seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean...
If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean for two weeks, as in her menstruation; her time of blood purification shall be sixty-six days?2
All this stuff about women being equal!? It's unbiblical. That's why he was lost before he left. He even invited a Roman soldier to stay— why not invite Nero himself? I guess he didn't notice the smell because he was staying with a tanner. You know, if he'd only had the sense to stay with a real Christian in Joppa, none of this would have happened.
Listen— all that stuff at that Roman's house: I know it sounded just like Pentecost, but who's to say that was really the Spirit anyway. Yes it's in Acts, but the Blessed John said it didn't happen. Jesus breathed on them. That's when the Spirit was given. Just because something fancy happens doesn't mean it's true. You know the Scripture: Do not believe every spirit!3
And even if all that stuff in Caesarea was of God— not that it was— why would any of it mean you should not be circumcised, and keep the law? Especially the law about the Gentiles. We know the rules for proselytes. Of course they belong, bless them. Of course they can become Christians. But the Word is unchanging. We cannot deny them baptism, but they must keep the law like all of us, or where will we end up?
Are we going to be like that fool Paul and write treatises that pretend sexual perverts are just the same as us good people!?4 God help us, he'll have women marrying women, next! I tell you, one thing leads to another. If we let this rubbish of Peter's continue, who knows what we will become!
I know God shows no partiality. That's not some special insight of Peter or Paul; Moses himself said God shows no partiality and accepts no bribes5. They have twisted Moses to say God treats all folk just the same when it cannot be so, for people are not all the same. We must hold to the traditions or one thing will lead to another and we will be a different people altogether.
1. Jer 13:23
2. Leviticus 5:2, 12:2-5
3. 1 John 4:1
4. Romans 1:1 – 2:11 and James Alison “But the Bible says...”? A Catholic reading of Romans 1
5. Deut 10:17
What I have below is some inline comment on the text of Acts 9:31 through the end of Acts 11, highlighting the reading which informs the fable I have presented above.
Acts 9:32 Now as Peter went here and there among all the believers, he came down also to the saints living in Lydda.
Ernst Haenchen (The Acts of the Apostles) pp338 says the 'here and there among all the believers" has "Old Testament tones." I think of Job 1: 7-8 7The Lord said to the Accuser ‘Where have you come from?’ The Accuser answered the Lord, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.’ It's clear, as I will not below, that Acts presents a Peter modeled on the prophets of the past.
33There he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years, for he was paralysed.
34Peter said to him, ‘Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up (ἀνάστηθι. cf, the resurrection of Jesus in Acts 1:22, which is: ἀναστάσεως) and make your bed!’ And immediately he got up. 35And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.
There are echoes here; e.g., Acts 4:6 stand up and walk and also in Jesus' healing: Luke 5:23-26 23Which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven you”, or to say, “Stand up and walk”? 24But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the one who was paralysed—‘I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.’ 25Immediately he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God. 26Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe... Peter is emulating Jesus in the things he is doing.
36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple (μαθήτρια which is the feminine of μαθητὴς) whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.
Cf 1 Kings 17: 9But he said to her, ‘Give me your son.’ He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. Also 2 Kings 4: 21She went up and laid him on the bed of the man of God, closed the door on him, and left... and then Elisha returns to the room...
Dorcas means: gazelle, as does Tabitha, which is Aramaic.
38Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ 39So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.
Notice that for the narrative, Tabitha is called Dorcas here and Tabitha there; something is being said about a lack of difference between Jew and Greek.
There are more echoes of Scripture here: cf 1 Kings 17: 18She then said to Elijah, ‘What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!’ Also cf 2 Kings: 28Then she said, ‘Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, Do not mislead me?’
As with the great prophets Elijah and Elisha, there is complaint and remonstrance. The actions of the widows at Joppa are as if to say: What do you have against us, O God?
40Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ (ἀνάστηθι) Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.
She is definitely dead: she has been laid out— washed. And here, he turns "to the body," not to Tabitha. The narrative subtly makes clear that there has been no mistake about her death.
41He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.
I said that Peter is emulating Jesus in the things he is doing when Anneas is healed. We can see the same in the story of Tabitha, where the phonics of Tabitha and Talitha (Mark 5: Ταλιθα κουμ) are so clearly meant to echo in our consciousness. Haenchen said "that where miracles were concerned, the Apostles could stand comparison with the great prophets of the Old Testament— indeed, as was foreseen in John 14:12, could do the same mighty works as their Master, if not mightier still!" (Haenchen pp 341)
It is common to say tanners were unclean. But Oliver points out
Many New Testament exegetes have taken the reference in Acts 9.43 to Peter's stay at Simon the Tanner's house as proof that purity laws are no longer relevant for the author of Acts, since tanning conveys ritual impurity. These interpreters have relied primarily on rabbinic passages to make their argument. This article shows that none of the solicited rabbinic passages refers to tanning as ritually defiling. Rather, the rabbinic sources reveal a disdain for tanners because of their stench and filth. At times, the rabbinic sages also criticize tanners for their supposed lack of moral scruples. Peter's visit to Simon the Tanner's house, therefore, cannot be taken as evidence that the author of Acts dismisses the relevance of the Jewish purity system, let alone kashrut. [food laws] At best, the reference in Acts to Simon the Tanner informs us about the social-economic status of some of the members of the Jesus movement.
I quote this abstract because it makes clear to me something I learned somewhere from Amy-Jill Levine, (probably in The Misunderstood Jew,) which is that in our readings about uncleanliness and purity laws, we often import our own anti-Semitic prejudice and risk greatly over stating or misinterpreting the separation of Jew and Gentile. What if the revelations of Acts 10 and 11 are more subtle than we imagine, and address the prejudices which are much less obvious. This could mean that the revelation of Acts 10 is ongoing, for we still express disdain, as Oliver puts it, based on all sorts of prejudice. And that disdain means people cannot see past us to the truth we may hold as is seen in Levine's footnote to Acts 10:28:
Unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile, 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. Laws 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. (Levine, Amy-Jill; Brettler, Marc Z.. The Jewish Annotated New Testament (p. 637). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. I have added the emphasis.)
10:1 In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.
Devout "denotes a personal quality... but may also imply membership of her group of Gentiles who took part in synagogue services without, by adopting the whole of the law, becoming really proselytes; ie fully-entitled members of the Jewish religious community. Because they were uncircumcised, such 'God fearers' were looked on by the Jews as Gentiles, and therefore unclean." (Haenchen pp346)
However, I wonder about the status of proselytes. Acquaintances who have long held citizenship in Australia are still sometimes referred to as "Poms," and not in a humorous fashion. How much are those who began as outsiders ever really accepted as truly our equals?
We might notice a commonality of attitude to wealth and possessions between Jewish Tabitha (devoted to good works and acts of charity) and very definitely Roman Cornelius. People's personal qualities and generosity before God— their 'god-fearing'— are not defined by race.
3One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, ‘Cornelius.’ 4He stared at him in terror and said, ‘What is it, Lord?’ He answered, ‘Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.’
There is an interesting question of interpretation here. It could be that the text simply reflects a tradition; namely, that Simon's house was by the sea. Haenchen suggests this is helpful for a tanner (pp347) But the economical literature of the New Testament seems to me not so much to include incidental facts as to add meaning to the theology of the narrative via little details like 'by the sea.' So why does Luke tell us his house is by the sea? In the same way, I find if difficult not to think that Luke is doing something by having two Simons in the one house, despite the popularity of the name.
7When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, 8and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.
Note here that those sent include a soldier. The one coming to Peter is the worst of the unclean— the other— he is Roman, and a part of the oppressing military.
9 About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.
The vision is a reference to Genesis 1:24-25, and that text is the reason for God's response when Peter refuses to eat: And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so. 25God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
Note that heaven opened recalls the phraseology of Jesus' baptism. Heaven opened adds authenticity to the vision; he is not imagining things.
13Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 14But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ 15The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 16This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
What we are seeing here is that Peter is almost ready to see that if God has made an animal and seen that it is good, then to say it is unclean is a contradiction of God's authority.
We should also remember that uncleanliness is not about hygiene as it is in our use of the word; it is about being right in the eyes of God— in right relationship with God, essentially. So Peter was being taught that to say a person or a thing is unclean, was to say that God had in some way abandoned that which God called good.
The English translation here preserves the echoes which are present in the Greek. The voice does not say kill and eat; it says Get up, Peter; kill and eat. There is a raising up being done to Peter here. Resurrection life is not static; we do not remain seated where we are, we are called to new ways of being, even those of us who are apostles! The same echoes will be there when Cornelius is made to get up, and stands up.
17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled...
Here is a vision whose implications are going to take some time to flesh out and come to terms with!
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. 18They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. 19While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Look, three men are searching for you. 20Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.’ 21So Peter went down to the men and said, ‘I am the one you are looking for; (Ἰδοὺ ἐγώ εἰμι ὃν ζητεῖτε) what is the reason for your coming?’ 22They 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.’ 23So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging.
Haenchen notices that it is Peter himself who greets these unclean visitors (pp349) "he acts rather as host than as lodger." There are three visitors; it sounds like Abraham's visitors long ago.
I am intrigued that Peter says Behold, I I am the one you seek!
The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him. 24The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshipped him. 26But Peter made him get up, saying, ‘Stand up; I am only a mortal.’ 27And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28and 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.
Haenchen (pp350) notes re verse 28: "This too is not a realistic description of the situation: diaspora Jews were not hermetically sealed off from dealings with the Gentiles... but the intention is to make clear that God has utterly demolished the barrier which existed for the Jews... and "it is not a question of food but of people."
This is critical insight for understanding what happens in Acts 10. In my own street there is not an hermetic seal between the Hindus, Muslims, Christians and those who are 'Me!? Religious!!?' Australians. Our children play together. But there is a deep division, partly hidden by the playing children, such that when push comes to shove, or if war comes to Sarajevo, neighbour may line up against neighbour, and kill. And in churches, there can be a similar appearance of harmony and visiting each other's houses whilst there are also underlying divisions which are quite absolute; think misogyny, homophobia, race, biblical interpretation, socio-economic status: all these are ways of signalling (even if unconsciously) that what God has loved, rather than abandoned, and declared right and good, are still not quite the same. Whereas God shows no partiality. (Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11)
What I am saying is that Peter's insight is not about some regrettable Jewish food customs. The division between Jew and Gentile is typical of the divisions between people worldwide...
Levine comments on 28
Not call anyone profane, Peter applies his vision of animals to human associations.
God has not placed an unambiguous proposition before Peter. His vision is an interpretation. The fictional complainant in the fable beginning this post has another interpretation of events. There is no such thing as an un-interpreted fact. What brings Peter to his interpretation? As our complainant said, "One thing leads to another." It is only as we are faithful in the very little that we are entrusted with much. (Luke 16:3) My sense is that sometimes we remain blind to some interpretations because we have not begun the 'small trusts.' Sometimes my inability to see betrays my lack of faithfulness elsewhere.
29So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?’
30 Cornelius replied, ‘Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. 31He said, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.”
Note the repetition about Simon the tanner. The crucial nature of this chapter is emphasised by this repetition and then the repeating of much of it in Chapter 11, sometimes word for word.
33Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.’
34 Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’
44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
This is Acts Chapter 2 all over again, the Holy Spirit... poured out even on the Gentiles. Richard Carlson says:
An example of this radical new divine inclusivity is the phrase “every nation” in 10:35a. That exact same phrase was previously used in the Pentecost story when it was reported that there were pious Jews from “every nation” in Jerusalem (2:5). There “every nation” was the geographical home for pious Jews. Now, however, “every nation” includes the pious and righteous people whom God finds acceptable be they Jew or Gentile (10:35b).
11: 1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’
It is not only that "they were silenced." The Jerusalem church explicitly endorses the baptism of Gentiles. It explicitly endorses the insight that all things are 'clean,' and that What God has made clean, you must not call profane. When we divide and judge and diminish certain folk, or even the creation, then even if we claim to be 'baptised in the spirit,' we are denying our baptism and our Lord.
The insight given to Peter is nowhere yet near understood. How do we treat the outsider and alien not as profane but as someone God has made clean and declared at the beginning of creation to be: good? Grace, the love which precedes our repentance, is also for them, for they are good.
And then— remember the vehicle of the vision— how do we treat animals as clean? Not as goods fit for consumption, but as created, clean, and good, beings like ourselves? Which may then have Acts 10 and 11 asking us some profound questions about our environment impact: what are we calling Earth if we profane it? Is it somehow separate from that God called good!? God saw everything God had made and called it very good. One thing leads to another!
The first sentence of Richard Carlson's paragraph below sums up the implication of the Gospel for human beings: What has changed is the scope of 'all.'
What has changed is the scope of 'all.' In Luke 24:47 Peter and the other disciples were commissioned by the risen Christ to preach repentance and forgiveness in Jesus’ name to all nations. In fulfillment of this commission Peter told his Jewish Pentecost audience from all nations that Joel’s prophecy regarding the outpouring of the Spirit had been fulfill so that all who call upon the name of the Lord would be saved (Acts 2:21; Joel 2:32a).
In each case, the perception of Peter and the rest of Jesus’ followers was that all only meant Jews (and Samaritans as noted above). Because Jesus is the Lord of all (10:36b) and is the one God has ordained to be the judge of the living and the dead (10:42b), all Jews and all Gentiles who believe in him receive forgiveness of sins through his name (10:43). In God’s salvific plan, all now really means all.
But beyond Carlson, what does this say about our ethnic, gendered, and anthropomorphic readings of Scripture?
16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Levi Holland says "God changes and shifts the paradigm for Peter." One thing leads to another for Peter; change and insight is incremental and yet, in the end, shifts the paradigm: we end up with an entirely new view of the world.
Andrew Prior (2019)
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