March 22, 2010

Peter and Cornelius - 1

After reading Acts, it's clear that Peter's vision at Joppa meant quite a lot. In the middle of Acts 10, however, it's less clear whether Peter himself had immediately grasped all that his vision in Joppa was intended to mean. Verse 28 presents one clear statement of contrast between Peter's old and new thinking, but the same cannot be said of verses 34-35. In both cases, Peter speaks to Cornelius. Here's the ESV:
10:28 - You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.

10:34,35 - Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
The first statement is difficult to interpret precisely but it does at least show the replacement of one view with another. We'll need to look more at that later. For starters, the second statement is what needs our attention. Although verses 34-35 do NOT explicitly claim to be part of Peter's new revelation, they have most often been taken that way, even to the point that some translations unjustly alter 34a, as shown below. Note my emphasis of the key differences:
mGNT: ἐπ’ ἀληθείας καταλαμβάνομαι ὅτι οὐκ ἔστιν προσωπολήμπτης ὁ θεός...
ESV: Truly I understand that God shows no partiality...
Young's: Of a truth, I perceive that God is no respecter of persons...
NKJV: In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality...
NASB: I most certainly understand {now} that God is not one to show partiality...
NIV: I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism...
NLT: I see very clearly that God doesn't show partiality...
The first three English renderings stick closely to the Greek, but the last three do not. At least the NASB brackets (NASB95 italicizes) its own editorial "now". The interpretative NIV also adds "now" at the beginning (and does something else odd which we might look at later, with "how true it is"). Lastly, the paraphrased NLT seems innocent enough at first glance, but the word "see" must have been chosen partly because it evokes Peter's earlier "vision". Thus, NASB, NIV & NLT are working hard to support an enlightened reading of v.35. But of course, this merely happens to be the leading interpretation for much if not all of traditional Christendom. That interpretation, itself, is what I'm aiming to challenge.

The first time I re-read verses 34-35 after researching the ancient world (several years ago), I saw something not very radical, but surprisingly normal. Read it again: "God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."

At face value, that sounds just like standard policy on God-fearers at Synagogues everywhere.

In this series, I intend to show that this statement reflects knowledge Peter had long before his grand vision at Joppa. It reflects knowledge that Jews throughout the Diaspora would have already agreed with. It shows Peter still doesn't grasp all that Joppa entailed, until probably 10:44. Finally, all this together may show us a more precise picture of Peter's earlier position on Gentiles, Proselytes, Hellenists and who was or was not clean enough to be touched by the Holy Spirit.

To be continued...

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