If Acts is historically reliable, early Petrine Christianity must have been *more* strictly separatist than most if not all other Jews within first century Palestine. Perhaps it was only the misplaced zeal of a new convert being put in charge, but it seems as if Peter became adamant that this Jesus movement was going to do the whole God [Jewish] thing properly, for once! Like many new converts, he overcooked it a bit.
Whatever his motivation, Peter's opinion was definitely atypical among early Jews when he said to Cornelius, "ὑμεῖς ἐπίστασθε ὡς ἀθέμιτόν ἐστιν ἀνδρὶ Ἰουδαίῳ κολλᾶσθαι ἢ προσέρχεσθαι ἀλλοφύλῳ κἀμοὶ ὁ θεὸς ἔδειξεν μηδένα κοινὸν ἢ ἀκάθαρτον λέγειν ἄνθρωπον". Heretofore, Peter and his companions shared an understanding (ἐπίστασθε) that it was unacceptable (ἀθέμιτόν) for Judean/Jewish men to associate with foreigners, whom they felt were impure (κοινὸν) and unclean (ἀκάθαρτον). Clearly, this attitude was as distasteful for the author of Acts as for readers today, but please consider one very simple suggestion:
This is not Luke's general critique of Judaism at large. This is Luke's particular critique of Judean-Christendom, to that point in time.
In the first place, accepting Acts 10:28 as an accurate representation of St. Peter's opinion and personal practice only allows us conclusions about Peter and his companions, themselves. More importantly, a plethora of recent research resoundingly shows that most Palestinian Judaisms were hardly standoffish to gentiles. Most famously, the Temple's "Court of the Gentiles" permitted them up to a point at Jerusalem's holiest site. This makes the Sanhedrin more welcoming to gentile outsiders than the Apostles were to their own gentile widows, who apparently were not allowed when the church broke bread together each night, house to house.
Point: If Acts stands as evidence, the earliest Christians were far more bigoted under Peter's leadership than were other Jews circulating among virtually all other known forms of Judaism at that time.
This historical fact does not contradict Acts, but provides us perspective. Since there is nothing within Temple practice nor the Torah to support Peter's complete bigotry towards gentiles, our leading suspicion must be that Luke was criticizing someone other than "all Jews" in this passage. Specifically, Luke must have been lambasting Peter. Otherwise, if Luke believed all Jews treated Cornelius as Peter would have it, then how could Luke report that Cornelius was "well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews"?
That alone should speak volumes, and yet the strongest evidence for Luke's personal attitude comes not from the context of Acts 1-15 but from the fact that Acts 21 provides the nearest back story for Luke's initial research for composition. Granting historicity (again), the saints in Casarea, circa 57 AD, are the ones whose eyes we should look through when reading Acts 1ff, especially 6-11. That is, if Philip the evangelist and Cornelius' surviving family are the ones who told Luke these stories, and if they did so in the context of Paul's unfortunate conflict with the ecclesia of James, then Philip the evangelist and Cornelius' household cannot be considered impartial as sources. Neither can Luke's deliberate reliance on these Caesarean sources speak very well for his composition's opinion of earliest Judean-Christendom.
The Caesarean back story provided by Cornelius' own children suggests that he'd lived on at peace with Caesarea's Synagogue Jews. It is Peter to whom Luke gives a different opinion. It is Peter to whom Luke repeatedly ascribes ignorance and intolerance. It is Peter whom Luke was critiquing in Acts 9-10.
Therefore, if we believe Acts to be reliable historically, then we must conclude it was Peter who had chosen to exclude himself - and his followers - from virtually all contact with gentiles.
This may not be an "early church" to be proud of, but it's what scripture reveals. For an index of posts that addresses related historical issues and possible theological ramifications, please go here.
Thank you, Lord, that we, as the church, can overcome any weakness and move beyond any failure. Now scatter again those who need scattering, so that we all may move towards your objective: a healthier church.