February 27, 2012

St. Peter, Jewish Bigot

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.



Peter Kirk said...

Can I suggest an alternative take on this one? Luke centres his account, Acts, round two conversions: of Saul, and of (not so much Cornelius but) Peter. Before, Saul is a (perhaps somewhat exaggerated) violent persecutor, but he has a vision of Jesus, is converted and becomes Luke's hero. Before, Peter is a (perhaps somewhat exaggerated) bigot, but he has a vision of a sheet, is converted, and becomes the supporter of Paul's mission to the Gentiles that we see in Acts 15. Doesn't that fit better than seeing Luke as against Peter and for Paul?

Peter Kirk said...

PS Is there no way to subscribe to comments by e-mail? I don't want to subscribe to yet another Atom feed. Or perhaps you don't want any ongoing discussions.

Bill Heroman said...

I think you're correct, Peter. What I'm trying to say is that Luke was against Peter as Peter was in those days. Sorry if I sounded like I was against the new Peter. Not that he did such a great job in Antioch or Corinth later on, but I'm honestly sure he meant well and tried hard to be gracious on each of those trips.

Yes, I'd love more discussion, but I'm not sure what you Word-Pressers see when you try commenting on Blogger. I'll have a look around Blogger Help again, and if I update anything, I'll do a post to announce that. Thanks for the good reminder on that.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Interesting that it's only Paul who records that Peter was still a bit bigoted in Antioch, after the Cornelius events, whereas Luke presents him as a reformed character.

Just seen your new post about comments. Earlier I was commenting with my Google account, not an OpenID. I use Google for many things, just not for blogging. I'll try the OpenID and WordPress for this comment. But it only seems to allow wordpress.com blogs and assumes that WordPress user names are also blog names. So the link given for this comment will not be the one I want, which would be to my blog Gentle Wisdom.

Peter Kirk said...

Thanks for the changes: no annoying CAPTCHA and subscribe by e-mail seems to work. But I can still link only to my very outdated wordpress.com blog, not to my current self-hosted WordPress blog. Well, this time I'll try the Name/URL option.

Bill Heroman said...

Luke presents Peter's attitude as reformed. Paul presents that Peter stumbled a bit in the application of things. No contradiction in fact, but yes Luke & Paul's emphases were pointedly different, which I think had more to do with each man's audience & purpose in writing.

Thanks for the help today, Peter!

Peter Kirk said...

Agreed, no contradiction, just different emphases.

You're welcome. Comment e-mails coming through OK.

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