“Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.
–Acts 10:47-48 (ESV)
When Simon Peter heard the Gentiles speaking in the languages and saw that they had received the Spirit just as he and the other Jewish believers had, he could no longer theologically exclude them from participation in the kingdom or discipleship. (see Acts 10:47-48) They had not gone through a legal conversion to become Jewish, nor had they been circumcised. They were still Gentiles, yet they had experienced the Spirit of God, just as the Jewish believers had.
Simon Peter explained to the six men that had accompanied him from Joppa, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” By skipping circumcision and going directly to immersion, Simon Peter inverted the process by which a Gentile might ordinarily become a disciple of Yeshua. Prior to that occasion, he and the other disciples required a Gentile to first submit to conversion/circumcision. Immersion could follow later.
If you haven’t done so already, please read Part 1 of this commentary before continuing here.
This is the second time in his commentary on Acts 10 that Lancaster suggests Peter or the other Jewish apostles may have previously converted Gentiles to Judaism by first having them circumcised and then entering them into Jesus discipleship. As I mentioned in Part 1, I can’t think of any record in the Bible that points in this direction. I do note however, that Philip also did not require the Ethiopian eunuch to be circumcised prior to immersion. However, that more than likely means the eunuch was Jewish (and did not need to convert) since Luke makes no point of the eunuch being a Gentile as he does of Cornelius (although as previously mentioned, there are a number of assumptions in play).
What Lancaster says regarding circumcision and conversion of Gentiles does fit nicely into Shaye J.D. Cohen’s opinion (see his book, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Second Edition) of how Gentiles were made into Jewish disciples as I mentioned in another commentary.
However, as the history of Israel progressed, the concept of conversation to Judaism for the Gentile began to become more formalized. Cohen cites three essential elements of conversion to Judaism: belief in God, circumcision, and joining the house of Israel. Again, this is a definition of a convert to Judaism, not conditions required for the Gentile to join “the Way” as disciples of Christ. Cohen even references the difference:
For Paul, circumcision represents subjugation to the demands of the Torah (Gal. 3-5).
In other words, while Paul did not see circumcision and thus full obedience to the mitzvot as a requirement for the Gentile Christians, he did see it as a necessary step for full conversion to Judaism. The natural conclusion then is that a Gentile becoming a disciple of the Jewish Messiah in the time of Paul was not the same as a Gentile converting to Judaism.
Another indication that Gentiles entering into Jesus discipleship were not converting to Judaism is found in the aftermath of Peter’s experience with Cornelius.
Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
–Acts 11:1-3 (ESV)
This wasn’t exactly a friendly inquiry on the part of Peter’s fellow Jewish apostles.
Rumors of his (Peter’s) activities among the Gentiles preceded him. It did not take long for word of Simon’s Peter’s theological leap and halachic faux pas to reach the rest of the Judean apostolic community. The inclusion of the Samaritans had been controversial enough. Simon’s fraternization with Gentiles raised astonishment and disbelief.
No one objected to Gentiles joining the assembly of Yeshua so long as they first went through a proper conversion, but according to the rumor, that had not happened. People were even saying that Simon Peter had entered the home of the Roman soldier, eaten with him, and invited him to immerse for the name of Yeshua.
Such an association of Gentiles with Jews, and the Gentiles being allowed into discipleship within a Jewish sect without first converting to Judaism, must have seemed outrageous to the Jewish apostolic community in Jerusalem. Luke points out in verse 2 that “circumcision party criticized him,” meaning the people present were Jews, either people born Jewish or converts to Judaism. A Jew eating with a Gentile was a violation of halachah. Lichtenstein in “Commentary on the New Testament” on Acts 11:3 considers this matter further.
“You went to uncircumcized men and ate with them” (Acts 11:3). This does not present a difficulty, for Cornelius was a God-fearer and certainly had kosher food. And the objection of the circumcised men is only about [Peter’s] approaching uncircumcised men and eating with them, for Jews were forbidden to approach a foreigner.
-Lancaster, pg 236
Cohen might not entirely agree with Lichtenstein, since he believes God-fearers were still polytheists, integrating the God of Israel into a panthenon of other “gods.” However, it is quite likely that Peter and the six Jews in his company would not have eaten with Cornelius unless the food was kosher and there’s nothing to say, Cohen aside, that Cornelius must have been polytheistic.
In his defense, Peter and the other Jews who accompanied him recounted the events that occurred prior to entering the Roman’s home and what happened once Peter engaged Cornelius, including the giving of the Spirit to the Gentiles. (see Acts 11:4-17) Fortunately, upon hearing the explanation, the other apostles understood the graciousness of God, even to the Gentiles.
When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
–Acts 11:18 (ESV)
Lancaster presents his final interpretation of the “Cornelius event,” raising another interesting question.
The apostolic leadership accepted Simon Peter’s testimony and the corroboration offered by the six men from Joppa. The were forced to concede that Sinon had acted properly in setting aside the halachah about the uncleanness of Gentiles. More than that, they realized that God accepted the Gentiles into the kingdom. They did not determine whether or not the new Gentile believers should be encouraged to remain God-fearers or go on to full conversion. They only determined that they should receive Gentile brethern without objection as fellow disciples and heirs of the kingdom.
Uncertain of what else to make of the situation, they blessed God.
-Lancaster, pg 237
As we can see, both from the text in Acts and in Lancaster’s interpretation, the early Jewish apostles struggled to understand how to integrate the Gentile disciples into the Jewish Messianic community. The realization that Gentiles may not have to convert to Judaism (and according to Lancaster, at this point the jury was still out on this matter) in order to become disciples was revolutionary. All other sects of Judaism who were actively pursuing Gentiles as disciples required that the Gentiles convert to Judaism as a matter of course. In other words, it was a “no brainer.” Only in the Jesus sect was the method of entering Gentiles into a Jewish sect still something of a question mark. God didn’t just flip some sort of “spiritual switch” and suddenly, all of the apostles “just knew” what to do with the Gentiles and what it all meant.
But if the Gentiles didn’t have to convert; if they didn’t have to accept circumcision, then how was Torah and halachah to be applied to them? As we saw above, Paul and Cohen’s commentary on Paul understand that conversion to Judaism and circumcision meant the Gentiles would be fully obligated to the Torah mitzvot. As of the events in Acts 11 that question hadn’t even been brought up let alone answered. The apostles had no idea what was coming next. Neither did Cornelius and his household or any other Gentiles who subsequently became disciples.
It will be weeks before Lancaster’s Torah Club commentary addresses the events in Acts 15 which presumably will answer these questions. I hope you are looking forward to the future revelations of Volume 6 of the Torah Club as much as I am.