Through the Bible in One Year

Day 205

Acts 10:1-8

We last left Peter in Joppa as he was staying with a man named Simon who was a tanner (a leather worker who made leather goods).  And while it might seem after just a casual reading of today’s section of Acts that maybe we have left Peter in Joppa with Simon the tanner for a little while, but, as we will see over the next several days, we are actually coming to one of the most important, outside of Pentecost and the conversion of Paul, events in the early days of the church.  Because we are going to see the gospel message being taken for the first time to a group of Gentiles, or non-Jewish people.  And this story circulates around a Roman by the name of Cornelius.

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.—10:1-2

Caesarea Maritima (Caesarea on the Sea, not to be confused with Caesarea Philippi in Mark 8:27) was once the settlement called Strato’s Tower.  Herod the Great had expanded it and built a massive harbor complex there, described in detail by Josephus and astonishingly confirmed by archaeology.  It was now the seat of Judea’s Roman governor.  The city’s theater seated some 4,000 and it had other features of Greek cities, but was divided between the dominant Syrian Gentile population and Jewish residents.  Trouble often erupted between these segments, with the Syrian soldiers stationed there siding with the Syrian residents, and in the year AD 66 Josephus estimates that 20,000 Jews were slaughtered in a single wave of genocide.  Some other Gentiles, however, were drawn to Judaism.

Judea’s governor had five auxiliary infantry cohorts and a calvary unit.  Auxiliaries, unlike legionaries, were generally not Roman citizens; they were local Syrian recruits, many based in this area, but would achieve citizenship when they retired.  Centurions commanded centuries, units of about 80 men each.  The traditional, paper strength of a century was, one would obviously guess, 100 soldiers, however, a century contained fewer soldiers than this.  Some centurions were aristocrats, but must were common soldiers who climbed their way through the ranks, sometimes over as long as 20 years.

The Italian Regiment means a cohort, one-tenth of a legion, with as many as 600 troops.  Five of these cohorts were stationed in Caesarea, with a sixth in the Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem.  Cohorts could take their names from the cohort’s original location, so there is no reason to expect that the current cohort is Italian rather than (as usual in this region) largely Syrian.  Given Cornelius’s name, he is probably already a citizen, whether as retired centurion or, perhaps more likely, citizen lent for this supervisory role from the legion.

In this period young men usually enlisted around age 17 and served 20 years; in difficult areas on the borders of the empire, an average of half are estimated to have survived, but the proportion of survivors was likely higher around Caesarea.  Marriage was not officially permitted but having an unofficial concubine was common.

During the typical 20-year span of military service soldiers were officially prohibited marriage.  Officers usually looked the other way, however, at liaisons between soldiers and local women, and the government usually recognized these unions as marriages when soldiers retired.  Most soldiers remained stationed in particular areas and were unhappy to be moved.  Alternatively, they could marry on retirement.  By ancient definitions, “family” could also include servants, though Cornelius has relatives in the more specific sense.

A God-fearer was a Gentile who believed in God but had not been circumcised to become a Jew.  The depiction of Cornelius describes his piety in terms of generosity to the poor and continual prayer.  These are two of the three activities known as pillars of Judaism.  The third was fasting.  There is no reason to suggest that Cornelius did not regularly fast as well.

One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”

Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.

The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”

When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.—10:3-8

This time (3pm) was the time of prayer at the temple in Jerusalem.  Cornelius’s vision was not a dream.  Seeing the angel, Cornelius became fearful.  He addressed the figure as “Lord,” signifying a respectful response to one’s superior.  There is no indication of any attribution of deity.  The angel’s commands were obeyed immediately: Cornelius sent two servants to Joppa under the escort of devout soldier, another God-fearer.  And that is where we will pick tomorrow, as Peter once again steps onto the stage.

Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:

2 Chronicles 14-16, Romans 9:1-24, Psalm 19:1-14 and Proverbs 20:1


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