Acts of the Apostles Commentary: Peter is criticized for baptizing Gentiles
This is the 33rd entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. In this entry Peter reports the Gentile response to the Gospel and his decision to baptize Gentiles to the Jerusalem Church.
E) Preparation for the Gentile Mission: the Conversions of Paul and Cornelius (9:1-12:25): Peter explains his behavior to the Church in Judea (11:1-18):
1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”(NRSV)
Because this section rehearses many of the events which have just been narrated and described in Acts 10, it is important to read this passage especially carefully: it is in the small additions and clarifications that its meaning is to be found. This is not a straightforward recapitulation of events, but an interpretive technique which gets to the heart of Luke’s theological concerns in Acts.
According to Luke “the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God” and when “Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” (Acts 11:1-3). Peter then began his “step by step” explanation (Acts 11:4).
Note the difference between “the apostles and the believers” in Judea who had heard that the Gentiles had received the word of God and the “circumcised believers” who are critical of Peter’s behavior when he went to Jerusalem. Johnson believes that Luke makes a “deliberate distinction” between these two groups and that it implies that the other apostles accepted Peter’s behavior since the Gentiles are described as having “accepted the word of God” (Johnson, Acts, 197). This is only an implication, though, since it is also possible to read the “the apostles and the believers” as the same group which in the next verse is described as the “circumcised believers.” If this is the case, Acts 11:1 simply describes the news drifting back to Judea and Acts 11:2 gives us the response of “the apostles and the believers,” here just classified as “circumcised believers.”
It is difficult to know which reading is correct, since Peter explains the salvific events among the Gentiles and by the end of the passage (Acts 11:18) they “all” glorify God. It is more likely that this describes “the apostles and the believers” who are themselves also named as “circumcised believers” and are convinced by Peter’s explanation of the Holy Spirit working among the Gentiles. On the other hand, if the “circumcised believers” have been convinced, why was a gathering of the Church necessary, as we will see in Acts 15? Richard Dillon, for instance, believes that only one group is in Luke’s mind, who are now convinced of the rightness of Peter’s actions (Dillon, NJBC, 747).
Certainly Luke does not hide the fact that Peter was “criticized” (diakrinomai) by the “circumcised believers.” Johnson makes the important point that this same verb was used in Acts 10:20 when the Holy Spirit sent Peter to Cornelius, telling him to go “mēden diakrinomenos,” which can mean “without hesitation” as in the NRSV, but which also can mean to act “without discrimination” or “without distinction” (Acts of the Apostles Online Commentary 31). That is, the Holy Spirit tells Peter to accept the Gentiles without discrimination in Acts 10:21, without “criticism” if you will, while the “circumcised believers” are themselves discriminating against Peter by criticizing him in Acts 11:3 (Johnson, Acts, 197).
The precise criticism in Acts 11:3 is that Peter ate with the Gentiles. Such eating together is actually not described in Acts 10, though it should probably be assumed given how long Peter stayed with Cornelius and his household (Acts 10:48; Johnson, Acts, 197). For Gilbert, “the objection to Peter’s eating with Gentiles, rather than converting them, reinforces an image of Jewish xenophobia” (Gilbert, JANT, 219), though eating “unclean” food would be a fair criticism of Peter at this point, more compelling than simply being with Gentiles, since it is forbidden according to the Torah. Since Peter has not yet explained what led him to eat with Gentiles, though we as readers have the advantage of already knowing of Peter’s visions, Peter is compelled to offer his critics an account of why he acted as he did.
Since the account here is similar to what we saw in Acts 10 (see Acts of the Apostles Online Commentary 31 and Acts of the Apostles Online Commentary 32 for detailed comments), the focus here will be concentrating on the differences in this retelling. First of all, when Peter describes his trance-like vision from Acts 10 he says that the sheet “came close to me” (Acts 11:5), a detail not previously mentioned. In a similar way in Acts 11:6, Peter says, “I looked at it closely,” also a new detail. Both of these details serve to add verisimilitude to the account and to make the story come alive.
After Peter recounts his visionary experience, he notes that as it was ending “three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were” (Acts 11:11). Peter was told by the Holy Spirit “not to make a distinction between them and us,” once again using the verb diakrinomai(Acts 11:12) as in Acts 10:20 and 11:3. Johnson suggests that because Peter mentions that “these six brothers also accompanied me,” who were called in Acts 10:45 “circumcised believers who had come with Peter” (see Acts of the Apostles Online Commentary 32 for a discussion of this scene), they are “implicated” in all of the events as witnesses and even participants. Because they made no objection to the baptism of these Gentiles then, they must have accepted them (Johnson, Acts, 198). The fact that “six brothers” are mentioned probably is added, once again, as a detail that is intended to lend veracity to Peter’s report; but the important issue is that Peter was not alone in what he saw or did, that is, he did not act without (tacit) support.
Peter then reports on Cornelius’ speech to him and his companions. The important detail added here is that Peter recounts Cornelius saying that the angel told him that Peter “will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved” (Acts 11:14). The overt claim of salvation does not appear in Acts 10. Johnson says that “Luke has shown a subtle progression in perception: the angel first told Peter only to send for Peter (10:5); the messengers report to Peter that Cornelius wanted to “hear words from you” (10:22); Cornelius next tells Peter he is ready to hear “all that has been commanded you by the Lord” (10:33); now, all of this is read back into the first message” (Johnson, Acts, 198). This is part of Luke’s artistry, but it also reflects the way in which we come to know and understand experiences and events. Peter and Cornelius were both unclear about their roles in the Spirit driven commands when they were first given; but in light of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, salvation became the interpretive key for all present, that is, for Peter and his fellow Jewish believers and for Cornelius and his “entire household” (pas ho oikos).
Peter says that “as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15). What Peter means here by “at the beginning” is Pentecost. As I noted in Acts of the Apostles Online Commentary 32, Luke considers the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles as the second instance of Pentecost. This is the basis for Peter’s seemingly unilateral decision to baptize Cornelius and his household. But Peter now connects it to Acts 1:5 when he says “I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 10:16). In Acts 1:5 Jesus said, ‘for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (see Acts of the Apostles Online Commentary 2), which itself is closely related to John the Baptist’s claim in Luke 3:16. If the Gentiles already have the Spirit, should they not have the water? It was after all God who gave them the Holy Spirit as the “same gift” (isēn dōrean) given to the Jewish believers, so Peter cannot stand in God’s way and “hinder” God (Acts 11:17). Really, Peter had no choice.
The Jewish believers, whether we see them as one or two groups, “were silenced” (Acts 11:18), which Johnson rightly suggests means that they stopped criticizing Peter’s behavior (Johnson, Acts, 199). They did more than that in fact since “they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance (metanoia)that leads to life’” (Acts 11:18). As Gilbert points out “repentance” or “conversion” here is seen as belief in Jesus (Gilbert, JANT, 221). A shift has taken place among the hearers in their acceptance of Peter’s behavior, but as Gilbert hints at “a redefinition of the religion itself is in process” (Johnson, Acts, 199). Even the Gentiles can be saved!
Next entry, an introduction to the Church in Antioch.
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 From this point on, the notion of the “household” (oikos) in the Greco-Roman world becomes important for the Gentile mission. It will be discussed fully in entries further on in the commentary, but mark its significance now.