Most scholars accept that the author of the Gospel of Luke is also the author of the Book of Acts. In this post, I will refer to the author of the Gospel of Luke and Book of Acts as Luke. All scriptures are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Some time ago I was sitting in Sunday School and the lesson (New Testament Lesson 30) covered Acts 10. As I read Acts, something about the Lukan account of Peter bothered me. Luke has Peter relate to Cornelius and those that were with him the details of his ‘trance’ and subsequent understanding of its meaning.
But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ (Acts 10:14-15).
You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. (Acts 10:28).
Did not Jesus already provide this kind of instruction to the apostles? For example, Mark and Matthew have Jesus tell the apostles:
And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved. (Mark 16:15-16a).
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19).
Neither Mark nor Matthew record the apostles as resisting or questioning this injunction. Going to all the world, would include teaching, consorting, and baptizing Gentiles.
Furthermore, Mark provides a radical depiction of Jesus as challenging Jewish dietary law, which plays a prominent role in Peter’s vision.
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’ When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) (Mark 7:14-19).
While one might argue that the context only supports deviation from washing one’s hands before eating, Mark’s language makes it clear that he understands Jesus to be directly overturning Leviticus 11 by his commentary: “Thus he declared all foods clean.”
How does Matthew retell this story?
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘Explain this parable to us.’ Then he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’ (Matthew 15:10-18).
Matthew incorporates Peter into the story and highlights the expected reaction by the Pharisees, who are understandably offended by Jesus’s apparent rejection of Leviticus 11. But Mathew stops short of Mark’s interpretation by concluding “These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.“ Matthew does not repeat Mark’s commentary “Thus he declared all foods clean.”
How does Luke tell the story?
He doesn’t. We know that Luke had access to Mark’s account. While Matthew retells the story in a way not to make Jesus a heretic of Jewish law in the sense Mark does, Luke decides to omit the story altogether. Nor does Luke tell the story of the Great Commission the same:
“Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:45-48).
Luke downplays the Great Commission to baptize the Gentile nations.
If Luke had incorporated the Markan tradition, then his account in Acts would lose its dramatic effect. God’s vision to Peter would be less potent if Jesus had already “declared all foods clean.” Luke makes deliberate decisions as to what to include in his narrative, always monitoring the internal coherency of his account.
It is possible Luke could have solved the problem as Matthew did, by preserving the account, but retooling it as limited to the washing of hands and not as a rejection of Leviticus 11. In fact, it may have fit nicely since this would have been the second time that Peter would be questioning Leviticus 11. Thus, Luke could have solved the issue by introducing Peter’s concern twice, the first as preparatory to the second. Luke could have even had Peter recall the words of Jesus perhaps unlocking its meaning and finally understanding that Jesus was preparing him for a future mission. However, this is not the tradition we have received. Rather we have a Jesus who declares all foods clean (Mark), a Jesus whose teachings were misunderstood by the Pharisees but were not intended to reject Leviticus dietary law (Matthew), and a Jesus who never said any such thing (Luke).
At any rate, we can learn much from the difference between the Gospel accounts. It is important for Matthew and Luke to depict Jesus and his disciples as law abiding Jews. In fact, this is a constant concern of the Gospel writers, and each author varies in how much Jesus and his disciples depart from Jewish piety.
Finally, I feel we need to be more sympathetic to how the changes were perceived by the Jewish Christians. Most people tend to hear the phrase “God is no respecter of persons” and immediately agree with it. It fits with our modern sensibilities of equality and emotions concerning racism. Yet, it completely rejects the God’s instruction in Leviticus.
I am the Lord your God; I have separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; you shall not bring abomination on yourselves by animal or by bird or by anything with which the ground teems, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you from the other peoples to be mine. (Leviticus 20:24b-26).
Because God made a distinction between his people and other people, the Jews were to make a distinction between the clean and unclean. When Peter reveals this is no longer the case, does this mean that the Jews are no longer separated by God to be his? Peter’s revelation is inextricably linked to a loss of Jewish identity.
The Book of Acts continually illustrates the tension and concern among the Christian leadership not to alienate the Jewish Christians who are zealous for the law (see Acts 21:20), and not to burden Gentile Christians (see Acts 15:6-21). It’s a difficult balance. The Book of Acts details the growing pains of the early Church and how they dealt with being faithful to their religious tradition, the teachings of Jesus and the radical new revelations that sought to overturn their very identity.
 For a helpful overview of the issues see James D.G. Dunn, “Jesus and Purity: An Ongoing Debate,” New Testament Studies 48 (2002): 449-67.