One of the things I love about studying (not just reading, but studying) the Bible is that it continuously surprises and challenges me. This is especially true when I’m able to lay aside some of my presuppositions—my doctrinal filters and lenses that have been handed down to me. I want to try to understand biblical texts by exploring the historical/cultural/social context from which they came, to try to understand what the texts meant to the people who wrote them and to the original hearers and readers; and then to try to hear what the Spirit is saying today—here and now—about the application of these texts.
I’ve come to realize that there is a theme which runs like a golden thread all through the Bible. The theme is that God’s love is radically inclusive. So, for example, a striking feature of the four Gospels and the book of Acts, is the number of stories about excluded people being reached out to by God, by the Holy Spirit, by Jesus and by the followers of Jesus. We see a profound concern for the people on the margins of society: the sick, the poor, the immigrant, the powerless, and those regarded as sinful or unclean.
My previous post examined how Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed is a teaching about radical inclusion. This post will highlight an often overlooked example of one of Jesus’ disciples practicing this same ethos of radical inclusion. In the book of Acts, we continue to see a very deliberate portrayal of Jesus’ disciples–now bereft of the physical presence of their teacher–following the leadings of the Spirit to take the message of God’s love to despised Samaritans and to a eunuch from a far-off land and to a God-fearing Roman centurion and then ultimately to purely “pagan” Gentiles. We see the followers of Jesus breaking taboos and crossing boundaries: religious, ethnic, social, economic, gender, etc.—because that’s what Jesus did; and still does.
A pivotal moment in the book of Acts occurs at about the halfway point (chapter 15) when the followers of Jesus gather at Jerusalem and have a council to determine what to do about all the Gentiles that are becoming Spirit-filled followers of Jesus. Up to then they had thought this was a Jewish thing, but God is doing something far more expansive than they had expected. They are trying to grapple with the implications of it. The way the book of Acts is arranged, the trajectory of the first half of the book points toward this climactic Jerusalem council. The action in the second half of the book highlights the effects that flow out from this council.
The book of Acts contains a series of paradigm shifts which Jesus’ disciples go through. The Holy Spirit is doing radical stuff and the disciples are scrambling to keep up. The followers of Jesus are being continuously stretched and challenged and even offended by what God is doing. At the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, the consensus reached about including Gentiles is put into a letter stating, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” God is leading; they are responding.
The significant “boundary crossing” events in the first half of the book of Acts include:
1. The Samaritan “revival” in chapter 8.
2. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch, also in chapter 8 (which has been the subject of renewed interest in recent times because of the eunuch’s exclusion from Jewish temple worship due to his irreversible sexual minority status and his acceptance by Philip as a follower of Jesus, which causes him to joyfully ask “What is there to prevent me from being baptized?”).
3. The story of the Roman Centurion Cornelius (told and retold in chapters 10 and 11 respectively).
4. The evangelistic activity among Gentiles in Antioch (chapter 15).
These events set the stage for the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 and for the expanded ministry of Paul to the Gentiles, which comprises the second half of Acts.
The Apostle Paul is commonly referred to as the “apostle to the Gentiles” but, ironically, it was actually Peter—the “apostle to the Jews” and Jesus’ right-hand guy—whose testimony about crossing the Gentile boundary carried so much weight at the Jerusalem council. Peter had previously validated the mission to the Samaritans (in Acts 8) and then he became the agent for Gentile inclusion (in Acts 10) when he traveled to the house of the Roman soldier Cornelius.
But nestled in the midst of these momentous events is a simple but poignant story of inclusion that is easily overlooked. It begins in Acts 9:32 with Peter traveling on the coastal plain to the city of Lydda. There he heals a crippled man named Aeneas, which results in “all of the residents of Lydda and Sharon” turning to the Lord. Peter is then urged to come to the port city of Joppa, where a pious disciple named Tabitha has died. In a vignette highly reminiscent of Jesus’ raising of the dead girl in Mark 5:41, Peter resurrects Tabitha. “This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord,” the author tells us. One could assume that at this point Peter would be hugely popular. His preaching of the Good News, along with stories of miraculous healings and raising of the dead would have made him a celebrity throughout the region. In light of this, the next statement about Peter carries much greater depth of meaning than its brevity implies:
“Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.” (Acts 9:43)
The author of Acts reminds the reader two more times (10:6 and 10:32) that Peter took up residence with Simon the tanner. We find out that the home of Simon the tanner eventually served as the launching point for Peter to travel up the coast to Caesarea and the home of Cornelius the centurion. This resulted in an outpouring of God’s spirit upon Cornelius’ household, which in turn convinced Peter that God’s household includes Gentiles, which in turn set the stage for Peter’s convincing testimony at the Jerusalem council.
Here is the interesting thing about this, which we might easily overlook: The ancient hearers of Acts would have known that a tannery was not by any means a desirable place to stay. Simon’s home was a despised place and, despite being a Jew, his profession as a tanner would have rendered him a social and religious outcast.
The process of tanning hides to make leather in the ancient Middle East is described in Unger’s Bible Dictionary in this way:
“A three-day treatment with salt and flour cleansed the skins from foreign matter. Lime was used to remove the hair. The acrid juices of desert plants or oak bark were also used. The skin was dried for several days and treated with acid barks and leaves, like sumac. … The art of tanning, although very necessary, was a malodorous task and one that was regarded as unclean by many who recognized certain animals as unclean. Thus, under Judaism, tanners had to live outside the city, often near the water…”
A man named Robert Forbes wrote a fascinating series of books entitled Studies in Ancient Technology, which includes a section on tanning (or leather-making) in the ancient Semitic world. Among the ingredients he lists as being used by ancient tanners were “vats of dog’s dung.” Imagine that in the hot Mediterranean sun! Forbes writes, “The tanner was despised because of the stench of his tanning ingredients and his handling of dead bodies.”
The Babylonian Talmud states, “The world cannot do without perfume makers and tanners, happy is he who prepares perfumes, woe to him whose craft is tanning.” Joachim Jeremias, in his book, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, places tanners (along with dung collectors and copper smelters) in his list of “despised trades” because of the foul smell associated with the craft (a tanner was often also a collector of the dung used in the tanning process). The stench of the ingredients would permeate the clothing and the skin of the tanner.
The wife of a tanner had the right to file for divorce—even if she knew prior to marrying that her husband was a tanner—by explaining that although she thought she could endure the smell, she was unable to stand it. There is a story from the Jewish Mishnah, of a man who died and was survived by a brother who was a tanner. According to the Mishnah, the rabbis agreed that the widow, although childless and entitled to Levirate marriage (marriage to her husband’s brother for the sake of bearing children and of having a roof over her head), had the right to say, ‘Thy brother I could bear but I cannot bear thee,’ and so refuse to marry her husband’s brother. If a married Jewish man became a tanner, it constituted grounds for his wife to choose to divorce him. It was one of the few instances—another being a husband who contracted leprosy—where a wife could initiate divorce proceedings against her husband in ancient Jewish culture.
From a ceremonial standpoint, the tanner’s continuous contact with dead animals placed him in a state of perpetual ritual uncleanness, according to the stipulations of Leviticus (11:39-40). The Babylonian Talmud mentions that tanners were excluded from participation in temple festivals.
So, the aggregate picture of Simon the tanner is of a man who lived on the outskirts of town and who was socially marginalized and religiously unclean. His very being was considered offensive. He was the epitome of an excluded person.
And here comes Peter. He has been traveling through the region, preaching the Gospel and performing miraculous healings, which has culminated in raising Tabitha from the dead. Peter was a rock star! Surely, he had his pick of lodging options. But he chose to stay with Simon the tanner. Do you see how profound that little sentence in Acts 9:43 is? “Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.”
I think that by the time Peter came to Joppa, he was already well on his way to laying aside the Jewish purity stipulations that he had grown up with; but he was still negotiating the boundaries. How far would he go? The home of Simon the tanner, it turns out, was not just a launching pad for the conversion of the Gentile household of Cornelius. It was another important marker along Peter’s journey from Law to Grace. Peter was already well on his way into a new paradigm which rejected exclusionary Jewish purity codes and social conventions. I can’t help but think that when Luke wrote the book of Acts, he relished the counter-cultural subversiveness of mentioning Peter’s lodging choice.
It is interesting to note that Joppa was the same city where, in a much older biblical story, Jonah ran away in a ship to avoid God’s call to preach a message to Gentiles. By contrast, Peter obeyed the leading of the Spirit and embarked from Joppa to Caesarea and delivered his message of God’s radical inclusion to the household of the Gentile Roman officer Cornelius. Ironically, it was in a putrid house of ritual impurity that Peter received the preparatory vision about crossing the Gentile boundary by no longer calling unclean what God had made clean (Acts 10:15).
So, what does this mean to us here and now? Who are the outcasts today? Who are the marginalized ones? Who are the ones considered offensive and unfit for inclusion in our worship of God? Who are the tanners? The Samaritans? The godless Gentiles? The Ethiopian Eunuchs? What religious taboos and social boundaries of exclusion is Jesus breaking down today? Do we dare to follow?