It Is Written vs. God Has Shown Me

It Is Written vs. God Has Shown Me April 4, 2013

Fred Clark has an excellent post highlighting the contrast between two different outlooks reflected in Acts 10:28, which reads as follows:

 You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.

On the one hand, Peter here is depicted as saying that it is against the Jewish Law – that is, unbiblical, contrary to Scripture, in violation of what conservatives tend to call the Word of God – for a Jew to associate with a Gentile.

We can discuss whether this statement is strictly speaking true – but if it isn’t, that serves as a warning that even Peter, and/or the author of Acts, could be persuaded that something is unbiblical when it in fact was not.

Either way, on the other hand, Peter says that God had persuaded him to contravene what he believed to be the teaching of Scripture.

The contrast is stark, and today’s conservative Christians would expel Peter from their churches for daring to say such a thing, were he to say it today.

The irony is that there are many Christians who emphasize that they are “Biblical” as though that were a good thing, as though by saying that they were providing proof positive of their Christian identity. Yet according to this passage, being “Biblical” is the hurdle that Peter has to get over in order to get on board with what God was doing in his time.


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  • archaeologist

    What this proves is that unbelievers should not comment on the Bible for they do not understand what it says. By unbelievers i also include progressive Christians

    • I bet you say that because if a verse in the Bible that you have misunderstood.

      • I’m happy to “agree” with @4f99f0b552c087a40407fc36c760dc9d:disqus on this, as a display of my new-found ability to “doublethink”. (Imagine this, a world wherein instead of senseless bickering, everyone can “agree” with each other, even when they hold opposing views lol. It’s also funny to see one-sided bickering.) Except it cuts both ways, and the same argument can be turned back against him.

  • Joe Das

    I’d caution against conflating the “Jewish Law” with the “Torah” because there were also the traditions of the elders, which Jesus opposed. Which is meant here?

    Before I answer that in detail, I’m going to do my homework.

    • If you look into it, I’ll be interested to learn what you come up with. It may be difficult to answer, since at times it is very hard to distinguish text from interpretation.

    • Well, I looked it up in Joseph Fitzmyer’s AB commentary on Acts, and he says entering a house of a Gentile “would be a source of defilement in Jewish thinking, as the later rabbinic tradition makes clear: ‘The dwelling-places of Gentiles are unclean’ (m. Oholot 18:7)” (457).

      Richard Pervo, in his Hermeneia commentary, asserts that “There was no specific commandment against intercourse with gentiles. Observance of purity codes prevented the strictly observant from such activities as eating in gentile homes” (274).

      In addition, I. Howard Marshall, in his commentary in The New Testament Use of the Old Testament, writes: “The statement that it was ‘unlawful’ for a Jew to associate with somebody of another race has no basis in the OT. It represents an interpretation of the law, the most likely one being that since contact with Gentiles conveyed uncleanness, from which a person required purification through the appropriate ritual, it was deemed right to avoid such contacts as far as possible (cf. Jub. 22:16)” (578).

      So it was apparently a questionable interpretation held by either Peter and/or the author of Acts.

      • Thank you for condensing and sharing this additional information. It doesn’t seem that there is any sense in which interaction with Gentiles was ever strictly speaking illegal. But Peter or the author of Acts seems to have thought that it was. It is more likely the latter, since one can imagine a Gentile perceiving Jewish refusal of commensality and avoidance of impurity-transmitting physical contact as indicative of the Jews having a law against contact with Gentiles.

        But it remains the case, I think, that the author thought that such contact was contrary to the Jewish Law, and believed that Peter had been commanded to contravene whatever law pertained to Jewish-Gentile interactions.

        • I think you’re right.

        • Mark Matson

          I wonder if what is at issue is the more particular (or rather, more generalized) purity rules of the Pharisees? Notice the text does not say it is “anomia” but rather “athemitos” which might be important (and used only elsewhere in T in 1 Pet 4:3). And it raises the question of who he would put in the category of “aner Ioudaios”. That is, are the “Jews” referenced here (shades of John) a sub-category who have adopted more rigorous attitude toward food and association (as has often been suggested are at the core of Pharisaic concerns)?

          • I am not sure that, if the laws in question were specific to the Pharisees, Peter would have seen them as applying to himself. And the story seems to involve Peter overcoming concerns that he himself held, and not merely those of others. Or do you think that Peter might have self-identified as a Pharisee? If so, that might make for a very interesting interpretation of this story!

      • TrevorN

        “The OT use of the NT” would be an interesting book, indeed 🙂

      • Joe Das

        I also think highly of Fitzmyer’s contributions, although I don’t have access to that commentary, I only happen to have his on Luke.

        I found something in my library by Dr. David H. Stern, who points out that Peters choice of words in discussing this matter with Cornelious and his associates is different from those usually used to discus matters of Jewish law, the adjective athemitos only appears twice in the NT, and that it has more of a subjective connotation that our usual English translations (e.g. ESV, NIV) do not make clear. He said something to the effect of how this word has a lot to do with the subjective experience and perception of a Jew to these things.

        Because some people might be tempted to write Stern off as a messianic jewish evangelical nutbar, I went to my trusty old BAGD to see what it had to say.

        So I guess I would translate/paraphrase what Peter said this way, “You know how it is abominable (now BAGD really does support this translation) for a Jew to closely associate with Gentiles or to come into their homes…”

        Stern’s point about this is that we should not make a bigger deal about it than it is or extrapolate. Besides, the rabbinical conmmentary on this subject matter is varied. We musn’t forget that at this time, there were still different schools of thought. Qumran’s stuff turns out to be a gold mine on these sorts of questions. Too bad I don’t have the time to really mine even what I’ve got on this.

        Elsewhere in a few places, e.g. D. Daube I found that Rabbi Hilllel is documented as showing remarkable accommodation concerning welcoming proselytes (which Cornelius was, so his is a special case), but people in Judaism in general yet treated them with a hedge and a certain suspicion or condescension.

    • I think you are right on this!! In fact, most (if not all) New Testament writings that apparently denounce Jewish Laws were made with reference to the man-made laws, and not the Torah laws! (I know this because in my own examination of whether the New Testament teaches us to disregard the OT food laws, I’ve found that there is actually no real evidence for that! Because in the NT all the arguments against clean/unclean laws specifically pertained to the man-made Jewish/Pharisaic laws that Jesus himself condemned!)