Christ unambiguously decreed that His Church would include all nations in The Great Commission (Matthew 18:18b-20).
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
However we, looking back over two millennia of Gentile dominated Christianity, find it difficult to comprehend the height of the barrier that the original Jewish Christians were being asked to traverse. For, people raised Jewish at that time had within themselves the religious and cultural heritage of two millennia of Jewish separatism. Thus, the idea that Christ’s command could be easily obeyed in actual practice is deeply naive.
Given this background, the conversion of the first Gentile to Christianity must have been viewed by the primitive Church as a pivotal moment of the greatest importance. We would therefore expect such a moment to be a major focus in the Book of Acts, which chronicles the rise of the Church from Christ’s ascension in circa A.D. 30 to Paul’s preaching in Rome, circa A.D.68. And, this expectation is surely met.
The First Gentile Convert to Christianity
Although there is some debate regarding who was the first Gentile convert to Christianity, the overwhelming weight of scholarly opinion points to the Roman Centurion, Cornelius (Acts 10:1 — 11:18). The other possibility is the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). An excellent summary of the considerations involved in this conclusion is found in G. H. C. Macgregor’s exegesis on Acts 8:26-40 in the Interpreter’s Bible.
The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is most vividly told, very much in the style of a narrative from the books of Samuel and Kings. Was the eunuch a Jew or a Gentile? Eusebius refers to him as the first Gentile to embrace Christianity; so this Ethiopian has sometimes been regarded as an uncircumcised heathen, and his baptism as the first departure from the principle that Christianity was only for Jews, either native or proselyte. But there is nothing in the story to suggest any such far-reaching innovation. The fact that the Ethiopian was a pilgrim returning from Jerusalem, and that he was reading Isaiah, indicates that already he was at least a Jewish proselyte. Luke evidently regards not his case, but that of Cornelius, as the first admission of an uncircumcised Gentile. The stress laid on all the details of Cornelius’ case, on the scruples that Peter found so hard to overcome, and on the controversy that the incident precipitated at Jerusalem — all this proves that Luke is describing what he considers to be the first case of the baptism of a heathen.
Additional evidence for Cornelius as the first Gentile convert is the fact that it is Peter, Christ’s “rock” who is led by God to take this decisive step. If we look into the number of words used by Luke to describe important conversions in Acts we get the following results (counts from the NIV text):
- Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch: ~347 words
- Saul on the road to Damascus: ~733 words
- Peter and Cornelius: ~1456 words.
It is a striking result that Luke spends almost twice the number of words on Peter and Cornelius than he does on what many consider to be the most important conversion in Christianity, that being Saul’s! Clearly Luke sees the conversion of Cornelius to be of the greatest importance to Christianity’s history.
Who was Cornelius?
Cornelius was “a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment” who had become “devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” The Apostle Peter was called to seek out Cornelius by God’s direct intervention, through recurring and vivid visions.
A “centurion” in the Roman army is well described as:
The centurion, or centurio in Latin, has become the most famous officer in the Roman army, and his experience and valour were indeed a crucial factor in maintaining order on the battlefield and ensuring Rome‘s military successes spanned over centuries. Commanding a unit of around 100 legionaries, he was also responsible for assigning duties, dishing out punishments, and performing various administrative duties, which ranged from distributing camp passwords to the escort of prisoners. Centurions could also rise to higher administrative positions within the empire, but the name centurion would forever be associated with the grizzled veteran who, emblazoned with decorations, led by courageous example on the battlefield.
Thus, Cornelius was a seasoned warrior who had certainly proved himself in bloody battle on multiple occasions to have risen to such an important position in the Roman army. Therefore, were one a believer in Christian pacifism, then, beyond the primary issue of Gentile conversion, the secondary “scruples that Peter found so hard to overcome” (see G. H. C. Macgregor’s above exegesis) must have been about the admission of a professional warrior into the pacifistic Christian community.
This hypothesis will be tested by taking the radical step of submitting to what the Bible actually says as opposed to assuming what we would like it to say.