Cornelius, who had sent to Joppa for Peter, is described as being “a centurion of the band called the Italian band,” or cohort.
Considerable doubt exists as to what is here meant by the “Italian band.” Some writers refer it to the Legio Italica, or Italica prima, so often mentioned by Tacitus; but we know from Dion Cassius that this legion was raised by Nero; and, consequently, that it was not in existence when the events narrated by Luke took place. Nor can it have been either of the other two Italian legions (Legiones Italicæ), as they were raised long after by Marcus Aurelius. We know from Josephus, that the Roman troops serving in Syria and Judea were mainly composed of levies raised on the spot. We learn, however, that there were volunteer Italian cohorts serving in Syria, from an inscription in Gruter, cited by Mr. Akkerman in his Numismatic Illustrations of the New Testament, and from which he concludes that the “Italian band” was most probably a cohort serving in Syria, and quartered at Caesarea, composed of natives of Italy, and called “Italian” to distinguish it from those which consisted of troops raised in Syria. We see then the exact historical propriety with which Luke uses the word which denotes a cohort (
), instead of that expressing a legion, which would have been improper.
Cornelius was thus, it would seem, an Italian, and doubtless, as his name imports, a Roman. That name would lead us to conclude that he was a member of the great Cornelia gens, Note: Gens. Properly a collection of families (the great families patrician, but including usually lesser plebeian families), answering, as some say, to the English term “House,” but better to the Highland “Clan.” which was one of the most distinguished among the Romans, and produced a greater number of illustrious men than any other house in Rome. Tradition assigns this Cornelius to one of the patrician branches of this house; and, accordingly, Julian the Apostate names Cornelius as one of the few persons of distinction who embraced Christianity. This is not, however, certain; for the Cornelian gens had plebeian branches, and the name eventually became very common, through the step taken by the dictator Sylla, who bestowed the Roman franchise upon 10,000 slaves, and called them all after his own name “Cornelii,” that he might always have a large number among the people to support him.
This Cornelius is described as “a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, who gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always.” This character of him has raised much discussion as to the religious position of Cornelius prior to his interview with Peter. From the considerations which it involves, the question is of considerable interest, and it is entitled to attentive consideration.
There are two leading views in this matter. One, that the terms employed are such as can only be properly used with respect to one who was a proselyte to Judaism. The other, that he was still a Gentile; for that the transaction loses all its peculiar force and meaning under any other view of his position.
But it may be proper to explain, that those who take the former view of the case lay down a careful distinction between two descriptions of proselytes, concerning which we learn nothing from the Scriptures, nor even from the early Rabbinical authors, but only from those of the later class, from the twelfth century downwards. These speak of two species of proselytes—the proselytes of righteousness and the proselytes of the gate. The proselytes of righteousness were those who, having received circumcision, and placed themselves under all the obligations of the law of Moses, had consequently passed over completely into the Jewish church, and had become as completely members of it as those who were not of the seed of Abraham could become. The proselytes of the gate, we are told, were those who, having renounced idolatry, and worshipping only the true God, submitted to the seven (supposed) precepts of Noah, frequented the synagogues, and offered sacrifices at the temple by the hands of the priests; but not having received circumcision, were not reckoned as belonging to the Jews.
It is not supposed, by any writers, that Cornelius could have been a proselyte of righteousness; but that he was a proselyte of the gate is an opinion which has had many and very able advocates.
In support of the opinion that he was such a proselyte, and not a more Gentile, such considerations have been urged as we now proceed to state.
In the first place, it is urged that Cornelius is described as “a man fearing God,” which is a term applied elsewhere to proselytes of the gate, and applicable to them only. For proof of this we are referred to Act_13:16; Act_13:26; Act_13:43. Again, Cornelius offered up his prayers at the hours usual among the Jews (see Act_10:3; Act_10:30); and that he had read the Old Testament (doubtless in the Septuagint version) is plain, seeing that Peter, in demonstrating to him that Jesus was the Messiah, appealed to the prophecies. He had, too, conferred many benefits on the people—that is, the Jewish people.
These reasons seem very strong till the other side is heard; and what the other side alleges is this: That the term on which so much stress is laid, “fearing God,” and corresponding terms, are in Scripture applied not merely to proselytes, but any persons studious of piety and filled with reverence towards God. See examples of this in Act_10:35, and in Luk_1:50; Luk_2:25; Col_3:22; Rev_11:18.
It is furthermore urged on this side that Cornelius is expressly called by Peter (in Act_10:28) one of another race a nation, with whom it was not lawful for a Jew, as such, to associate, while there was certainly nothing in the law or in custom which forbade intercourse with proselytes. Nay, the law of Moses permitted to foreigners a perpetual abode among the Jews, on condition that they abandoned practices publicly offensive to the latter, namely, that they renounced idolatry, and abstained from whatever had reference thereto; as from meat which had been offered to idols, and from food formed from blood. Note: Lev_17:10-11; Lev_17:13. And further, towards such foreigners the Israelites were enjoined to conduct themselves with friendliness, to treat them as fellow countrymen, and to love them as themselves. Note: Lev_19:33-34. Hence also such persons were permitted free access to the synagogues, Note: Act_14:1. and familiar intercourse with the Jews. Note: Luk_7:3. Now, the alleged proselytes of the gate could not have stood in a less near relation to Judaism than such persons; and it seems therefore very certain that Peter could not have described one who was a proselyte of the gate, as belonging to a class with whom it is not lawful for a Jew to associate.
To this it may be added that had Cornelius already been a proselyte, the news of his conversion would not have occasioned such astonishment to the Jewish Christians as it actually did, Note: Act_10:45. nor would “those who were of the circumcision” have contended so much with Peter on his account. Note: Act_11:2. Moreover, he is expressly classed among Gentiles by James; Note: Act_15:14. and also by Peter himself, when claiming the honor of having first preached the Gospel to the Gentiles. Note: Act_15:7.
On these grounds it is difficult to resist the conviction that Cornelius was not a proselyte to Judaism. We have no reason to suppose that Jewish proselytes had not before this been converted to Christianity; and it is certainly, as the first fruits of the Gentiles, as standing distinct from Judaism, that the conversion of Cornelius acquired all its importance and significance.
It is to be observed also that the distinction of proselytes, and the assumption that Cornelius was a proselyte of the gate, rest on no solid foundation. There is no evidence that any such distinction existed, or that “proselytes of the gate” were known in the time of the apostles. It has the aspect of later Judaism; and is not mentioned by any Jewish writer till the twelfth century, nor by any Christian writer till the 14th.
Taking, then, Cornelius to have been, not a proselyte to Judaism, but a Gentile, he appears to have been of that class of persons who had so far benefited by their contact with the Jewish people as to become convinced that theirs was the true religion, and consequently rendered their worship to the true God, were more or less acquainted with the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and in many instances observed several Jewish customs, as, for example, their hours of prayer, or anything else not involving a special profession. They had abandoned idolatry, and were many of them persuaded of the sole and universal sovereignty of the Lord, Jehovah; but they had no embraced the Mosaic law, and were consequently never regarded as the adopted children of Judaism, nor is the name of proselytes ever applied to them.