This study is part of a series that will examine the Jewishness of the original followers of Jesus. Did their belief in Jesus the Messiah and his death and resurrection lead to a subsequent abandoning of various Jewish practices? The approach taken will be to go through each book of Acts, examining relevant texts for insights into this question.
Acts 11:1-3 NASB “Now the apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.””
Some translations say “circumcised believers” or “circumcision party”. We should note that all of the “apostles and brethren” were circumcised— they were all Jewish. They are all surprised that gentiles are being regarded as participants in the community. The issue of the day is whether gentiles are included in the grace and favor of God— the privileges of the community of Israel. It is important to note that there is no mention of the apostles separating from Israel or distinguishing themselves from Israel or abandoning scriptural hallmarks of Judaism.
Acts 11:8 ESV “But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ ”
Peter remains faithful to Biblical teachings on what is permitted for food. We can presume that this is true of all the disciples as they were raised Jewish and nothing in the account so far suggests that they have broken away from Judaism.
Acts 11:12 And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.
Peter is telling the story of his vision as an explanation for why he went into the house of a gentile. Peter explains the meaning of the vision— it is about people, not food.
Acts 11:18 ESV “... “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.””
The believers in Jerusalem respond with surprise that God has “granted repentance” to people who are not of Israel— gentiles. There is no hint that they themselves have separated from Israel. Their choice of word— “repentance”— suggests that the way of life of these Gentiles has changed— most likely their new way of life has been informed by Scripture, the teachings of the Torah and the Prophets.
Acts 11:19 NRSV “... as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews.”
Until this point, the community of followers of Jesus has been exclusively Jewish— it is a community within Judaism rather than apart from Judaism.
Acts 11:20-21 NRSV “... spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord.”
The text does not give any details about the “Hellenists”, but the contrast with verse 19 suggests that they were different from those who had previously been taught about Jesus— they are not Jewish. We know from verse 19 that there were Jews living in Antioch, so the Hellenists mentioned here may well have been “God fearers”, with a knowledge of God and some connection with the local Jewish community, as was Cornelius in the previous story.
Some background information about Antioch is useful for putting this story in context. From the Jewish Encyclopedia (jewishencyclopedia.com): “A large number of Jews resided in Antioch from its foundation...” From jewishvirtuallibrary.org: “There must have been a considerable number of Jews in Antioch by the second century B.C.E. Josephus praises the beauty of its great synagogue, and there were doubtless a number of other places of worship. Antioch had no special Jewish quarter as had Alexandria, Jews being apparently dispersed throughout the city.”
Centuries later, there remained connections between the Christian and Jewish communities, and from this we can infer that the Hellenist believers were in community with the Jewish believers: “Judaism still attracted Christians to its rites in Antioch. In consequence, the first synod in Antioch (341) declared in its first canon that Easter should not be celebrated at the same time as the Jewish Passover.... The attachment of the Christian to Jewish customs may be particularly inferred from six sermons, delivered against the Jews in Antioch (about 366-387) by John Chrysostom, later patriarch of Constantinople. On Sabbaths and holidays, Christians, especially women, visited the synagogue in preference to the church. They also preferred to bring their disputes to Jewish judges and took their oaths in the synagogue.” (jewishencyclopedia.com) It is reasonable to assume that the Sabbath and Passover practices that became issues centuries later were the norm at the time described in Acts.
Acts 11:22-26 NRSV “News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. ... Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, ...
The disciples in Jerusalem— all of whom were Jewish— took charge of the situation and sent a representative, a teacher. Barnabas and Saul taught the believers in Antioch for an “entire year”. What did they teach? Would it not be in the manner of Jesus himself? “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” Luke 24:27 ESV. Most likely they taught in a manner similar to how Paul later taught: “And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures” Acts 17:2 NRSV. They were not teaching from the New Testament as it had not been written yet; the only scriptures available to them were the “Old Testament”— the Hebrew Scriptures, which included the Torah, Prophets and Writings such as the Psalms.