God-fearers and idolaters
I made the argument last time that Luke’s story of Cornelius’ conversion is best understood as a narrative apology for Gentile God-fearers. Luke intended to demonstrate that those Gentiles who “do what is right and fear [Israel’s] God” by turning from idols have been cleansed of their impurity. Jews therefore need not fear defilement in their company.
I want to explore here one of the implications of that reading—that Christians (both Jew and Gentile) could still be defiled in the company of idolaters and therefore generally avoided entanglement with pagans. Do our sources actually bear this out?
Apostolic practice in Acts
Strange as it may seem, the above implication appears to be corroborated by Luke’s careful records not only in the story of Cornelius, but throughout his work.
On one side of the coin, virtually every Gentile in the book of Acts who comes to Christ does so through the mediation of the Jewish synagogue. It is in these synagogues that the apostles find Gentiles receptive to the message about Christ again and again (cf. 13:13-43, 14:1-7, 16:11-15, 17:1-15, 18:1-11).
Luke describes these Gentiles variously as “those who fear God,” “worshipers of God,” and “devout Greeks.” These Gentile converts then, so it seems, had already accepted (or at the very least sympathized with) Judaism’s central theological claim: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Unlike their pagan counterparts, these Greeks worshiped God, not worthless idols.
Yet on the other side of the coin, the Lukan apostles very rarely venture into the pagan crowds. Paul visits synagogues wherever he goes as a rule, but not markets or temples (Acts 17:2, cf. Luke 4:16, John 18:20). When the apostles do preach to pagans they do so only in public and with limited success.
Preaching to Gentiles
To better illustrate this dichotomy, let’s consider the two most prominent Gentile converts in Acts besides Cornelius: the proconsul Sergius Paulus and the Ethiopian eunuch. Though neither of these men come to believe while physically in the synagogue, they are both God-fearing Gentiles and as such prove the aforementioned rule: that non-Jews who came to Christ were by and large already embedded in monolatric Judaism.
- The proconsul, we are told, is “an intelligent man” who seeks the words of the one true God through Jewish prophets like Saul and Bar-Jesus (13:6-7). Paul/Saul does not need to convince him of the foolishness of idols because he already fears God. Instead, Paul can teach Sergius directly about the Lord Jesus. He does so not in public but in the proconsul’s quarters (13:12).
- The Ethiopian eunuch worships the one true God in the Temple and studies the words of God spoken through the prophets (8:27-28). For this reason the apostle Philip can not only bypass a discussion of monotheism and idolatry and instead begin with the “good new about Jesus,” he can do so while sitting beside him in his chariot (8:31-35).
These two men then, like Cornelius and the cloud of Gentile-converts surrounding the synagogues, had already shunned idolatry before they received the message of Christ. These righteous Gentiles were not only in a position to understand the kerygma of the Jewish Messiah, they were in a position to receive the Jewish Messiah and his messengers in private company with undefiled hearts, having been cleansed from the impurity of idolatry.
This is not to say that the Paul of Acts never preaches to pagans. He sometimes does. But to these idolaters Paul does not bring his standard announcement about Christ, the scriptures, and the kingdom. Instead, he brings a markedly different message, a message that is well summarized by Demetrius, a concerned idol-maker: “Paul has persuaded and drawn away a considerable number of people by saying that gods made with hands are not gods” (19:26). Naturally, on the two occasions Paul preaches to crowds of pagans, the topic of discussion is Jewish monolatry and pagan idolatry, not Christ.
- The sum total of Paul’s sermon in Lystra and Derbe is “we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (14:15).
- In Athens Paul commands pagans to repent of their idolatry because the true God has decreed a day on which he will judge the world (17:29-31, cf. 27:21-24).
Quite understandably then, Paul endeavors to first cleanse the pagan heart of idolatry before announcing what the one God has done through Jesus the Messiah.
Perhaps the only instance in which someone explicitly identified as an idolater comes to Christ is the Philippian jailer, an apparent exception to the rule. He “believes on the Lord Jesus Christ” and becomes a “believer in [Israel’s] God” all at once (16:30-34).
Nonetheless, the testimony of the book of Acts indicates that the early Christians operated largely on the very margins of the pagan world. They associated freely and intimately with Jews, Samaritans, and God-fearers, meeting in their synagogues and homes (cf. Luke 7:6), but rarely reached directly or deeply into pagan society. Other early Christian voices confirm this portrait and suggest believers tended to avoid the private company of idolaters.
Meat sacrificed to idols
Before we engage with those other voices, however, we should acknowledge that some evidence points us in a different direction.
Among the New Testament writers, Paul espouses the most liberal views on association with idolaters. He explicitly condones some forms of fellowship between Christian and pagan (1 Corinthians 5:9-10), and even allows his followers to eat meat potentially sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 10:25-28). This, however, is not the norm.
Unlike Paul, Luke and John the Seer reject meat sacrificed to idols altogether (Acts 15:20; 29, 21:25, Revelation 2:14; 20). The Lukan James states that food sacrificed to idols is “polluted” and John repudiates all who eat such food. Paul too testifies to the presence of “weaker” Christians in his churches: those who believed meat produced through idolatry was inherently unclean (1 Cor 8:7, Romans 14:14-23).
Yet even Paul takes a strict stance at times:
The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons (1 Corinthians 10:20).
Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33).
Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? What agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? (2 Corinthians 6:14-16).
Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be associated with them (Ephesians 5:5-7).
With all this conflicted data laid out, we can draw some tentative conclusions about early Christian associations with pagans.
- Since close relationships and table-fellowship with pagans were such complicated matters, Luke’s portrait of a church reluctant to engage with idolaters in the private sphere is probably accurate.
- Early Christians rarely dined with idolaters and when they did, they did so not without hesitation. Many Christians believed the food pagans ingested was defiled. At best, partnerships and meals with idolaters were permitted under certain conditions; at worst such associations were considered grave, even demonic, sins.
Idolatry as the root of lawlessness
A final point to consider is the ways in which the New Testament categorizes idolatry as a sin. Idolatry is regularly listed alongside crimes considered to be heinous and abominable by Jews. In these “vice lists” idolaters are included among fornicators, sorcerers, murderers, and the impure (1 Cor 6:9-10, Galatians 5:19-21, 1 Peter 4:3, Revelation 21:8, 22:15, Didache 5:1).
Following longstanding Jewish tradition, Paul even identifies idolatry as the source of all unrighteousness and impurity:
[Idolaters] were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless (Romans 1:29-31).
Given then that believers were inhibited from forming close relationships with so-called Christian fornicators and sinners (1 Cor 5:11-13, Romans 16:17, Titus 3:10, 2 John 1:10, Matthew 18:17), there is little reason to think such relationships with unbelieving adulterers, magicians, and murderers were treated much differently. Christians avoided intimacy with pagan idolaters just as they avoided intimacy with other ungodly sinners. Such sinners were considered “unclean,” immorally contagious (1 Cor 6:11, 2 Cor 7:1, Hebrews 9:13-14, 1 John 1:9, Revelation 22:14-15, cf. Sirach 12:13-14, Proverbs 22:24-25, 24:1-2, Psalm 106:34-35).
To conclude, our texts suggest that there was a distinction between how early Christians interacted with Gentile God-fearers and how they interacted with Gentile idolaters. While early Christians proclaimed an anti-idolatry message to pagans in the public arena, rarely convening with them in private settings, the same Christians were more than willing to engage intimately with those Gentiles who had already been cleansed of idolatry.