Who Was Cornelius?
Rabbi Yehudah ben Shomeyr
As a Rabbi I get many questions and there usually are not too many questions that I haven’t already heard or pondered myself. But one gentlemen asked a very interesting question that I had to say I honestly did not know the answer to.
“Was Cornelius the Centurion of Acts 10, the same Centurion of Luke 7, who personally knew Yeshua?”
What an awesome question! I had to honestly say I didn’t know because the thought had never crossed my mind. This piqued my curiosity and has caused me to study this out for myself.
Let us first look at the passages in question, keeping in mind that Luke was the author of both passages.
Now when he had ended all his sayings in the audience of the people, he entered into Capernaum. And a certain centurion's servant, who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die. And when he heard of Jesus, he sent unto him the elders of the Jews, beseeching him that he would come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they besought him instantly, saying, That he was worthy for whom he should do this: For he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue. Then Jesus went with them. And when he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying unto him, Lord, trouble not thyself: for I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof: Wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. When Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And they that were sent, returning to the house, found the servant whole that had been sick. – Luke 7:1-10 (Repeated in Matt. 8:5-13)
There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band, A devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway. He saw in a vision evidently about the ninth hour of the day an angel of God coming in to him, and saying unto him, Cornelius. And when he looked on him, he was afraid, and said, What is it, Lord? And he said unto him, Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa, and call for one Simon, whose surname is Peter He lodgeth with one Simon a tanner, whose house is by the sea side: he shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do. And when the angel which spake unto Cornelius was departed, he called two of his household servants, and a devout soldier of them that waited on him continually And when he had declared all these things unto them, he sent them to Joppa… Then Peter went down to the men which were sent unto him from Cornelius; and said, Behold, I am he whom ye seek: what is the cause wherefore ye are come? And they said, Cornelius the centurion, a just man, and one that feareth God, and of good report among all the nation of the Jews, was warned from God by an holy angel to send for thee into his house, and to hear words of thee…. Cornelius waited for them, and he had called together his kinsmen and near friends…. And Cornelius said, Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and, behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, And said, Cornelius, thy prayer is heard, and thine alms are had in remembrance in the sight of God. Send therefore to Joppa, and call hither Simon, whose surname is Peter; he is lodged in the house of one Simon a tanner by the sea side: who, when he cometh, shall speak unto thee. Immediately therefore I sent to thee; and thou hast well done that thou art come. Now therefore are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God…. While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then answered Peter, Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then prayed they him to tarry certain days. - Acts 10:1-8, 21-22, 24, 30-33, 44-48
Okay, first things first before we get into the details of these passages from the Brit Chadasha. Who was Cornelius? Cornelius was a Roman Soldier, likely a Gentile, although some speculate that he may have been a Hebrew of one of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel, but all the Scriptural evidence presented here seems to indicate that he was purely a Gentile. He was a centurion soldier within the “Italian Band” which was a volunteer army from Italy, thus making it more likely he was a Gentile, a non-Jew or non-Hebrew. He was part of a Regiment of soldiers consisting of approximately 600 men; whereas a Legion has 3,000 to 6,000 men. As you can see 6 Centurions and their soldiers helped make up 1 Band of soldiers. 10 Regiments made up 1 Legion of soldiers. Cornelius oversaw approximately 100 men at what could be called the regional headquarters. The headquarters of the Roman forces in Judea were at Caesarea which was north of the Sea of Galilee and Capernaum was right on the coast of the Sea of Galilee. The two cities were not that far from each other; approximately 45 km (27 miles) apart and so it is likely that this was the region or area that Cornelius and his band could have been given authority to oversee.
In Luke chapter seven we see that Yeshua was in Capernaum when he met a Jewish delegation on behalf a Centurion (which I believe to be Cornelius) in order to beseech Yeshua regarding the healing of one of the Centurions beloved servants, which was possibly his son (John 4:43-54) or a servant who he loved as a son. Keep in mind that this Centurion Cornelius was likely a Gentile, yet won the love and favor of a community of Jews who ordinarily for all intents and purposes have nothing to do with Gentiles. Cornelius earned the love and trust of the Jewish community of Capernaum by building them a synagogue and if this Centurion be the Cornelius of Acts 10 it also says he gave to the poor and prayed during the traditional hours of prayer kept by the Jews. In keeping with Jewish tradition of the day, I imagine he may even have given alms to the poor just prior to his times of prayers as many Jews of the day did. They felt that in doing so their prayers would be seen more favorably in G-d’s eyes.
This Jewish delegations praise for Cornelius prompted Yeshua to go to his house to heal his servant, but when Cornelius got wind of Messiah’s coming by either a messenger who ran ahead or by seeing Yeshua and the Jewish delegation approach his house, Cornelius sent out a friend to speak to Yeshua on his behalf. This indicates to me that Cornelius was VERY familiar with Jewish custom and that Jews (we see this evident with Kefa (Peter) in Acts 10) didn’t go to the house of a Gentile for fear of ritual contamination that would prohibit one not to be able to worship in a synagogue or Temple until one ritually washes (takes a mikvah). If a common Jew would not enter a Gentiles house Cornelius couldn’t bear the thought of a allowing a Rabbi of great reputation such as Yeshua to enter his home. Cornelius sent a friend to tell Yeshua that as a Gentile he wasn’t worthy for Yeshua to step into his home, but being a man of authority knew and had confidence that all Yeshua had to do was say a command and he knew his servant would be well. This expression of faith astounded Yeshua, that this Gentiles faith in Him was greater than that of a Jew!
So we can confidently say that at Cornelius somehow heard or even witnessed Yeshua’s ministry prior to calling on him to heal his servant. Could he have also possibly been witness to Yeshua’s death, burial and resurrection? Let us entertain the fact that this might possibly be true.
Cornelius and his men’s territory of authority were likely from Capernaum to Caesarea, we see in Acts 10 Cornelius ended up living in Caesarea, but worked or had another residence in Capernaum (Luke 7). Now outside Jerusalem were Yeshua was crucified and buried was about another 100 km (65 miles) away from Capernaum. In the event of civil unrest extra bands of soldiers would be called in to assist and help squelch the uprising. When Yeshua was arrested, tried and crucified it is very likely that extra forces from surrounding areas were called in to help contain the crowds. What if Cornelius was one who was assigned or volunteered for the crucifixion and tomb detail?
Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God. – Matt. 27:54
Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. – John 19:41
Now I am not saying that one of these particular Roman Centurions was Cornelius, but the possibility exists that it was. “Truly this was the Son of God” sure sounds like something Cornelius would say and not some hardened Roman Centurion who has seen thousands of crucifixion before, and who is far away from home and doesn’t want to be in a foreign country and through his job is able to vent such frustrations on other through a crucifixion detail. Alas, we must leave such to speculation, imagination and our own personal opinion.
Now Acts 10 goes into greater detail regarding Cornelius. The chapter is long and I left out the part of Kefa’s (Peter’s) vision which was all about accepting Gentiles and had nothing to do the abolishment of the Levitical dietary laws. I did include the verses specifically dealing with Cornelius.
Yeshua’s ministry was three years, and we know not for sure when He encountered Cornelius, but a conversion to Judaism takes one to three years and by the time Cornelius met Kefa (Peter), it would have likely been at the three year mark, if indeed he was undergoing the conversion process. For when he meet Yeshua, he was likely at the beginning of the conversion process and his home was not fit to have a Jew enter it, it was not a Kosher home. Acts 10 says that Cornelius was a “devout man,” a phrase usually used for a Torah Obedient Jew. Acts 10 also says that he was a God fearer, which is a phrase usually used to indicate a Gentile convert! Acts 10 indicates that by the time he sent for Kefa (Peter), Cornelius was confident enough that he kept a Kosher home that he felt it okay to invite a Jew to come into his house. Of course we see the reason for Kefas’s (Peter’s) vision was to convince him that it was okay to enter this particular Gentiles home. As Kefa (Peter) spoke to the household of Cornelius the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) fell upon them and there was a mini Acts chapter 2 Pentecost thing going on in there! The passage also seems to indicate that Cornelius and his household had already been circumcised because the sect of the circumcision which believed in Yeshua that was with Kefa (Peter) (another indicator Cornelius’ home was Kosher) even urged a mikvah (baptism) for them which was a part of the conversion process, it sealed the deal if you will, and it also indicated that whom you were “mikvah-ed” under was the sect you followed. Thus it seems that Cornelius and his household may have been the first Gentile converts to the Natsari (Nazarene) sect of Judaism!