Interpreting Peter’s Vision in Acts 10:9-16 -- By: David B. Woods

Journal: Conspectus
Volume: CONSPECTUS 13:1 (Mar 2012)
Article: Interpreting Peter’s Vision in Acts 10:9-16
Author: David B. Woods

Interpreting Peter’s Vision in Acts 10:9-16

David B. Woods1


The paper challenges the traditional Christian interpretation of Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9-16. The text, in its biblical context, and together with related developments in early church history, point conclusively to a single interpretation: that the Gentiles have been cleansed by God. The vision does not nullify Jewish dietary laws or the Mosaic Law in general, since there is no support for the interpretation that the vision also pertains to the cleansing of unclean food. This conclusion contradicts the traditional Christian interpretation that the vision has a two-fold meaning, though it is not unique in the literature. The main implication is that Christians need to reassess their reading of the New Testament, and especially Paul, on the Law, in the light of recent literature which challenges traditional interpretations and posits various solutions to age-old disputes.


Acts 10:1-11:18, or ‘the Cornelius incident’, presents the circumstances, content, and meaning of Peter’s vision of the ‘sheet’ full of animals and, therefore, forms the key text of this study. This paper examines the meaning of the vision to determine whether it pertains to

Gentiles—that they are not to be regarded as unclean by Jewish believers—or to do with unclean foods specified in the Mosaic Law. The traditional Christian interpretation is that the vision refers to both Gentiles and unclean food; by implication, the Law as a whole is taken to be annulled, for which the selected passage is commonly used as a proof text. In fact, the two are often regarded as inextricably connected. There are various problems with this dual interpretation, however, and the text itself testifies that only the first interpretation is true: the vision pertains to the cleansing of Gentiles, not unclean food. Supporting this conclusion is a wealth of contextual evidence in the book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament, as well as post-canonical history. Ultimately, however, the strongest support for this interpretation is within the text itself, Acts 10:1-11:18.

Scriptural quotes are taken from the Lexham English Bible (LEB) unless otherwise indicated, and footnotes in quoted texts have been omitted or given separately. Much of the ancient literature is freely available online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, including that used herein (by ‘Barnabas’, Irenaeus, and Augustine).

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