After Cornelius receives the Holy Spirit, Peter returns to Jerusalem. The “circumcised believers” there asked him about his visit to a Gentile’s home. To what extent is Peter defending himself in this section? Luke says that they the circumcised believers “criticized him” (διακρίνω). The verb used is in the imperfect, so “began to criticize” is possible, although it may be an ongoing judgment on Peter – they “were criticizing” him.
The content of the criticism is that he enter the home of a Gentile and ate with them. Peter had been staying in the home of a Tanner and eating with him is not a problem, but fellowship with a God-Fearing Gentile is a real problem!
In fact, Peter himself is a bit disturbed by what happened with Cornelius. James Dunn entitles the section dealing with Peter’s vision as “the Conversion of Peter” (Beginning From Jerusalem, 26.3) There are more than a few parallels between Paul’s experience in chapter 9 and Peter’s in chapter 10. Both experience a visionary experience and both receive a command to go to gentiles, although Paul’s is a commission to a ministry, Peter is sent only to a particular individual. Both are obedient to their visions and both find themselves in trouble with the Jews as a result. Paul must escape Damascus, Peter must explain his actions to the (Christian) elders in Jerusalem.
Is it the case that the Jewish leadership Jerusalem did not expect the Holy Spirit to come to the Gentiles? Possibly. Within Second Temple Period Judaism, there are some texts which look forward to the salvation of the nations. Beginning with Isaiah 2:2-4 the messianic age would include salvation for the Gentiles. There are other texts which do not anticipate any conversion of the nations In 4 Ezra, for example, most Jews do not make it into the kingdom. But there is nothing in the Second Temple Period which would indicate salvation for Gentiles apart from Jewish Law.
In Isaiah 2:2-4 the Gentiles go up to the mountain of the Lord so that the Lord can teach them the “his way” so that they can “walk in his paths.” This can only mean that Gentiles will make a pilgrimage to a new-Sinai, Mount Zion in Jerusalem in order receive the Law. Certainly this is the new Covenant, but it the Jewish expectation was a mass conversion of Gentiles to Judaism in the messianic banquet. That a Gentile could receive the Holy Spirit, the sign of the New Covenant, without being obedient to God’s Torah was never considered as a possibility.
After the re-telling of the incident, the Jewish believers withdraw their objection to Peter’s activity and praise God. The verb means to “be silent,” or to “be peaceful,” meaning that they no longer are going to criticize Peter for this action. The fact that he acted in response to a vision is a part of this decision, but the real proof that repentance has come to the Gentiles is the presence of the Spirit.
This episode anticipates the problems which will develop by Acts 15. Are Gentiles expected to convert to Judaism, or not? Cornelius is not really a test case since he was already living more or less like a Jew. By Acts 13 Paul will bring the gospel to Gentiles who are not already seeking the God of Israel, Gentiles in every sense of the word.