The ripple effect: Simon the tanner

After Jesus’ ascension, the believers spread the gospel around the world in widening ripples.

Daniel N. Balge

It was just an address where the apostle Peter was staying. In fact, it was less of an address than a description. An angel shared it with a God-fearing Gentile from Caesarea. The angel told Cornelius, a Roman centurion, “Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea” (Acts 10:5,6).

An unusual address

Joppa was a port city in Judea, about 40 miles south of Caesarea. People looking for Peter in Joppa would look for the house on the coast, but they might have been able to find Simon’s house by its smell. Tanneries were notorious for their stink. That odor hints at what made Simon the tanner’s address significant to gospel outreach.

From Simon’s name we gather that he was Jewish. From his hospitality to Peter we conclude that he was also a Christian. At first glance, Peter’s stay with Simon may appear no different from Paul’s staying with Lydia in Philippi (Acts 16:15) or with Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth (Acts 18:3)—simply an apostle finding necessary and practical support in the work from fellow Christians.

But Peter at Simon’s house was unusual. People avoided tanners. Ancient zoning laws often put tanneries at the edge of town or beyond, at a site dictated by the prevailing winds. A tanner treated animal hides with foul mixtures of animal or human waste or with harsh chemicals. Sometimes what flesh remained on a hide was allowed to rot. It was a hands-on trade, and the stench would permeate the clothes, skin, and house of the tanner.

Jews ordinarily shunned tanners. Tanning was not forbidden in the Old Testament. Leather was used for clothing, packs, saddles, sandals, and tents—including the Tabernacle, for centuries the hub of Israel’s worship life. But dead animals and other features of the work left a tanner dirty, smelly, and often ceremonially unclean. By custom, tanners came to be treated as outcasts from polite society and were pushed to the fringes of Jewish religious life.

A significant stay

So Peter’s stay with Simon the tanner ran against the norm. Peter was obviously not out for personal gain or comfort. Maybe his room had a view of the sea, but it surely had a whiff of the tannery. Peter had found a way to let Simon the tanner, despite his status, help spread the gospel. Most important, Peter’s choice of accommodations helped signal that the gospel is meant for all.

God made that clear. A delegation

of Gentiles came to fetch Peter. They arrived just after the Lord by a vision had directed Peter that it was no longer necessary to keep Jewish dietary laws. God’s Spirit then told him to go back to Caesarea with the delegation from Cornelius. There Peter preached the facts of eternal life to the centurion’s household and baptized them. Jewish Christians, who had come with Peter from Joppa, marveled at the evidence of faith among Cornelius’ household.

Then Peter the Jew stayed a few days at Cornelius the Gentile’s house, another address with something important to say about the good news of Jesus.

Contributing editor Daniel Balge, a professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. Paul, New Ulm.

This is the tenth article in a 12-part series on lesser-known New Testament witnesses.


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Author: Daniel N. Balge
Volume 104, Number 2
Issue: February 2017

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