CORNELIUS (kôr-nēl'yŭs, Gr. Kornēlios, of a horn). A name of ancient and honorable standing among the Romans. Before the NT age, it was borne by such distinguished families as the Scipios and Sulla.
Cornelius is described as “devout and God-fearing” (
d.253. Pope from 251. His election, which came after the persecution initiated by Decius had died down, ironically stirred up trouble within the church itself. A minority declared in favor of Novatian, a fierce rigorist in church discipline who refused to admit the lapsi to the sacrament of penance. Cornelius convened a synod which, attended by some sixty bishops, excommunicated Novatian and his adherents. In this Cornelius had the weighty support of Cyprian of Carthage* who, although taking a serious view of the lapsed, held more strongly that the unity of the visible church should be maintained and was prepared to see them restored on evidence of true sorrow and penance. Among letters from the hand of Cornelius that have survived are several addressed to Cyprian. With the renewal of persecution in 253, Cornelius was exiled to Centumcellae (Civitavecchia) by Emperor Gallus, and died that same year.
See also Novatianism.
CORNELIUS kôr nel’ yəs (Gr. Κορνήλιος, G3173). An aristocratic Rom. name of standing, which can be traced back two centuries to the great family of the Scipios. The Cornelius of the NT was a centurion of the garrison at Caesarea. He was prob. a descendant of one of the freedmen of Cornelius Sulla’s day, when early in the 1st cent. b.c. many slaves were freed and established in an expanding Rom. society with their patron’s name. It is therefore impossible to establish the descent or distant family background of the soldier of
His character is described as “upright and God-fearing,” and it seems a fact that, aware of the difficult task of the small garrison by which the Romans sought to preserve their vital bridgehead into Pal., the imperial military administration took more than common care to pick men of fine character. Centurions formed the backbone of the Rom. army, but they were not always men of sterling and upright character. They were the first to be murdered in more than one army mutiny.
Palestine, with the problem of its passionate Jewish nationalism, was a difficult area to police and hold. The Romans took a risk in committing the defense of so vital a segment of their eastern frontier, and a communication link as important as Pal. to a holding force based on Caesarea, and the distant supervision of the legions of the legate of Syria. Hence, the policy which appears to have been pursued. The army units detailed to Pal. under Rome’s sounder administrators, were prob. reliable and seasoned men, and if the NT centurions are any indication, the officer corps were men of strength and character and not unsympathetic toward the Jews. Cornelius is a striking example, deferential without subservience, in quiet command of his household, and a man of firm piety (
It seems clear that Cornelius was not a Jewish proselyte, but rather a representative of many in the 1st cent. who were aware of the obsolescence of paganism, who accepted a form of theism and the practice of prayer, and who, without necessarily accepting Judaism with its manifold obligations, recognized the superiority of Jewish ethics and the God of Judaism to any alternative visible in the cults, mystery religions, or official religious practices of their environment. No man could be more suitable for the demonstration, which formed a major movement in Luke’s theme and the Pauline gospel to which it is devoted, that Gentiles had a part and heritage in Christianity, and that there was no prerequisite in Judaism for their conversion; hence the space which Luke devoted to the narrative and its repetition, a device of emphasis which he also employed in the case of Paul’s conversion.
It is part of the literary style of Luke not to be attracted down the by-paths of narrative. The book he planned had two or three major themes (see Acts of the Apostles), and quite obviously areas of interest were omitted and by-passed as the historian prosecuted his main purpose. Cornelius may not have been the first Gentile convert to the church either in Jerusalem or on the coastal plain, but he was brought into fellowship by events so God-ordained, and was himself a person so obviously suited to the role that the narrative lingers over his story. With that purpose fulfilled, Luke had not another word to say. It is not known whether Cornelius was the founder of the church, which was undoubtedly founded at Caesarea, and of which no less an evangelist than Philip was the head (
Every imaginable attempt has been made to destroy the historicity of Cornelius, and absurd though the arguments of such criticism commonly are, and without parallel in any other sphere of ancient history they should be briefly mentioned. Anyone with a developed sense of history cannot, in the NT context, fail to recognize the marks of authenticity on the whole narrative, from Peter’s dream, so contextually and psychologically real, to the person of the Rom. soldier himself. Luke cannot be accused of “juggling data” on one hand, and receiving recognition for the historical exactitude of his detail in places where it may be tested on the other hand. His obvious authority was Peter himself, and based for two years in Caesarea with freedom to come and go during Paul’s confinement in the barracks, Luke collected, presumably, the material for his two books. If Acts was produced in the early sixties of the cent., there was no time for the slow accretion of legend. Nor does legend read like factual reporting, as the story from Joppa and Caesarea certainly does. The alternative is plain mendacity, and the harrassed, persecuted Christians of Pal. were in no mood or condition to invent stories to their detriment. Luke was not “jumbling confusedly” (F. D. Gealy IDB. I. 699) two disparate and equally unreliable “justification” stories, nor turning “a faith-principle into historical form, in which faith both creates history and is created by it” (ibid. p. 700). What sort of “history” is created by such falsehood is best understood, if it can be understood at all, by the “form critics,” who concoct such theories of literary origin.
Conservative NT scholars, who have long protested in amazement against the studied disregard of the historical books of the NT as authentic documents of history, will have been interested in the recent growing regard of secular historians for such evidence. The methods of the so-called “form critics” would not find a moment’s acceptance in any other sphere of ancient history, and the Oxford historian A. M. Sherwin White drew attention to the fact in his 1965 Sarum Lectures published under the title Roman Society and Roman(pp. 187, 188). This historian, writing with all care and with the distrust of unsupported evidence proper to his profession, was prompted to chide the unbalanced scepticism and fanciful theorizing of the NT “form critics.” His restrained irony at their gloomy conclusion that “the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of his mission cannot be written,” while historians pursue with convincing optimism the truth about the motives and person of Christ’s “best-known contemporary,” Tiberius Caesar, based largely on Tacitus’ prejudiced account of seventy years later, is a sobering comment on NT criticism, both healthy and overdue. This concerns the gospels, while, says the same authority, “for Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming.”
There remains the more valid objection that, during the independent administration of the area under Herod Agrippa (a.d. 41-44), there would have been no occupying force in Caesarea. The suggestion is in the highest degree unlikely. Caesarea itself was a creation of the pro-Rom. policy of the able Herod family who, for a full cent, successfully conciliated both the Jews and the empire. It is more likely that during this period the garrison would have been more frequently confined to Caesarea, and in Herod’s own interests; absent it certainly would not have been. Cornelius was assuredly a real person, and the circumstances of his conversion are congruent with history.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
The story of Cornelius is given in
1. His Family and Station:
The name is Roman and belonged to distinguished families in the imperial city, such as the Scipios and Sulla. Thus he was probably an Italian of Roman blood. Julian the Apostate reckons him as one of the few persons of distinction who became a Christian. He was evidently a man of importance in Caesarea and well known to the Jews (
See Roman Army.
Legions were never permanently quartered in Palestine until the great war which ended in the destruction of Jerusalem, 70 AD. From the year 6 AD, when Palestine was made into province of the second rank, until 66 AD, it was garrisoned by auxiliary troops recruited amongst the Samaritans and Syrian Greeks. The headquarters were naturally at Caesarea, the residence of the procurator. But it would not have been prudent for a garrison in Palestine to be composed wholly of troops locally recruited. Therefore the Roman government mingled with the garrison 600 soldiers, free Italian volunteers. With this cohort Cornelius was connected as centurion.
2. His Character:
He is described as devout and God-fearing, i.e. at least, one of those men so numerous in that effete age of decadent heathenism who, discontented with polytheism, yearned for a better faith, embraced, therefore, the monotheism of the Jews, read the Scriptures, and practiced more or less of the Jewish rites. He was well reported of by the Jews, and his religion showed itself in prayer at the regular hours, and in alms to the people (of Israel). Even Jewish bigotry was dumb in presence of so noble a man. Moreover, he seems to have made his house a sort of church, for his kinsfolk and friends were in sympathy with him, and among the soldiers who closely attended him were some devout ones (
3. His Admission into the Christian Church:
The story of his conversion and admission into the Christian church is told with some minuteness in
4. Significance of the Incident:
As for Peter’s subsequent conduct at Antioch, no one who knows Peter need be surprised at it. The very accusation that Paul hurled at him was that for the moment he was carried into inconsistency with his principles (hupokrisis). Of course, this incident of Cornelius was only the first step in a long development; but the principle was forever settled. The rest in due time and proper order was sure to follow. By this tremendous innovation it was settled that Christianity was to be freed from the swaddling bands of Judaism and that the Christian church was not to be an appendix to the synagogue. The noble character of Cornelius was just fitted to abate, as far as possible, the prejudices of the Jewish Christians against what must have seemed to them a dangerous, if not awful, innovation.
G. H. Trever