Peter once saw an enigmatic vision while praying: “The sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. A voice came to him, ‘Get up, Peter, kill and eat!’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.’ Again, a voice came to him a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy’” (Acts 10:11-15 NASB).

Peter refused to eat the animals in his vision, calling them κοινὸν καὶ ἀκάθαρτον (koinon kai akatharton) “unholy and unclean.” It is a common assumption that the apostle was offered only unclean animals forbidden to Israel (cf. Lev 11; Deut 14). In reality, the vision showed a variety of clean and unclean animals mixed together.

Most modern readers miss the meaning of this passage entirely because they do not fully grasp what these words meant to Peter in his cultural context. To many modern readers “unclean” simply means “dirty,” but for a first-century Jew, “unclean” (ἀκάθαρτος; akathartos) referred to “defilement” (טָמֵא; tameh) – a ceremonial worship-related temporary disqualification (e.g., Lev 5:2; 15:32).

The second term in the vision, translated as “unholy,” is κοινός (koinos), which can be even more confusing. It is an equivalent to the Hebrew חֹל (chol), meaning “common,” “ordinary,” or/therefore “unsanctified.” There is nothing “bad” or “sinful” in the term translated as “not/unholy.” In fact, the Greek word for “fellowship,” κοινωνία (koinonia), comes from the same linguistic root. In Jewish tradition, the intermediary days of a long festival like Passover are called חֹל הַמּוֹעֵד (chol hamoed) because they are “ordinary” days and not holy days of rest.

The heavenly voice in the vision insisted, “What God cleansed for you do not make common (κοινός; koinos)” (Acts 10:15). Peter refused to eat what he saw because the clean animals in the vision were mixed with unclean ones and thus became defiled. Many interpreters suppose that God cleansed all animals for Peter, but remember that there were two kinds of animals in the vision.

The Torah divides all animals into categories – “unclean” טָמֵא (tameh) and “clean” טָהֵר (tahor). The “unclean” animals are prohibited as food altogether and only clean animals can be classified as κοινός (koinos) / חֹל (chol) “common”, for ordinary everyday use. Only the meat of these clean animals, which is “common,” can become “holy” קָדוֹשׁ (kadosh) if it offered to God on the altar.

Both clean animals (and people) can become “defiled” and “uncleantemporarily. But they can also be purified and restored to their previous status. And that is exactly what the divine voice is telling Peter. God purified the clean animals, believers from the nations, in the vision for Peter. And they are not “common” but actually “holy” (קָדוֹשׁ; kadosh).

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51 COMMENTS

  1. You missed the point as well. God was referring to Jews as clean and gentiles as unclean and that they can come together as one in th Messiah. After the vision, Peter did not break the kosher dietary laws. He still ate what was clean.
    As a Jew, we are taught to not break the commandments of Elohim. Malachi 3:8. God does not change. What God calls an abomintion still to this day is an abomintion so for all you Christians out there, there is this reminder.
    Rev 21:8  But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. 
    • Dear John, either you misunderstood me or you are suggesting that something which is "intrinsically unclean" can become "clean". Can a rat become kosher? As far as I know, that is not possible in Torah and Torah is the foundation of all our understanding. If it is reversed then everything we know about God and his nature is in question. It seems to me that Jews were not included in the sheet vision at all. The sheet vision was about Cornelius and what Peter had to do next for God. It is not a vision of some generic unity or solidarity in Christ. The vision was given for a specific reason - Peter's cultural aversion to people like Cornelius. Hence the revelation.

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  2. He wasn't talking about the food he was talking about the Roman soldier that was going to be coming to the gate who is a gentile and he did not want Peter to consider him unclean
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  3. Prof Shir:
    Your article is very correct, but I feel that we need to not just cherry pick a small section of a very important chapter (10) in the book of Acts of the Apostles. This small section has been used by the church to claim that Yawehs laws of food are no more. I contend that they are still relevant, that there never was any intent on His part to do so.

    If you read the entire chapter you will find that a Centurion (a Roman Commander of a group of 100 Legionaries) named Cornelius was given a vision by Yaweh also (vs 3-6). These two visions are connected and that cannot be denied for two major reasons. 1) Just after Peters vision, two men sent by Cornelius called out for Peter at the home where he was staying. They said they had been sent for him, specifically. and 2) When Peter and Cornelius met, Cornelius recounted his vision and Peter replied (vs 34-35) "I now truly understand that Yaweh does not show favoritism in dealing with people, bur in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcome before him". How else could a Tzadik (righteous) Jew say that of a goy (non-Jew), unless Yaweh had given him special message?

    Therefore, I feel that the entire story of Ch 10 needs to be taught as one entire story. This is the beginning of the spread of the Gospel to the Nations. Peters vision was never about clean or unclean animals, or even food, but about telling the Apostles that they needed to stretch out, to begin the spreading of the Gospel to the goyim (nations). "Do not call what I call clean unclean" (vs 15).
    • I could not agree more with you, Stephen. In fact, the entire story is ch 10-11:18. I cannot go verse by verse through a chapter in a half in a short post. In class, I can do that. :) I hope people who read my words be challenged and do so.
  4. The unclean animals actually was referring to the gentile nation , because Peter was only taught to preach to the Jews as they were God's chosen people .
    • Samantha, did you understand my explanation that there is temporary uncleanness (defilement) and intrinsic uncleanness based on natural characteristics and God's pronouncement?
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  5. Shalom Prof Shir There so many misunderstandings about this part of Acts. This is the one reason I do not read just one verse I read on. Down farther in 11 it talks about 3 men comes to Peter from Caesarea to have no misgivings about going back with them. Six brothers went with him and entered into the house. They were told that the man in house sying that an Angel saying Send to Yafo and bring back Shimon known as Kefa He has a message for you which will enble you and your shole househeold to be saved. The message was that the Ruach HaKodesh (the Holy Spirit) fell on themJust as on us at the beginning. Lord said Yochanan used to immerse people in water but you will be immersed in the Ruach Hakodesh Therefore if God give them the same gife as he gave us after we had come to ut our trust in the Lord Yeshua the Messiah who was I to stand in Gods way. On hearing these things they stopped objecting and began to praise God saying This means that God has enabled the Goyim as well to do t'shuvah and have life. This is what I believe that was going on is the God was telling Kefa to except the Goyim that they can be believers to in the Messiah. At that time they were not to asocilate with the Goyim because they were unclean people
    That is what I think that is what it was mean about eating unclean food but it was mening about people that was unclean that you can talk to them and get them to believe in the Messiah. Not about eating unclean food. It means something all together different then what people think it is saying that we can eat unclean food. Did you know that a pig is unclean and the reason why. They do not have sweat glands so they can not get the posions out of there body. They store it that is why it is unclean to eat. So what ever they eat it stays in the body. I was resiting from Acts 11:11-18 I hope you don't mine. Sandy
  6. This is an unwarranted misinterpretation of this passage's real meaning, which is: stop considering Gentiles as so defiled they cannot be saved. This is what motivated Peter to go evangelize Cornelius and even go into his house to do it. The Gentiles were not clean until they belived on Jesus.
  7. In the fifth paragraph, you touch on the modern interpreter’s supposition that all animals (food) are cleansed (able to be eaten) and that this is a false premise. As a recipient of the visions intended consequences, are we then to continue in Torah’s dietary instructions?
    J.
    • If Torah's dietary restrictions were given to / intended for the recipient in the first place. Peter was an Israelite for whom Torah was a national covenant and a constitution. So for him, yes. For Justin Martyr or Augustine, for example - no. This is exactly why all this was a touchy subject to begin with.
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    • Touchy, but no less interesting a discussion. Thanks for putting up the article.
      Multiple takes on it through the years;
      • Understanding in its context –
      * A onetime message (vision) for an individual (Rock) for a onetime event (Cornelius).
      * An extended message for all (church) throughout history (unity of the faiths).
      • Understanding by projection (allegory).
      * Animals = Food = loosening of kosher diet restrictions.
      * Practical application of it for all involved.
      J.

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  8. I know the question I am about to make might seem not related to the topic but there is also a connection with food and the spiritual level of the believer. So y question is related with not eating Milk and Meat together, is there any deeper meaning on these commandment? is that a commandment or not? In the gospel we can read how Paul refers to those that only are drinking lahav instead of the continue growing in the Lord by eating Meat. why are the Meat and Milk excluded, the new believers can not mix with the elders? why then saying that the first will be last and the last will be first?
    • Yes, there is a deeper meaning in that commandment. But it will take me a while to explain all that. Can't think of how to do that in a couple of paragraphs right now. It is sort of complicated for several reasons. As far as Paul's references to milk and meat, he clearly uses them as symbols, not referring to actual food. So we should understand things as symbols when it is clear from the context they are. But when context talks about actual food, quite literally, then to take it as a symbol would be misguided.
  9. With humbleness and respect, I find Jesus addresses the question about the actual food, and the What Defiles a Person, in Matthew 15:10 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.”
    • Dear Joy, I do not know how deeply you looked at this passage you are quoting. These words are not about food items themselves. I encourage you to go over the entire Mat 15 context carefully and you will be able to see that the topic of this entire discussion is not unclean food, or even clean food. Just consider this... the disciples were eating bread when this all started. Is bread one of the foods that defile a person? So what is the problem then? Something entirely different is the topic of discussion in Mat 15. Context is supremely important!
    • Joy.The Pharisees were chiding the disciples for not washing their hands obviously a law made by the Pharisees. The bread handled by unclean hands, by the Pharisees standards, became unclean. question is food named unclean to Israelite and Jews then unclean to Christians? We are all one in Jesus
      ?

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  10. Do I understand that you are saying that unclean animals can never be made clean and so are never fit to eat and that unclean people (gentiles) can never be made clean and so are never to be saved?
    • No, you did not understand me. The metaphor is not meant to be interpreted, but let me try... There are no Jews in this vision. Gentiles who believe in the God of Israel are "clean animals" that became defiled by contact with "unclean animals" (pagans who worship false gods), and they are all mixed together in the vision. Peter is told to select clean aminals from the mix, but he is reluctant because they have been defiled through contact. To which God says - "I cleansed them!"

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