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Simon Peter Meets Simon the Tanner: The Ritual Insignificance of Tanning in Ancient Judaism

  • Isaac W. Oliver (a1)

Many New Testament exegetes have taken the reference in Acts 9.43 to Peter's stay at Simon the Tanner's house as proof that purity laws are no longer relevant for the author of Acts, since tanning conveys ritual impurity. These interpreters have relied primarily on rabbinic passages to make their argument. This article shows that none of the solicited rabbinic passages refers to tanning as ritually defiling. Rather, the rabbinic sources reveal a disdain for tanners because of their stench and filth. At times, the rabbinic sages also criticize tanners for their supposed lack of moral scruples. Peter's visit to Simon the Tanner's house, therefore, cannot be taken as evidence that the author of Acts dismisses the relevance of the Jewish purity system, let alone kashrut. At best, the reference in Acts to Simon the Tanner informs us about the social-economic status of some of the members of the Jesus movement.

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1 Cited in Reed, R., Ancient Skins, Parchments and Leathers (London: Seminar, 1972) 15.

2 In my dissertation, ‘Torah Praxis after 70 C.E.: Reading Matthew and Luke–Acts as Jewish Texts’, I argue that Luke was a Torah observant Jew. Many thanks to my advisor Gabriele Boccaccini as well as Daniel Boyarin for their input and support in carrying out this project. I would also like thank the anonymous reader of this article for his acute corrections as well as John Barclay for his input and suggestions.

3 Strack, H. L. and Billerbeck, P., Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (6 vols.; Munich: Beck, 1922–1961) 2.695: ‘seine innere Freiheit von den pharisäischen Satzungen’. Cf. Hengel, M., Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity (trans. Bowden, John; London: SCM, 1979) 93: ‘The fact that in Joppa he stayed with a tanner who was despised because of his unclean trade (9.43) is another indication of Peter's broad-mindedness’. I do not know whether Hengel drew his ideas about the supposed impurity of Jewish tanning and Peter's ‘liberalism’ (as stated on p.93) directly from Strack and Billerbeck, but at least Weiser, A., Die Apostelgeschichte (2 vols.; ÖTK 5; Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1981–1985) 1.245, does reveal his indebtedness to them when he states: ‘Da das Gerberhandwerk bei den Rabbinen als unrein galt, sehen Bill. II 695; Stählin: Apg 146 u.a. im Aufenthalt des Petrus beim Gerber Simon bereits die freiere Haltung des Petrus vorbereitet, von der in Kap. 10f. die Rede sein wird’. Weiser assumes that the rabbis deemed tanners impure. Does he misunderstand Strack and Billerbeck or is he primarily under the influence of Stählin? Weiser immediately proceeds to dismiss the relevance of Peter's sojourn in Simon the Tanner's house though for the interpretation of Acts 10. Nevertheless, his statement shows that he thinks tanning was ritually defiling. Stählin, G., Die Apostelgeschichte (NTD 5; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1980) 146, declares: ‘Sein Gastgeber (vgl. zu 21,16f.) ist wieder ein Simon, “Simon der Gerber” genannt… vielleicht soll aber mit der Erwähnung seines, von allen in der Apg. genannten Gewerben (vgl. 16, 14; 18, 3; 19, 24) am wenigsten geachteten Handwerks, der als unrein geltenden Gerberei, auf die folgende Geschichte (10, 14!) vorausgewiesen werden’.

4 So Harnack, A., The Acts of the Apostles (trans. Wilkinson, J. R.; NTS 3; New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1909) 85: ‘tanning was an uncleanly trade’; Cf. Bruce, F. F., Commentary on the Book of Acts (NIBCNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954) 213 n. 68: ‘Peter's lodging with such a man was a mark of his increasing emancipation from ceremonial traditions’. Similarly, Neil, W., Acts (NCBC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973) 316; Philipps, J., Exploring Acts. Vol. 1, Acts 1–12 (Chicago: Moody, 1986) 193; Trever, J. C., ‘Tanned, Tanner’, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ed. Bromiley, W. G.; 4 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, rev. ed. 1979–1988) 4.726: ‘The NT story of Peter's sojourn in Joppa with Simon, the tanner (Acts 9–10), implies that Peter had taken a step beyond the Jewish community with the Christian Gospel’; Cartledge, S. A., ‘Tanner, Tanning’, The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols.; New York: Abingdon, 1962) 4.516: ‘The fact that Peter was willing to stay with Simon was an indication of at least the beginning of a more liberal attitude on the part of Peter toward such ceremonial matters’; Litwak, K. D., ‘Tanner, Tanning’, The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006–2009) 5.470, who states without further qualification that under ‘the Mosaic law, touching a dead thing made one unclean. Therefore, a tanner would have been almost perpetually unclean’.

5 Marguerat, D., Les Actes des apôtres (1–12) (Commentaire du Nouveau Testament 5a; Genève: Labor et Fides, 2007) 357.

6 Here Talbert assumes that Gentiles were bound by the ritual purity laws of Judaism and could become ritually defiled. However, many specialists on ancient Judaism have persuasively argued against this understanding. They claim that many ancient Jews did not consider Gentiles as ritually and intrinsically impure because they viewed the purity regulations of the Mosaic legislation as binding only for Jews. See the works of Maccoby, H., Ritual and Morality: The Ritual Purity System and its Place in Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1999) 812; Klawans, J., Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University, 2000) 43–4, 48, 97; Hayes, C. E., Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud (Oxford: Oxford University, 2002) 1922, 66–7, 142–4. For the alternative view, championed by Gedalyahu Alon, positing that most Jews did view Gentiles as intrinsically impure, see now Noam, Vered, ‘The Gentileness of the Gentiles’, Halakhah in Light of Epigraphy (ed. Baumgarten, A. I. et al. ; JAJSup 3; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010) 2741.

7 Talbert, C. H., Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (New York: Crossroad, 1997) 104.

8 It is worthwhile recounting that the contraction of ritual impurity, an inevitable occurrence of daily life, was not viewed as a sinful act by many Jews. For example, menstruating women were obviously not viewed as sinful because of this natural phenomenon. Neither was the contraction of ritual impurity for the sake of burial viewed as a sinful act. On the contrary, Jews highly esteemed those who honored the dead by providing them a proper and immediate burial. Cf. Hayes, Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities, 5.

9 Miller, C. A., ‘Did Peter's Vision in Acts 10 Pertain to Men or the Menu?BSac 159 (2002): 304. Cf. the statement made by Philo (Spec. Laws 1.151) in positive terms regarding the priests who receive as a compensation for their priestly service the skins of the burnt offerings brought to them in the temple of Jerusalem.

10 Translations of the Hebrew Scriptures and the NT are taken from the NRSV.

11 Author's translation. A baraita in b. Hul.117b makes the same declaration: בנבלתה ולא בעור שאין עליו כזית בשר. See further Rashi on Lev 11.39; Milgrom, J., Leviticus (AB 3–3A; New York: Doubleday, 1991–2000) 1.682.

12 Cf. M. Hul. 9.4: ‘If there remained an olive's bulk of flesh [of a carcass] on the hide and a man touched a shred of it that jutted forth, or a hair on the opposite side, he becomes unclean’. Translations of the Mishnah taken from Danby, H., The Mishnah (London: Oxford University, 1933).

13 As Milgrom acutely observes, certain regulations within the Pentateuch originally only forbade contact with carcasses of impure (i.e, non-kosher) animals (e.g., the carcass of a pig). Thus, Lev 5.2 states: ‘Or when any of you touch any unclean thing—whether the carcass of an unclean beast or the carcass of unclean livestock or the carcass of an unclean swarming thing—and are unaware of it, you have become unclean, and are guilty’ (NRSV; emphasis mine). In this passage, the prohibition of touching carcasses only applies to animals that are by definition perpetually impure, that is, forbidden for consumption (cf. Lev 7.21). Interestingly enough, Lev 7.24 forbids the consumption of the nevelah or terefah of a pure animal, but allows Israelites to use their fat for any other purpose. Deut 14.21 even assumes that a Jew can touch a nevelah of a kosher animal (without contracting ritual impurity?): ‘You shall not eat anything that dies of itself; you may give it to aliens residing in your towns for them to eat, or you may sell it to a foreigner’ (Deut 14.21). How does a Jew give or sell an animal that dies of itself to a Gentile without touching it? See Milgrom, Leviticus, 1.703. On the other hand, passages in the Mosaic Torah reveal that an Israelite could contract ritual impurity through contact with a carcass of either kosher or non-kosher animals (Lev 11.8, 39–40), although even such contraction of impurity was not viewed by many Jews as a terrible, sinful act but a reality of daily life.

14 Sifra Shemini Pereq 4.8–9, commenting on the phrase ‘and their carcass you shall not touch’ (ובנבלתם לא תגעו), which appears in Lev 11.8 in reference to the carcasses of forbidden animals such as pigs, maintains with a qal vahomer argument that lay Israelites can touch the carcasses of non-kosher creatures, since they are allowed to touch human corpses, which convey the highest degree of impurity. How much more then the carcasses of forbidden animals whose impurity is less severe. The rabbis, of course, are not denying that such carcasses do indeed defile. Nevertheless, they correctly understand that the Mosaic Torah does not view the contraction of ritual impurity as a sin in so far as the handling of common food and objects is concerned. On the other hand, the Torah strongly denounces the conscious interaction with holy realms and objects while ritually defiled. Consequently, the same passage in Sifra makes the qualification that one should avoid contracting ritual impurity during festival times when ordinary Jews could find themselves in the holy space of Jerusalem and its temple. See Rashi and his commentary on Lev 11.8. Possibly, 4Q397 (4QMMTd) 3:11–13 with 4Q398 (4QMMTe) 2–3:1–3 also forbid someone who has touched the skin of a nevelah from approaching sacred food or the temple. These texts, however, are very fragmentary. Of equal relevance is the statement in m. Hul. 9.2 declaring that even the hides of forbidden animals such as pigs or the eight vermin (Lev 11.29–30), the latter notoriously known for their ability to defile, when tanned, become pure (וכולן שעיבדן או שהילך בהן כדי עבודה טהורין).

15 Translation taken from Parry, D. W. and Tov, E., eds., The Dead Sea Scrolls Reader (6 vols.; Leiden: Brill, 2004–2005). Cf. 4Q394 3–10 (4QMMTa) 2 (3–7ii): 2–4, which is very fragmentary but might contain a similar position as the Temple Scroll. Later, the Temple Scroll claims that the skin and bones of a carcass of a forbidden animal can transmit impurity (11QTa 51.4–5). See further Magness, Jodi, Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) 42–3, for a discussion of this passage and other pertinent texts.

16 Other terms used in rabbinic literature to describer tanners include עבדן and the less common צלעין. For references and discussion of these terms, see the still very useful Krauss, S., Talmudische Archäologie (3 vols.; Leipzig: Fock, 1910–1912) 2.259–63.

17 Perhaps also because of the foul smell and the filth involved. In the same passage, coppersmiths, among others, are also compelled to divorce their wives, not because of their ritual impurity, but because of the coarse work involved. The passage also cites the ‘gatherer’ (המקמץ) who presumably collected dog, pig, and even human feces for the treatment of hides. Nevertheless, many Jews did not view urine or feces of humans as ritually defiling (Milgrom, Leviticus, 1.767; Hayes, C., The Emergence of Judaism: Classical Traditions in Contemporary Perspective [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011] 36; Maccoby, Ritual and Morality, 30), and Jews of the Second Temple period used vessels made out of animal dung, some considering such vessels to be even immune to ritual impurity. See Magness, Stone and Dung, 75–6, for a discussion of the archaeological findings and literary sources. As far as we know, no ancient Jew viewed animal dung as impure. Essenes, however, considered human feces (but not urine) to be ritually defiling (Josephus, Bell. 2.147; 11QTa 46.15). I would like to thank Jodi Magness for sharing her thoughts with me on this matter. In b. Ber. 25a, a baraita states: ‘A man should not recite the Shema in front either of human excrement or excrement of pigs or excrement of dogs when he puts skins in them’ (translations of Talmudic passages in this article are taken from Epstein, I., ed., The Babylonian Talmud [London: Soncino, 1935–1952]). This halakah, however, does not claim that excrement (human or animal) is impure, as the Gemara to that section makes clear, only that it is demeaning or disrespectful to pray in such a setting. We should also note a late rabbinic text that acknowledges the application of dog feces for tanning hides used for Torah Scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot! See Kallah Rabbati 7.1.

18 Kehati, Pinhas, The Mishnah (23 vols.; Jerusalem: Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora of the World Zionist Organization, 1987–1996) 5.34: ‘so that it will not seem that they are belittling the sanctity of the synagogue, as if they do not desire it, for it is of no account in their eyes (Rashi)’; Albeck, Chanoch, Shishah Sidre Mishnah (6 vols.; Jerusalem: Bialik, 1952–1959) 2.362.This mishnah also forbids synagogues from being sold for use as bathhouses, as locales for immersion (טבילה), or as urinals (human urine, as pointed out earlier, was not viewed as ritually defiling).

19 Because the prevailing winds in Palestine are from the north-west, if a tannery was located on the westside its unbearable stench would make its way into a town lying eastward. See Albeck, Shishah Sidre Mishnah, 4.123.

20 Translation taken from White, R. J., The Interpretation of Dreams: The Oneirocritica of Artemidorus (Park Ridge, NJ: Noyes, 1975) 43. For non-Jewish references on tanners, see Beurlier, E., ‘Corroyeur’, Dictionnaire de la Bible (ed. Vigouroux, F.; 5 vols.; Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1895–1912) 2.1027–9.

21 In b. Pesah. 65a, this social-economic reality is explicitly recognized: ‘The world cannot exist without a perfume maker and without a tanner’.

22 Krauss, Talmudische Archäologie, 2.626 n. 82, cites m. Shabb. 1.2, along with Sifre Deut Pisqa 258; b. Ber. 22b and 25b, as proof that tanneries were ‘unrein’. In reality none of these passages make such a claim. M. Shabb. 1.2 only states that one should not enter a tannery (or a bathhouse) if it is near the time of the afternoon prayer, presumably because transactions carried therein could extend and prevent the Jewish person from praying at the proper time. The same mishnah also commands Jews not to sit down before the barber nor to begin a meal or decide a legal suit near this time of prayer. None of this has to do with purity.

23 The processing of skin was important for the production of many other applications (m. Kel. 26.5). See further Krauss, Talmudische Archäologie, 2.259 and Reed, Ancient Skins, Parchments and Leathers, 86–8. On p. 94, Reed highlights the honorable contribution on the part of Jewish tanners, but unfortunately thinks that the profession was ritually defiling (without citing one text to prove his point), and finally gets carried away when he states that ‘the New Testament statement that Peter was living with a tanner (Acts ix, 43) is probably an indication of how far, by aligning himself with the Gentiles and Christians, he had moved away from Jewish orthodoxy’. He is also mistaken in claiming that ancient Jews generally avoided processing skins and preferred that Gentiles handle this work. At least during the Middle Ages many Jews worked as tanners. See M. Lamed, ‘Leather Industry and Trade’, EJ 12.574–7. We also know of at least one rabbinic sage who was a tanner (b. Shabb. 49 a–b; without any negative comments pronounced against the trade). The only passage Reed cites to justify his point is taken from m. Shabb. 1.8, which hardly speaks on behalf of a Jewish preference for a Gentile handling of skins. The passage concerns itself with Sabbath halakah: a Jew may not give a hide to a Gentile tanner on a Friday (not on the Sabbath as Reed misinterprets this passage!) if there is not enough time before sunset for the work to be completed. This halakah only forbids Jews to ask Gentiles to begin a work task on a Friday that will continue into the Sabbath. Therefore, the passage tells us nothing about a general Jewish reluctance to engage in tanning.

24 John Barclay raises a very important question when he asks me whether there is any information about who took the skin/hide off an animal in antiquity. Was it the job of a tanner or was it done before the hide arrived at a tannery? I can only offer some preliminary remarks on this issue based in part on Krauss's observations (the recent Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine [Oxford: Oxford University, 2010], does not deal specifically with tanning). Krauss, Talmudische Archäologie, 2.259, first remarks that in peasant economies, skins of animals, whether domestic or wild, must have been readily available to people who skinned them themselves for personal use as rugs, covers, and so on (see m. Kel. 26.8: hides belonging to a household; b. Shabb. 79a: distinguishing between dressed and undressed hides). Nevertheless, many of the local people would probably have handed their hides to tanners for further processing and resale. Some rabbinic passages presume this practice (e.g., m. Shabb. 1.8: handing a hide to a Gentile tanner). Most importantly, Krauss claims that it was the task of handlers, who probably also flayed the animals, to provide tanners with hides: ‘Noch ehe das Fell zum Gerber kam, war es Gegenstand des Handels von Leuten (sie hießen גלדאי), die mitunter so zahlreich in einem Orte ansässig waren, daß man eine Gasse nach ihnen benannte. Vielleicht haben wir die berufsmäßigen Abdecker oder Schinder in ihnen zu erkennen, die wegen des üblen Geruches, den ihre Ware verbreitete, nur unter sich und außerhalb der Stadt wohnen durften’ (pp. 259–60). If Krauss is correct, it would mean that tanners would normally not have dealt with the process of slaughtering and flaying animals, which would have been done beforehand by farmers, hunters, traders, or other people. This would mean that tanners would normally not have to handle carcasses, making the contraction of impurity even less likely. On the other hand, depending on the quality of the work of the flayer, some flesh could have still adhered to the hide and made it impure if the hide stemmed from a carcass (and the flesh exceeded the size of a bulk of an olive, all of this at least according to rabbinic standards). I imagine that tanners could also slaughter and flay the animals on certain occasions, but probably they focused on performing their professional specialization: dressing hides. On a rabbinic discussion about how much of the skin from a carcass must be flayed in order to not convey ritual impurity, see m. Hul. 9.3. In a personal communication, Michael Greene, from Bradley University, points out that the open air market of Madrid, called ‘El Rastro’ (‘the trail’), is located near the site of earlier abattoirs and tanneries (the ‘Ribera de Curtidores’, in English, ‘The Riverside of Tanneries’). Apparently, its name derives from the trail of blood that marked the path from the slaughter houses to the tanneries.

25 Cf. m. Mikv. 5.4: ‘All seas are valid as an Immersion-pool (Mikweh)’.

26 Author's translation: אמר ר' שמעון יכולני להאכיל את הכהנים טהרות בבורסקי שבצדון ושבעירות שבלבנוב מפני שסמוכין לים או לנהר. Krauss, Talmudische Archäologie, 2.260, refers to this passage as ‘eine alte positive Nachricht von einer Gerberei’. This intriguing passage has some textual problems. See Lieberman, S., Tosefeth Rishonim: A Commentary (4 vols.; New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1999 [Hebrew]) 3.153–4. Although the discussion is purely theoretical, it is telling that this toseftan passage initially considers tanneries as a convenient location for maintaining purity because of their location near bodies of natural water. Cf. m. Ohalot 18.6: ‘If a man went through the country of the gentiles in hilly or rocky country, he becomes unclean; but if by the sea or along the strand he remains clean. What is “the strand”? Any place over which the sea rolls during a storm’. It is surprising, therefore, to see in his translation of this toseftan passage, Windfuhr, Walter, Die Tosefta: Band 6, Seder Toharot. 8. Heft, Ahilot/Negaim (ed. Kittel, Gerhard and Karl H. Rengstorf; Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1956) 327 n. 10, triumphantly declare (following Rengstorf) that ‘Apg 9, 43 berichtet von einem längeren Aufenthalt des Petrus im Hause eines Gerbers Simon in Joppe (Jaffa)—ein angesichts der Reinheitsvorschriften offenbar für traditionell-fromme Juden höchst anstößiges Verhalten, deshalb aber nicht weniger bemerkenswert als Zeichen der Freiheit der jüdischen Christen von der Tradition!’ Referencing m. Shabb. 1.2 and m. B. Bat. 2.9, Windfuhr claims that tanning was ritually defiling. But as I argued above neither of these two passages speaks of such a thing.

27 Because of the low status associated with the profession and their limited rights during the Middle Ages, many Jews worked as tanners. See Lamed, ‘Leather Industry and Trade’, EJ 12.574–7.

28 Correctly, Schneider, Gerhard, Die Apostelgeschichte (2 vols.; HTKNT 5; Freiburg: Herder, 1980–1982) 2.53 n. 67. Simon was one of the most common Jewish names in antiquity. See Williams, M. H., ‘Palestinian Jewish Personal Names in Acts’, The Book of Acts in its Palestinian Setting (ed. Bauckham, R.; vol. 4 of the The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting; ed. B. W. Winter; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) 93. It would seem rather odd for Luke simply to invent this character out of thin air for no reason. Hence, most commentators view this reference as part of tradition, but as Barrett, C. K., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (2 vols.; ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994) 1.486, points out, the traditional status of the name and profession does not prove the historicity of the event.

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