In Acts 10 it states:
1 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. 2 He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. (NIV)
Roman soldiers of this period (Augustus through to Septimus Severus [193-211 CE]) were prohibited from marrying [“The men serving in the army, since they could not legally have wives, were granted the privileges of married men.” Cassius Dio 60.24.3] This view seems further supported by the Cattaoui papyrus, which records law cases in Roman Imperial Egypt.
This raises the question who are the οἴκῳ of verse 2? Are these an illicit family, thus raising questions of “devout and God-fearing;” or are they merely servants and retainers? If the former does indicate that since such non-married living and family arrangements were unofficially sanctioned by Rome, that Cornelius’ situation was an application of Acts 17:30 being in play, that his ignorance was overlooked until his repentance?
It seems while the later case may have its merits, that the former is the more biblically sound, as that even if sin was being “winked at” to a Gentile of the time, it seems inconsistent that the inspired word of God would still style him as “devout and God-fearing.”
I have discussed this with some knowledgeable men, and find the best answer to be the former, that the οἴκῳ are not “family” but “household,” which could include brothers, sisters, and even a widowed mother, as well as servants.
One of my advisors on this supported the view by noting that “According to ancient Roman laws of inheritance (1):
When a man died, a certain person or certain persons succeeded to all his property, under the name of heres or heredes … (a)
If a man had a son in his power, he was bound either to make him heres, or to exheredate (exheredare) him expressly (nominatim) … (b)
Therefore, “the οἴκῳ of verse 2 may simply have been the estate that came into Cornelius’ possession by inheritance, and of which he was then the recognised head.”
(1) A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875. – William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D. (a) p 598 (first paragraph) (b) p 600 (last paragraph)
An Eastern Orthodox commentator concluded (as I myself surmised) “Those living in the Centurion’s house could very well have been servants and not immediate family. (In the Orthodox Christian Synaxaria – e.g. Simonas Petra volumes, Prologue of Ohrid, Lives of Sergius of Radonezh – there is no account of his having been married).”
Therefore we can conclude that, in Acts 10 we do indeed find a “devout and God-fearing” man. One who while many of his Roman peers flouted the military marriage laws, he was a model of righteousness (and of good works). He is for us an example, not of mindful sinfulness awaiting repentance, but of a seeker after God awaiting a Saviour.