Issues at the Jerusalem Council: Circumcision

Circumcision was a major factor in Jewish identity. For many in the Greco-Roman world, it was circumcision which set the Jews apart, usually for ridicule.  Marital, for example, seems to find a great deal of humor in the Jewish practice (Epigrams 7.35.3-4; 7,82, 11.94.  Some of Marital’s comments on circumcision are so crude the original Loeb translators did not translate them into English so as not to offend sensitive readers, choosing instead to translate them into Italian.  A new edition of Marital has been produced for the Loeb series by D. R. Shackleton Baily which not only translates these epigrams, but seems to strive to offend!)  All Jewish males were circumcised on the eighth day, a practice noted in the New Testament (Lk. 2:21;   Phil.  3:5).  There was some question as to the need for circumcision when a Gentile converted to Judaism. One of the first major controversies of the early church concerned the practice of Gentile circumcision, indicating the very close alignment of the earliest Christianity and Judaism.

The practice of circumcision itself is not unique to the Jews in the Ancient world, although some of the traditions based on the Old Testament are specifically Jewish.  Circumcision is given as a sign of the Covenant of Abraham in Genesis 17.  All male members of Abraham’s household are to be circumcised, those that wish to be joined to Abraham’s family must be circumcised (see Genesis 34, for example.)  While the practice of circumcision was common in Ancient Israel, the ritual itself did not confer “spiritual blessing” as a sign of the covenant.  For this reason the prophets told the people that they needed a “circumcised heart – clearly a metaphorical use of the idea of circumcision (Deut. 10:16, 30:6; Jer 4:4; Ezek 44:7, 9).

Since Greek sports were preformed in the nude and much of cultured society revolved around the gymnasium, it was difficult for a circumcised Jew to participate without being exposing themselves to ridicule.  Many Jews simply refused to participate, others either did not circumcise their children so that they could participate in Greek culture.  Some chose to submit to an extremely painful procedure to reverse their circumcision.

There is strong evidence that during the intertestamental period and into the first century, at least part of the Jews thought that circumcision was required for the convert to Judaism.  See, for example, Schiffman in Jewish and Christian Self-Definition Volume 2 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 115-156, especially 125-127.  Schiffman discusses a text in the Talmud ( Yebamot 46) and the importance of the Izates story in Josephus.   In Josephus Antiquities 20.2.4 we read the story of  Helena, queen of Adiabene, and her son Izates, who “changed their course of life, and embraced the Jewish customs.” What is interesting here is that Izates desires zealously to embrace Judaism, and decides to be circumcised.  Helena and the Jewish Ananias tries to dissuade him on the grounds that he is a king, and the people will not accept the rule of a king that practices a foreign religion. Ananias seems to be arguing that if there is a mortal danger, circumcision can be ignored (if the person as a hemophiliac, for example.)  Since allowing himself to be circumcised bight lead to the rebellion of his people and the loss of his and his family’s life, Ananias recommends that he not be circumcised. After Izates decides to forgo circumcision, another Jew Eleazar, described as being “extremely strict” with respect to the Law, tells Izates that he is breaking the Law if he does not submit to circumcision. Izates does immediately receive circumcision, and Josephus tells us that God preserves him in the dangers he faces later in life because he obeyed the Law fully!

In the Loeb Edition of Josephus there is a lengthy footnote on this story. A few scholars have drawn attention to the fact that the debate between Ananias and Eleazar reflects the two schools of rabbinic thought in the first century, that of Hillel and Shammai, with respect to circumcision.  In Talmud Yebamot 46 a there is a description of a Rabbi Joshua who taught that only baptism was necessary for a Gentile convert, and the Rabbi Eleazar who argued that circumcision was necessary for the Gentile convert.  J. Klausner argued that the dichotomy between Joshua and Eleazar is similar to that of Paul/Barnabas and Peter/James (as suggested by J. Klausner, From Jesus to Paul (1943), 39-40),  but this may be reading the Paul / Peter relationship as a strict dichotomy alá Bauer.
Does the story of Izates indicate that Hellenistic Jews were more liberal on circumcision than Palestinian Jews?  Assuming that Ananias is a Hellenistic Jew and Eleazar is a Palestinian Jew, Schiffman (127) notes that the argument has been made that Hellenistic Jews did not require circumcision. But this is not the case since Ananias never argues that circumcision for a convert is not required, but that in this case there is an acceptable and legal “out” of Izates that will perhaps preserve his life.  Josephus’ comments at the end of the story make it clear that he approves of Izates’ decision to be circumcised. This brief survey indicates that the practice of circumcision was one of the most important issues to Jews of the first century.  Even for a Gentile convert, circumcision was required in order to be part of the “people of God.”

A Brief bibliography: Thomas Schriener, “Circumcision” in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, 137-139; Robert G. Hall, “Circumcision”, in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1:1025-1031; Raymond E. Brown, “Not Jewish and Gentile Christianity But Types of Jewish/Gentile Christianity” CBQ 45 (1983) 74–79; J. M. Sasson, “Circumcision in the Ancient Near East” JBL 85 (1966) 473–76.

15 thoughts on “Issues at the Jerusalem Council: Circumcision

  1. Although there are really no questions to respond to in this post, much can be said regarding the interesting and educational, to say the least, nature of the previous findings on circumcision. Indeed it was a key issue at the Jerusalem council and receives significant weight in Polhill’s writings: “Jewish distinctives were seen as sheer superstition by the Greeks and Romans. Particularly signaled out was the Jewish insistence on three things: circumcision, their strict Sabbath observance and their food laws…” (107). The previous post of Izates (however accurate it may be) actually demonstrates that some Hellenists found these practices essential to conversion rather than ‘sheer superstition.’ However, with regards to circumcision, Polhill seems to argue that this was one of the easiest issues taken care of at the Jerusalem council; the table fellowship was more difficult to resolve. “Paul and Barnabas attested to God’s presence in their mission to the Gentiles. That established the basic evidence that in Christ God was accepting the Gentiles as part of his people. Peter established the basic principle that Gentiles should remain Gentiles when they converted to Christianity. They should not have to be circumcised or live by the Jewish law.” (114). It is interesting to find that these two schools of thought, Hillel and Shammai, both appear to influence the time period after the Jerusalem Council even following the issues decided with such finality. The requirements and consequent freedom from circumcision for the Gentile clearly spread throughout the early churches, yet how much evidence is there regarding the freedom from circumcision?

  2. At the beginning stages of Christianity, believers were mainly Jewish with a minority of Gentiles. Gentile converts looked to a Jewish Old Testament to understand the history of man’s condition and the promise of a messiah. It makes sense that the Gentiles were dependent on the Jews for help in understanding the history behind His-Story. A Gentile convert also needed to figure out how this new found belief should be applied. They looked for distinctions between their old life and the new life. To the Jews, one of the chief symbols of distinction between the people of God and pagans was circumcision. However, “to insist that Gentiles undergo Jewish proselyte procedure was to insist that one had to become a Jew first in order to be a Christian. To do so would have guaranteed that Christianity would remain a sect within Judaism and never have any real impact on Gentiles” (106). The reason the impact would be lost is because the new belief was not under the law, but under grace. If the agenda of circumcision would have continued to be pressed, the result would be a failure to see Christ’s payment on the cross and the gift of salvation extended to Gentiles.

    • This brief survey indicates that the practice of circumcision was one of the most important issues to Jews of the first century. Even for a Gentile convert, circumcision was required in order to be part of the “people of God.”

      It is interesting to say the least on the approach of Polhill’s concerning Judaism. If you look at Paul’s Epistles (Rom 3, Eph 2, Galts 2,5, I and II Tim) you can clearly see that it becomes one of the central issues/themes in each of his books. Paul even references circumcision, that one will be able to tell you are a Christian because of the circumcision of the heart. All this to say, circumcision is indeed a central issue for Jews and even Gentiles.

      Polhill also brings up that Greeks were very much into sports, and back then sports were played in the nude. You could definitely tell who was a Jew and who wasn’t, so it seems critical for being ‘set apart.”

    • I was also planning on using the quote, or at least the idea from page 106, so i figured I would piggy back off Zach’s post. One of the things that Polhill points out is that many of the Jewish Christians of the day viewed Christianity as a sub-division of Judaism. “What distinguished Christians from other Israelites was their belief in Jesus as Messiah. But in all other respects they were still Jews” (106). So he points out that the next step is logical. Since it is a section of Judaism, those who convert should be required to maintain the Jewish laws and traditions.

      However, that defeats the whole purpose of Christianity. After hundreds of years of failing to completely fulfill the law, a solution came in the form of a savior. So the point that Polhill makes, and Zach reemphasizes, is that these Jewish Christians were defeating ‘saved by grace alone.’ They were saying that you had to become a Jew before you could become a Christian, and therefore the message of grace was defeated.

      • I agree with you all. Paul was defending the “salvation by grace through faith”. His message was to the Gentiles and he was not making them do anything to earn salvation. He did have to defend the Gentiles and make sure that they did not have to be circumcised or follow the law to be saved.

        One question that I have and would love to discuss is how baptism plays a role in this? Yes! I know, I said the word, but I know that when we talk about baptism it has definite Jewish roots and was something the Jews did as a rite to be cleansed. If this is so, how is it that we imagine that when Paul went to the Gentiles he made them ignore circumcision but not baptism, if they were both rites done by Jews? Isnt this a bit hypocritical? And what about the passage that speaks about Paul not being sent to baptize (1 Cor. 1:17)? What do we do with this?

    • I like what Zach has to say about the Gentiles looking for distinctions between their old life and new life and how the Jews naturally would have said circumcision. This made me think of how hard it must have been for Gentile believers during that time period. Think about it. The Jews had always had the Torah to look to for guidance in their life. The proselytes also had that. Now here are the Gentile Christians, I think it would have been natural for them to try to look at the Torah for guidance or as Zach said to the Jews (who would get it from the Torah). I may very well be wrong, but I imagine it was relief and shock at the same time when they were told they did not have to follow the Law. Think about it. What do we tell new Christians to do once they are saved? We instruct them to read the scriptures to learn and grow and for guidance. Much of the instruction they receive is from the New testament–which wasn’t written yet. I know there were other things the new believers could read and learn from, yet I feel there still may have been some uncertainty on my part had I been amongst them.

  3. Circumcision was kind of a big deal during Paul’s period. The Jews thought that the Gentile needed to be circumcised if they were going to “join” the Christian faith. The made it a priority. I do not believe that the Gentiles needed to be circumcised. I think that the Jews were living in sin for thinking that that was part of the faith. Paul preached about justification by faith. That is what was important. If you had faith in Jesus and you “asked Him into your heart”. That is what is important and nothing else. But the Jews made it a bigger issue that what it needed to be. I think that Christians do that today also, but only with other issues that are not relevant. We almost make salvation a work salvation. That is not how God wanted it to be. It is free for everyone. God wanted everyone to come to Him so He made it easy, we just have to have faith. That is how it was then, and how it is still now.

  4. Polhill really brought this issue of circumcision into perspective for me (106-107). I did no understand the cultural differences at first. I understood the Jewish perspective because I have read the books of the law and understood that they were following the act of circumcision out of an act of obedience to God as a sign of separation from the rest of the nations. For the Gentiles it was an ritual of ignorance and was the but of jokes. The act of circumcision is also very painful. For a gentile they would be ostracized by the rest of the community. The games and the bathhouses would become a place to avoid instead of a place of fellowship and enjoyment.

  5. If we look at christians today many of them go to church on Sunday and then deny him the rest of the week by their lifestyle. If I had a physical mark on me that I was a Christian and then I went and tried to lead a worldly lifestyle I would be chastised by both christians and non-christians. But as christians we do not get any badge that marks us as christian except the testimony we have. Circumcision is now of the heart. What a crutch this would be. Again if all christians wore a big T-Shirt that said “hey I am a christian!” most would take pause before doing something compramising. Without anything to seperate them the Christians had to trust by faith that they would not be wiped out completly without a mark to tell everyone who they were. Circumcision was a crutch of the law. Fruit is the mark of a circumcised heart.

  6. To even consider needing a mark as a Christian is foolish at best. An intimate relationship with God is not a relationship that you tote around with a highschool metality, something of the irrelevancy and immaturity of project a highschool-dating relationship to your friends. An intimate relationship with God does not have a distinct mark in the least bit, but simultaneously is undeniable in observation. To live a life of just action and righteous integrity in heart and mind will be the “circumcision” that too many people are worried about in their Christian lives. Honestly, there is no reason to say that having a mark as being Christian is even considerable in the realm of logic.

  7. I’m not sure I’m ready to revisit this topic. This is so what I get for posting “after the fact”…

    …yup, definitive decision has been reached…NOT posting. I’m now ueber bored with the topic…sorry.

    besides, everybody else already did such a good job!

  8. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    There is a movement of Jews who are questioning circumcision, and working to end this abuse of children. The movement ranges from the Orthodox to the secular, and includes mothers, fathers, scholars, historians, medical professionals, activists, and intellectuals.

    🙂 The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 1

    🙂 The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 2

    🙂 Jews Speak Out in Favor of Banning Circumcision on Minors


  9. ………….. There is a movement of Jews who are questioning circumcision, and working to end this abuse of children. The movement ranges from the Orthodox to the secular, and includes mothers, fathers, scholars, historians, medical professionals, activists, and intellectuals.

    Jewish Groups for Genital Integrity

    Circumcision: A Jewish Feminist Perspective by Miriam Pollack

    Jewish Intactivist Miriam Pollack has some great commentary on Foreskin Man in this recent interview.

    Jews Speak Out in Favor of Banning Circumcision on Minors

    * Brit Shalom Celebrants by Mark D. Reiss, M.D.

    * Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective by Ron Goldman, Ph.D.

    * The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 1 …………………………….

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