Paul describes a meeting in Jerusalem with the Pillars of the Church in Galatians 2:4-5. It appears the meeting was to be a private meeting between Paul, Barnabas and Titus and the three leaders of the Jerusalem church, Peter, James the Lord’s brother, and John. But there is another party at the meeting described by Paul as “false brothers.” Paul is clear on the intentions of these “false brothers.” They have spied on the meeting with the intention of imposing Law on the Gentiles.
The language Paul uses is military and political. These false brothers are “undercover agents and conspirators” (Witherington, Galatians, 136). It seems most likely that the false brothers are similar to the “men from James” mentioned in Galatians, or the priests and Pharisees mentioned in Acts 15:1. They are Jewish believers who understand the church as a reform movement within Judaism. Whoever these people were, they found a way to sit in on the meeting between Paul and the Apostles with the intention of causing trouble for Paul. That they intend to “bring us into slavery” indicates that they will insist that Gentiles be circumcised if they are to be full members of the messianic community.
In his commentary, Witherington asks “Who would have insisted Titus submit to circumcision?” Someone was arguing for conversion of the Gentiles to Judaism, including full obedience to the Law. If they are accepting the gospel by faith just like Abraham, then they ought to be circumcised just like Abraham.
There was an internal debate within Judaism concerning Gentile conversion. This debate is illustrated by the story of Helena, queen of Adiabene, and her son Izates, who “changed their course of life, and embraced the Jewish customs” (Josephus, Antiq. 20.2.4). In this story, Izates feels he ought to be circumcised in order to be a “true convert.” Two rabbis turn up to give him advice, one insisting on circumcision, the other arguing that in some cases circumcision would not be required.
Another factor is the importance of circumcision during the Maccabean revolt. The Maccabees insisted on circumcision as a clear boundary marker of what it meant to be Jewish. They took this to the extreme of forcibly circumcising children when their parents did not keep the tradition. The early, Jewish Christian movement had extremely vibrant messianic hopes. Acts 2 and 3 indicates that they really expected the messiah to return almost immediately. If that was the case, it is possible that some within that community would have seen an uncircumcised Gentile as a threat to the purity of the community.
What is odd is that this issue only came up some 14 years after Paul’s conversion. Dunn suggests that the first Gentile converts (like Cornelius) were God-fearers and therefore already more or less an “exception” in the synagogue (Beginning at Jerusalem, 445-6). They were already keeping most of the boundary markers and were likely as ritually pure as any of the Jewish members of the synagogue, with the exception of circumcision.
As long as there were a few, exceptional Gentile converts, the issue was unlikely to come up. But as the more Gentiles came into the church, Jewish thinkers began to wonder about their status before God – are they really part of the messianic community if they are not circumcised? Going beyond Dunn, it is possible that the story of Izates and the debate over his own circumcision is a model for the debate within the emerging church. Some, like Paul, insisted that circumcision was not required for Gentiles, while others (the pharisees in Acts 15:1, possibly James) insisted that it was.
What set Paul apart from the Apostles was that he was commissioned to go directly to the Gentiles. This means that he was targeted non-God-Fearing Gentiles, real pagans, so to speak. If Cornelius was not compelled to be circumcised because he was close enough to Judaism, what about someone like Titus? He was not eating kosher already when he came to Christ, nor was he keeping Sabbath. He is not circumcised, and Paul did not think that he should be.