Acts 15 – Why was Circumcision So Important?

Circumcision was a major factor in Jewish identity. While the practice of circumcision itself is not unique to the Jews in the Ancient world, although some of the traditions based on the Hebrew Bible are specifically Jewish.  Circumcision is given as a sign of the Covenant of Abraham in Genesis 17, yet 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).

There is strong evidence that during the Second Temple 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 Talmud Yebamot 46 and the importance of the Izates story in Josephus Antiq. 20.2.4).

For the Jew, circumcision was one of a handful of important boundary markers which set them apart from the rest of the world.  For the Gentile, circumcision was a strange mutilation of the flesh.  Greco-Roman writers who comment on Judaism usually ridicule the practice.  Marital, for example, seems to find a great deal of (naughty) humor in the Jewish practice (Epigrams 7.35.3-4; 7,82, 11.94).

It is not the case that Paul rejected circumcision for Gentile converts because it would result in more Gentile converts.  Some have taken Paul’s stand on the Law as motivated by practical missionary concerns.  In this view, Paul considered circumcision such a road -block to Gentile mission that he rejected in order to reach the pagan world.  As an analogy, the evangelical Christian church has more or less accepted rock-styled praise bands as necessary to appeal to the modern world.  Most churches have (rightly) rejected the idea that worship music must be played only on a proper pipe-organ.  In most cases, this shift in worship style is motivated by a desire to do evangelism in a contemporary context, to provide more meaningful worship to the younger generations, etc.  Paul did more or less the same thing, it is argued, in rejecting the so-called strange elements of Judaism for his Gentile churches.

Church SteelpeSuch a view makes light of the practice of circumcision in the first century.  If circumcision was given by God as the sign of Abraham’s covenant, how could Paul reject it as inconsequential?  Paul does not merely call circumcision for Gentiles meaningless, he says it is dangerous.  If one allows himself to be circumcised, he is in danger of nullifying the grace of God! (See Gal 1:6-9, for example.)  Paul arrives in Jerusalem in Acts 15 convinced that any Law added to the Gospel is no gospel at all, including circumcision.  Whatever God is doing among the Gentiles in Asia Minor (Acts 14), there is no conversion to Judaism.

Eckhard Schnabel makes this point in Paul the Missionary in the context of the book of Galatians (126): “Paul insists that the Gentiles do not have to become Jews before they are accepted by God as followers of the Messiah” (emphasis added).  The  Gentile believer is therefore not a member of “new Israel” being formed in Jerusalem, but something new altogether.  Later, Paul will call this new people of God the “body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27; Eph 3:1-6).

12 thoughts on “Acts 15 – Why was Circumcision So Important?

  1. Some years ago the full impact of Col 2:11 dawned on me. The circumcision of the Gentiles is in the death of Jesus. That makes circumcision a type of death – a miniature of death. In view of the tendency to the abuse of power in the male, this seems a fitting aspect of the rite, the voluntary putting off of domination, and a submission to the death spoken of in Adam.

    • Good question, and I will probably post something about this later (act surprised). I think that Paul was negative on circumcision for Gentiles, but not necessarily for Jews. Titus is used as an example in Galatians of a Gentile who was not compelled be circumcised by the Jerusalem community. Timothy, however, was an uncircumcised Jew. His father was a Gentile, but his mother was Jewish. It is possible that Paul could have overlooked this as pointless, but if Timothy accompanied Paul in his synagogue teaching, then Timothy’s non-compliance would be an issue.

      BTW, Richard Fellows has an interesting theory that Titus and Timothy are the same person, I’ll let him share links if he happens to notice the thread. If this is the case, then what I said above is problematic. (I do not happen to agree with Richard on this, but it is a unique way of handling the problem of Titus’s absence in Acts.)

      • Phillip, as I have mentioned before, Cohen has shown that Timothy’s official classification was Gentile. However, he was surely the most Jewish of Gentiles. Titus was also a Gentile and, like Timothy, he was uncircumcised at the time of Paul’s Jerusalem visit. Paul says not even Titus … was circumcised, perhaps indicating that Titus was the most Jewish of Gentiles. Paul also says “he with me being Greek”, and this could mean that Titus was able to move in both Greek and Jewish circles but on this occasion presented himself as a Greek.

        It is often suggested that Gal 5:11 shows that the circumcision of Timothy had caused the agitators to claim that Paul had yielded to their view of circumcision. This combines nicely with Acts 16:1-3 and Gal 2:3-5, where Paul seems to be saying that he circumcised Titus-Timothy just because the agitators found out (through spying) that Titus-Timothy was uncircumcised, and not because he had yielded the principle. In short, Gal 5:11 and 2:4-5 are Paul’s response to the rumor that his circumcision of Titus-Timothy showed that he supported circumcision.

        Phillip, why do you not agree that Titus was Timothy? You can find a summary of the evidence here.

        If I remember rightly, you believe that the Paul of Galatians would not have circumcised a Gentile, however Jewish that Gentile was, so you see Timothy instead as a very Gentile Jew. We have to take into account that Paul wrote Galatians to refute the view that he believed in circumcision. His uncompromising stance in the letter is over-statement that was necessary, lest his readers believe that he was just following the (Jerusalem) party line and did not actually believe what he was writing. When we see Galatians as corrective, the Paul that emerges is not as uncompromising as previously supposed, and it is not so surprising that he would circumcise a very Jewish Gentile.

  2. I think that Paul goes about the subject of circumcision in a good way. It is really confusing to me when Paul said to the Gentiles that the act of circumcision is dangerous, and he said if they become circumcised then Christ is of no value to them (Gal. 5:2). If Circumcision is really important, which it is, then why would Paul criticize and reject it? In Galatians 6, Paul doesn’t really criticize circumcision, but rather tells a reason why it is dangerous, “Yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh” (6:13). After that Paul said that being circumcised or uncircumcised means nothing, which is kind of saying there isn’t a difference, they both are meaningless and “what counts is new creation.” I think this is part of where Schnabel is saying that Paul told them that they didn’t have to be circumcised. I think what Schnabel is saying is key. Just like how we would not start talking about baptism or other controversial topics to non-believers, Paul was against encouraging circumcision because it’s not “what counts.” The subject of the law and convictions we have can distract and divide believers and non-believers, the ultimate point is Christ. I still wonder though, why does Paul pretty much threaten the thought of being circumcised? I feel like he could have put more emphasis on the fact that they don’t need to and it’s about Christ and he that he didn’t have to say it’s bad. I could be wrong though.

  3. The post states that Paul thought of circumcision as something that was a, “Road block to Gentile missions that he rejected in order to reach the pagan world.” I too think that this is the proper view of Paul’s stance on circumcision because after reading Acts 15 it is obvious to see that Paul and the other Apostles do not necessarily think that circumcision is wrong. Instead they believe that Gentiles should focus on other things in order to be saved. This is because in Acts 15:28-29, they talk about laying a greater “burden” on the Gentiles other than circumcision. They talk about how instead the Gentiles should abstain from immoral things in order to be saved and live a life after Christ. I think that the apostles have the correct view of circumcision, because they are not focused on the small rituals that before Christ were so important. But now because of Christ like the post says there is “something new altogether,” and the apostles recognize that living a life after Christ is what the Gentiles should be focused on instead of circumcision. In addition, similar to the post I too think that Paul’s view of circumcision was related to missions, because he knew that in order to reach the Gentiles he would have to reject it. This is because Paul primarily felt called to reach the Gentiles and he knew that circumcision was a “Road block” that stood in the way. I too think that the modern day church realizes that music and ways of presenting the gospel can hinder missions. This is because like the post talks about there are few churches that feel the need to use organs and old music to reach the younger generation. But instead the church has adapted in order to appeal to a younger generation and promote missions to a different crowd, similar to Paul. This is because Paul realized what was truly important – reaching others through missions. He was not set on keeping the old traditions but instead he realized the new has come through Christ.

  4. Acts 15 is an important passage regarding circumcision and the fierce debate whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved (15:1). I can understand that it would be very difficult for Jews to consider the possibility that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised to be saved. As I read in the post, it was a major factor in Jewish identity! I think that it must have become so ingrained in Jewish culture that they must have forgotten that it could mean people needed a “circumcised heart”(Acts 15 post). However, Peter clearly stands upon the idea that it is by grace through which people are saved; not through circumcision (15:11). I liked how Peter scolds the elders by telling them that they are putting God to the test by “placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples” (15:10). I found it very powerful to read that by adding any Law to the Gospel destroyed the message of the Gospel, including the law of circumcision. This goes along with the shift to salvation through Grace; the Gentiles were not converting to Judaism and thus the Law, but rather were becoming saved into the Body of Christ.

  5. It seems to me that Paul is simply rejecting legalism. He is throwing away old traditions to clear the path for salvation. Paul makes it quite clear that salvation is not works based. Only through acceptance of what Christ did can you be saved. In many ways, today’s Church has lost sight of that. At the same time though, we are taking steps in the right direction. You mentioned music as an example of this. Another example would be not shunning tattoos and piercings. A good amount of evangelical churches are starting to accept these things and that is allowing us to reach more people. The sooner we all get on board with this the better!!

  6. Paul makes circumcision seem like a very confusing topic. Some should be circumcised while others don’t need to be. I really think what Paul tries to get across is not whether circumcision is bad or not but that it is not required that you follow the law to follow Christ. You are saved by grace but then faith without works is dead. That being said, you need to work towards being Christ-like. Like Chris said, Paul does seem to be rejecting legalism by saying the old traditions are no longer necessary to be saved. However, I think that Paul says that circumcision is not a negative thing in itself but as anything, worshiping the practice can be harmful.

    And I did it again. I posted as GMI when i meant to post as Denise VanBeek. Could you please delete the previous post?

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