The First Controversy – Circumcision

The first major controversy the early church had to contend with strikes the modern reader a bit strange.  Rather than debating who Jesus was or beginning to develop the doctrine of the Trinity, the first major theological problem to solve was the status of the Gentile who has put their faith in Jesus.  Are Gentiles converting to Judaism? If so, then at what level ought they keep the Law? Are they “God Fearers”?  Perhaps there is an implied secondary status for the Gentile who believes in Jesus as savior but does not fully convert to Judaism and keep the Law.

Why was circumcision of Gentiles such a controversial issue? In Acts 13-14 Paul begins to have success among Gentiles and establishes several churches that have mixed congregations of Jews and Gentiles. That these churches included some Gentiles who were not previously “God Fearers” seems to be clear from the response Paul gets in Lystra.

GalatiansBased on Galatians, it appears that Paul had taught the Gentiles that they do not have to keep the Jewish Law, especially circumcision.  Undoubtedly this also included food laws and Sabbath worship, the other major boundary markers for Jews living in the Diaspora.  After Paul established these churches and re-visited them once to appoint leaders (Acts 14:21-28), he returned to Antioch and reported that God had “opened a door of faith” among the Gentiles.

Sometime after Acts 14, some teachers arrived in Paul’s Gentile churches and told the Gentiles that they were required to fully convert to Judaism in order to be fully a part of the people of God in the present age. I think that this teaching focused on the boundary markers of food and Sabbath as well, but Galatians and Acts 15 is concern only the practice of circumcision. If Gentiles are going to be considered full participants in the people of God in the present age, they must be Jews; this requires conversion and obedience with the law.

This is no small controversy for several reasons. First, 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!)

Second, Paul argues in Galatians and other letters that the church is neither Jew nor Gentile (Gal 3:28). If Gentiles convert to Judaism, then the church is Jewish; if a Jew rejects the Law and acts like a Gentile, then the church is “Gentile.” Paul’s point is that there is something different than Judaism happening in the present age, the “church” is not a form of Judaism, nor is it a Gentile mystery religion. The church in Paul’s view transcends ethnicity (neither Jew or Gentile), gender (neither male or female) and social boundaries (neither slave nor free).

For Paul, if the Gentiles are forced to keep the Jewish boundary markers, then they have converted to Judaism and they are not “in Christ.”  This view would have been radical in the first century, and it still is difficult for Christians two thousand years later.  One does not “act like a Christian” to be right with God, any more than one “acted like a Jew” in the first century to be right with God.

12 thoughts on “The First Controversy – Circumcision

  1. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male of female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28). I really like how it is stated in the second part of Paul’s argument in Galatians that “If Gentiles convert to Judaism, then the church is Jewish; if a Jew rejects the Law and acts like a Gentile, then the church is “Gentile.” I never really thought of the church in that aspect. Looking at the aspect that the church is far beyond whether or not you are Jew of Gentile, male or female, or slave or free, really makes me think of how in today’s society, and even in the church we judge people because of race, ethnicity, or any other life factors, but we can clearly see that even back in the time of Paul writing
    Galatians, that as the body of Christ, and as the church we need to not let those things get in the way of our ministry, and we need to be more focused on reaching out to those who are different from us, and not let the judgements of the world get in the way of what God has called us to do.

  2. What interests me about the shift between Paul witnessing to the Jews and then later witnessing more to the Gentiles, is the change in the so-called ‘rules’. Polhill says, “Their (Paul and Barnabas) ‘turning to the Gentiles’ probably involved more than the ethnic composition of their new witness. it involved the manner of Gentile inclusion as well. No longer bound to the synagogue protocol regarding proselytes and God-fearers, Paul seems to have abandoned circumcision and the restrictive aspects of the Jewish law as requirements for Gentile converts” (Polhill 105). At what point did it become okay to leave the rules behind that were followed for so many years? It also interests me, because in that time, abandoning the Jewish law was a huge deal, but Paul did it to reach a new generation, per say, or at least a new group of people. So what does that mean for Christians in this day and age? I hear people talking about how it’s okay to go and swear or drink if it helps reach a group of people to witness to them. I’m not so sure swearing is okay to do because God tells us specifically not to do that, but in Paul’s time, didn’t God want the Jews to follow the certain rules? And yet Paul said the rules weren’t necessary…
    I do not believe the Gentiles were converting to Judaism because that would require that they do follow all of the Jewish law – which they were not. But I do believe that the Gentiles were God-fearers or Christians because if you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and admit that you are a sinner, you will be saved.

  3. I find the rebuke of Peter an interesting tidbit. ” you are a jew, yet you live like a gentile and not like a Jew. how is it, then, that you force gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” polhil 109. Paul seeing this culture in where people have been free from the law saw his brother living in his freedom, possibly eating bacon;yum. that Peter would make others not of the faith hold to the customs he has now stopped following.. This shows there is a lack of one solid church movement within the people as they try to figure out what this Spirit is doing. We have been released from the law and from our sin as a work of God,“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male of female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)

  4. Gentiles are not converting to Judaism in any way at all, the only thing that they are converting to is living like Christ. They weren’t challenged to change what they eat or how they do things outside of living like Christ. The Bible says that there is neither Jew nor Greek, therefore it doesn’t matter which culture they are part of or what culture they decide to stick to and follow, but they are one in Christ. I think the main issue came down to the Jews not comprehending the fact that it isn’t the law by which they are saved but by Christ and His sacrifice. I believe that at first they thought that the gentiles had to convert to their laws and regulations in order to be followers of Christ and to be “true,” “God fearers.”

  5. I find it interesting to put myself in the minds of the Jews at this time demanding gentiles become Jewish first before they become “Christians”, whatever that meant in their day. One of my former professors described this ideal as “gentiles become ‘super-Jews'”. I think that is almost exactly what these Jewish people had in mind. It’s as if the Jews had a certain attitude of entitlement, not entirely without reason, and weren’t really willing to let people join this new religion that was getting its start out of Judaism without jumping through some hoops to remember that “Jews started this”. I think Paul’s argument of “neither Jew nor Gentile”, abolishes that idea. I like the way its stated above that this new religion is something altogether different than anything that had been seen. It would have obviously been hard for Jews to accept that they were not exclusively God’s people anymore, Jesus had brought something entirely new, and now the whole world has the opportunity to join this “family” of faith.

  6. Jews and Gentiles alike, in the 1st century, started believing in Jesus. This did not mean that they converted to either Judaism or a completely new religion. They became Christ-followers. I think that this is important to remember this when thinking about the beginning of the church. It would have been interesting to become a Christian during this time. If you were Jewish, it would have been hard to completely drop the Jewish traditions and laws and live like a Christian. This is why so many Jewish converts to Christianity struggled with the fact that they did not need to be circumcised anymore. It caused disagreement and tension for churches and Christ-followers. For Gentiles it would be hard to figure out what do once they believed, do they begin following the law? Polhill says, “Evidently, very early in his mission Paul abandoned such requirements for his Gentile converts. His own conversion had convinced him that Christ was central and that Christ was for Gentiles as well as for Jews” (Polhill, 107). Gentiles should then change how they lived, to live a life according to how God wants them to. This is still relevant to our lives today. When people become a Christian, they have made the decision to drop their old ways of life and live a life completely for God. 2 Corinthians says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

  7. Interesting and well-put summary, Phillip. First, curious: Who is Marital, when did he write and in what language? Is it a commentary on Josephus or what? (Sorry if he was explained in an earlier post.)

    One other q. as to your own understanding and interpretation of Paul. Do you think he’s saying that his “my gospel” (to me, he takes pains to distinguish it from the overlapping form out of Jerusalem) is the ONLY way to believe in order to be part of the “elect” (a former privilege of being Jewish) and thus a part of God’s kingdom? Or is it merely the BEST way? (If right belief is the key, not right ritualistic actions or status markers, then Paul indeed seems to be asserting his new insights, via revelations, ABOVE the views and practices of even the Jerusalem leaders such as James and Peter… while still grudgingly “submitting” outwardly to them.)

    • Marital is a Roman satirist, writing in Latin, in the latter half of the first century. His twelve books of Epigrams are published after A.D. 83 and contain quite a few references to Jews. I tend to read him more or less like a standup comic, he does comment on social issues, but often in a shocking and bawdy way. He is best sampled for attitudes on the general Roman empire in the last third of the first century, much the way Jerry Seinfeld might reflect America in the 1990s.

      As for Gospel…I suspect that Paul would say it is the only way, if I read Galatians right. He says: If anyone preaches another gospel other than the one I preached to you, let him be accursed! He includes himself in that curse, so if Paul were to have changed his mind about the centrality of Jesus, the cross, grace, etc., he would be departing from the gospel. The pastoral epistles have the same strong emphasis on the tradition that Paul handed down to Timothy as being “the Gospel.”

      Having said that, I do not think that Peter was preaching another Gospel or way of salvation, only that he was preaching that Gospel to Jews (or Hellenistic Jews) and Paul was preaching to Gentiles. My guess is that Paul would have even accepted James in Jerusalem as teaching the same Gospel, albeit to Jewish Christians living out a Jewish life in Christ. The Content of the gospel is the same, the target is different, as is their relationship to the Law.

      • This has been a very interesting read. I can see where this would be a highly debated issue because Christianity did start out as a seemingly Jewish sect, and it would have been confusing to both parties. Should Gentiles keep the same laws that the Jews were keeping while at the same time serving Christ as their Savior. Paul comes in to the discussion in his letters. Galatians 5 talks about how Circumcision would have no value for gentiles, he even says that Christ would be of no value to the Gentiles if they allowed themselves to be Circumcised. This is where the split from traditional Judaism and Christianity starts to form. Gentiles are encouraged not to keep Jewish law, but to follow Christ and his rule.

      • So you apparently see Paul as only (or at least mainly) reacting against other, unable-to-be-identified “apostles” and evangelists who he so roundly opposed and cautioned against? They having arisen within only about 20-25 years, perhaps less… if nothing else, doesn’t that tell us that there were many interpretations on what the life and death of Jesus meant? That there was not really a unified authoritative teaching led by the H.S. (with no more than a few who were supposedly apostate from what the Apostles knew–tho the Gospels make it clear they sure didn’t know much upon Jesus’ death or resurrection or just after). I’m not sure we at all rightly weigh Paul’s clearly more “cosmic/spiritual” emphasis on the role of Christ as seriously contrasting with the role and future expectations re. Christ believed by the Jerusalem leaders.

      • I think I would be happy with the opponents as either Jewish Christians or Jews, especially since Rabbi Saul tried to correct the Hellenistic Jewish Christians in Damascus. As I get into Galatians more in the next two weeks, I will probably say more, but one of their arguments against Paul had to be his lack of credentials from Jerusalem, so that tips me towards Jewish Christians.

      • In reply to your 9-21, 7:58 comment, Phillip. I guess my main point is that we have very little actual in-the-present (or very close to it) info on just how Jesus-as-Messiah or “Jewish Christian” or (Grk/Jewish) Christian theology came about. We can’t even really know (in my view) much about how the predominant Jerusalem form exactly differed from Paul’s. But it does seem Paul felt it did so significantly, perhaps at core rather than just peripherally, although he wanted/needed to build from the authority of the Jeru. group… but apparently without really submitting to it, at least fully.

        I say that because (as you probably know now) I don’t find Luke’s accounting of what happened and why is at all “neutral” (let alone objective, which is only an ideal not fully reachable for any historian). I believe one has to lean to Paul’s version over Luke’s wherever they differ, and take Luke very cautiously where his info is additional…. And that BECAUSE Luke is basically propounding Pauline theology, but trying to harmonize it, and the history, with beliefs/developments in Jerusalem.

        So my larger point, on the question of development of early X’n theology, is that the common orthodox (esp. Evangelical in its various strains) explanation is not warranted from the textual evidence. There is no real evidence of any clearly “revealed” interpretation of Jesus and God’s action in him. There is no indication when or how agreement as well clarity emerged among the Jerusalem group… and then there is Paul and others claiming some form of “gospel” we know little about. But their presence is significant, as is Paul’s opposition to at least Peter, if not the full Jeru. group.

        Paul’s contentions/claims re. “authoritative revelation” are the strongest (partly bec. they are earliest in written form), but his authority (I’d say despite some efforts by Luke) is really separate from James and the Apostles… all but this: their oblique, from-a-distance apparent acceptance of alliance with him and vice-versa. They didn’t (even per Luke) seem to even know WHAT he was really teaching. The thing most clearly apparent re. the period overall, up to and after the Roman war, is that there WAS no clear line of revelation with attending “Holy Spirit authority” until later historians/theologians, beginning with Luke, tried to create such an impression and superimpose it on the past.

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