Acts 16:3 – Was Paul a Hypocrite?

In Acts 16:3, Paul circumcised Timothy, a Hellenistic Jew who begins to travel with Paul during the second missionary journey.  The problem is Paul’s reasons for circumcising Timothy at this time. The whole point of the conference in Acts 15 was to deal with the issue of circumcision for converts. Gentile converts should not be circumcised since they are not under the Mosaic Covenant. One option is to dismiss this story as a fiction created by Luke to create the appearance of unity in the Early Church (F.C. Baur). Since it does not seem likely the Paul of Galatians would have circumcised Timothy, this story is taken as evidence Luke to not know Paul or the letter of Galatians. Or perhaps Paul was just inconsistent in the application of the decision of the council.

Timothy_stained-glassThe traditional answer for this dilemma is rooted in Luke’s description of Timothy’s parents in Acts 16:3. Since his mother was a Jew, his father was a Greek, he would have been considered ethnically Jewish. The ruling that the one’s status as a Jew was traced through the mother’s line dates back to the time of Ezra and the Mishnah includes a similar ruling often dated to the first century (m.Qidd 3:12). While it is not absolutely certain that matrilinear descent was always followed in the first century, there appears to be enough evidence to say that likely was (Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, 664, n.23).

Shaye Cohen has challenged the relevance of these texts and argued Timothy was actually a Gentile who happened to have a Jewish mother (“Was Timothy Jewish (Acts 16:1-3): Patristic Exegesis, Rabbinic Law, And Matrilineal Descent,” JBL 105 [1986]: 251-268). He states “The Roman law of persons is completely irrelevant” for this case since there is no hint either of Timothy’s parents were Roman citizens. The Rabbinic texts often cited cannot be dated to the first century with any certainty. For Cohen, Ezra use of matrilineal descent is not relevant since it is not mentioned again in any Second Temple document other than the implication in Acts 16:3. Even if matrilineal descent was a principle in the first century, there is no evidence Hellenistic Jews in Asia Minor would have recognized it as valid. Finally, Cohen points out that no other New Testament text implies Timothy was a Jew. Even 2 Tim 1:5 does not require Timothy to be Jewish.

Yet Timothy is circumcised in Acts 16:3. I think it is wrong think Timothy was forced to be circumcised. He was complete agreement with Paul on this matter! I suggest that despite Cohen’s objections, from the perspective of the most observant Jew in Asia Minor, Timothy was a Jew, not a Gentile. Luke also tells us the reason Paul circumcised him was pressure from the Jews in Lystra and Iconium. They presumably knew Timothy was not circumcised and they would have made Timothy’s status with respect to the covenant the central issue whenever Paul attempted to preach the Gospel in a Jewish community.

Craig Keener sees this incident as an example of Luke’s literary-theological agenda (3:2321). After achieving unity on the issue of Gentile circumcision, Luke reports Paul did not excuse Jewish Christians from circumcision. Luke intentionally told this story after Acts 15 to emphasize the fact Paul was not a threat to Jewish heritage.

Does Paul do the right thing in requiring Timothy to keep the Law, even though he argues passionately in Galatians that those who are “in Christ” are not “under Law?”

7 thoughts on “Acts 16:3 – Was Paul a Hypocrite?

  1. While reading this post, a passage in 1 Corinthians 8 comes to mind. Throughout the course of the chapter, Paul discusses the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols. On the one hand, Paul says it really doesn’t matter, because we know that there’s only one God, so who cares if this meat was sacrificed in the name of something that doesn’t exist? On the other hand, some people don’t have that knowledge, and seeing a Christian eat this ‘tainted’ meat might trouble their conscience or make them stumble. I’ve heard this passage used to discuss the topic of alcohol before: it may not be a struggle for you to drink responsibly and it might not burden your conscience at all, but if another believer who does struggle with alcohol witnesses you, it could serve as a stumbling block to them. I think the motives behind having Timothy circumcised are similar to this idea. Under this new dispensation, does Timothy have to be circumcised? No. However, Jews that Timothy may minister to in the future may find his uncircumcisedness hard to swallow. I think this is an instance of becoming all things to all people for the sake of the gospel.


  2. I wonder if one can even say that Paul *required* Timothy to submit to circumcision. Like you said in the original post, it seems that Timothy was fully cooperative with Paul, which is especially impressive considering the physical discomfort and social sacrifice that was involved. It seems logical that Timothy would be encouraged toward circumcision since he was part Jewish, whereas a Gentile would have no reason to be circumcised. Although this instance of Paul encouraging Timothy to become circumcised may seem contradictory to his teachings on those who are in Christ being free from the Law, once it is understood in light of the culture it seems much more reasonable. Did Timothy need to be circumcised to be a member of the body of Christ? No. But if it would help maintain unity within the church and potentially lead to even more coming to Christ, it was a sacrifice that Timothy was willing to make.

    ” To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (I Cor 9:22).


  3. I believe the proper way of thinking of this is Timothy was willing to be circumcised for the sake of the gospel. Paul being a Jewish man growing up under Jewish customs and going into cities to reach the Jewish people first had an understanding of what his young friend would need to be in order to not be a hindrance to the ministry. This cultural act should not be seen as hypocritical or even wrong but a part of giving this boy his heritage of being a Jew. Paul is in a strange land between both Jew and gentile where there is a line and its a hard line from place to place. We see in acts 15 with the council arguing about this very matter and they come to the conclusion Jewish people still follow the signs of the covenant such as ritual circumcision.


  4. Paul wasn’t a hypocrite, simply because he wasn’t doing the opposite of what he said. In the Jerusalem council, they spoke about whether or not Gentiles had to be circumcised when converting. As far as we know, there was no talk about whether or not Jews had to be circumcised. Paul never told the Jews they shouldn’t live under the Law.

    It also is important to realize how much of a barrier Timothy not being circumcised would be to the Jews they were preaching to at the time. If being circumcised would help the mission of spreading the Gospel, there is no good reason why it should have been a problem for Timothy to circumcised. He wasn’t sinning by doing this. Even though Paul says in Galatians that we aren’t under the Law, it wasn’t a sin. Not being circumcised would ruin Timothy’s credibility with the Jews he was preaching to, similar to us trying to preach to a group of majorly conservative older Christians with blue hair and facial piercings. That wouldn’t be a sin, but it would kill our credibility. So Paul wasn’t being hypocritical, he was just doing what was necessary to further the Gospel.


  5. The other question is, if Timothy was part-Jewish, why wasn’t he circumcised when he was 8 days old? That very fact could have undermined Timothy’s credibility in ministering to Jews – he couldn’t even get a small thing right, so why should they trust him on something as big as the messiah? Paul was a pragmatist and a missionary with a deeper understanding of the law and all its implications for daily life than most of us will ever have.


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