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?”

16 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.

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  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).

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  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.

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  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.

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  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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  6. When I was younger, and my dad was a daredevil. He was always doing stunts of the four-wheeler, snowmobile, or anything that looked dangerous and fun. I would watch my dad do these things then want to do them myself. Before I could attempt any of these dangerous tricks, my father would stop me. He would say it was too dangerous for me, and he did not want me to get hurt. I could not understand for the life of me why he could do these stunts, and I could not. My father knew he could safely complete the tricks and knew I could not. This is similar to the story in Acts 16 when Paul circumcises Timothy right after debating against circumcision. From a distant view, it seems as if Paul is being hypocritical by saying others do not need circumcision to be saved yet he carries out the act when it comes to Timothy. I believe Paul did this for two reasons: to respect and continue on with the Jewish heritage (Long, pp. 5) and to avoid confrontation among Jewish leaders as they traveled to different synagogues (Polhill, p. 2117). Paul respected the Jewish heritage, both his own and fellow Jews. Since Timothy’s mother was a Jew and the Jewish lineage travels through the mother, Paul was following the Law and custom for Timothy to be circumcised. Paul and Timothy were also among Jews much of the time and the Jewish people would have known if Timothy had not been circumcised (because of cleansing rituals). Paul may have circumcised Timothy because he did not want to “fight on nonessentials” (Polhill, p. 2117) with the Jewish leaders. By doing this, they could focus more on sharing the Gospel and less on arguments about the Mosaic Law. Paul listened to the Holy Spirit and knew what he was called to do; just like how my father knew I could not do the stunts he did. From a distance, they both could be viewed as hypocritical but up close we see that they were simply doing these things for the better good of those around them.

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  7. It is interesting that right after Acts 15, there is this instance of Timothy being circumcised. One thing I know to be true is that culture is everything. Maybe it was because it was culturally what Timothy wanted to do, so that he would find the approval, or be like the Jews. It would seem odd to me that Paul would go directly against what he had just stood up for with conviction- that those in Christ are no longer under the Law.
    I agree that I don’t think Timothy would be forced to circumcision, but maybe it is what he felt was right with culture like I stated above. Even in Acts 16:3, it says, “because of the Jews who were in those places.” Polhill adds to this verse and exclaims that it would be more difficult to witness to the Jews if he had someone who was uncircumcised with him (Polhill, p. 2112). The way you enter into a culture can either make them accept you on the spot or create mistrust.
    I don’t believe Paul is a hypocrite because he was simply fitting to the culture around him, but yet it is confusing because if it is his strong conviction to convey, it is hard to know what you can be lenient on, and what can actually be detrimental to witnessing to those not like you.

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  8. This passage does appear at first to contradict the previous chapter in which Paul openly expressed to the Jerusalem council that circumcision was no longer a requirement in order to receive salvation. Paul did, however, need to understand the culture in which he was preaching and teaching. The culture was Jewish and although it is unknown how much time passed between chapter 15’s Jerusalem council meeting and chapter 16’s circumcision of Timothy. There could have been a large time gap in which the news of the Jerusalem council’s discussion was shared across the region with all of the Jewish communities, but these events could also have been quite close on the timeline. In saying this, the Jews that Paul and Timothy interact with in Lystra and Iconium may still believe that there is a need for circumcision to be saved and through knowing that Timothy was not circumcised, they would most likely not take Paul and Timothy seriously in what they had to share. If I have learned anything in my years at Grace when it comes to sharing the gospel to those with a different culture from your own, it is that understanding one’s culture must come before introducing why your beliefs are “better” than their previous views. If I were to go to a new culture and instantly start trying to convert them without learning about them and their rituals and beliefs who am I to assume they will listen to anything I have to say if I did not take the time to listen to them. This is less of an issue having to do with religious rituals, but more about respect of another individual’s culture and gaining trust. If all Paul and Timothy had to do to gain their respect and trust was to circumcise Timothy they quickly made a decision on what needed to be done.

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  9. The key question that sticks out to me after reading through this post and through Timothy’s circumcision in Acts 16, was did he have to, or did he choose to? In Acts 16 it says he was circumcised “…because of the Jews who lived in that area…”. Even though there was a whole debate in Acts 15 about Gentiles not being circumcised, why now is he circumcising a grown man if it is not necessary? Part of my wonderings include the idea of tradition. If there were all of these law-abiding Jews living in Lystra and Iconium, for the focus to be on the Gospel, and not Timothy’s lack of circumcision, then would they create more tension in these parts than was necessary? As you said, Timothy would not have been forced (Long), so was this then an active choice for the sake of the Gospel? If Timothy had not been circumcised, even though he was a ethnically a Jewish man, than I could see that as Paul and his ministry rejecting the culture and tradition of the Jewish people. I do not think that was the intention in chapter 15, and Luke proves that by including this story right after. The Jewish-Christians saw the rejection of circumcision as a rejection of values and traditions long held by their people. Paul using this story is important to say that maybe the argument in Acts 15 was less about the rejecting of Jewish tradition but the inclusion of Gentile culture and tradition.

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  10. In Acts 15, Paul urges that Gentiles are not required to submit to circumcision in order to be saved. It is interesting that just in the next chapter, there is an example of Timothy being circumcised. I do not believe that Paul was being a hypocrite in requiring Timothy to keep the Law, even though he argued that those “in Christ” are not “under Law”. I believe that Paul was more so trying to be sensitive to the culture that he and Timothy were in, rather than contradicting his argument about circumcision in Acts 15. Circumcision is an important part of tradition for the Jews, and I think that Paul was trying to respect the culture they were in. I do not believe that Paul had forced Timothy to become circumcised either; rather, it was something that he did to fit in with the culture. As Long (2015) states, “Luke tells us the reason Paul circumcised him was pressure from the Jews in Lystra and Iconium” (par. 4). Timothy gained respect from the Jews by respecting and attempting to fit in with their lifestyle and traditions. Although Paul argues that circumcision is not required for Gentiles, Paul did not exactly reject the traditions of the Jews, and he “was not a threat to Jewish heritage” (Long, 2015, par. 5). Paul argues that circumcision is not required for the Gentiles to be saved so that they can also be included in God’s kingdom, not so that the Jews and their lifestyles and traditions would be rejected.

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  11. I do not believe that Paul was being a hypocrite. I say this because I believe that Timothy was willing to be circumcised in order for him to help deliver the word of God to others. I don’t believe that Paul forced him to do so unwillingly. And the reason for Paul telling his to be circumcised is made clear. He already knew that Timothy would be questioned due to his father being a Greek. I can see why this can lead to someone viewing Paul as a hypocrite because in the last chapter Paul made a huge deal about how a gentile doesn’t need to be circumcised in order to be under the law. But I think we have to see the circumstances for this unique situation and then we can better understand.

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  12. I believe that we are putting too much emphasis on the circumcision. Paul was arguing about circumcision saving you. “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1, ESV). I do not thing that Paul circumcised him so that he would be saved. He instead was circumcising Timothy because in the end it does not matter if he was or was not. What matters is grace through faith. If we look through the lens of this point then Paul is not a hypocrite but doing exactly like he says.The reason why i think that Paul circumcised Timothy was so then that did not get in the way of them preaching what was important. Which is the Gospel.

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  13. Paul is not a hypocrite and he does do the right thing in having Timothy be circumcised. There is a reason for every action and Paul has a reason to circumcise Timothy. No matter the bloodline of Timothy’s father, if the Jews made their ethnic family trees based around the mother, then Timothy is a Jew even if he is seen as a “gentile who happens to have a Jewish mother”. With this being the case, people would have known that he was a Jew who hasn’t been circumcised because his father wasn’t Jewish. So, taking this in mind, the circumcision of Timothy may need to have taken place so that Paul was able to still minister to the Jews as well. By circumcising Timothy, Paul was showing that he was not abandoning his Jewish heritage. The passage says in verse three that Paul had Timothy circumcised “because of the Jews who were in those places, for they knew that his father was Greek”. Polhill notes that the whole reason was that Paul did not want to argue with topics that were not essential to the gospel, thus circumcision (2112). With his preaching always starting in the synagogues, it would be much more difficult to take Timothy with him if he wasn’t circumcised. So yes, Paul did do the right thing in having Timothy circumcised because it was used to further the gospel. Without it, Paul would have been stuck dealing with the topic of circumcision and not sharing the gospel.

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  14. Asking the question if Paul from the Bible was a hypocrite or not is a bold question indeed. I can imagine that during Paul’s life, he was most certainly presented with impossible situations, and this situation that Paul’s faced with here is no exception. At the end of the day, we must consider what the picture was. The big picture was that the gospel needed to be preached, and it’s clear that Timothy didn’t want anything to be a hindrance to it. I wouldn’t even call Paul a hypocrite, it’s fairly easy to twist anything you see to Scripture to fit a certain narrative. If you look at Paul’s views on circumcision in Acts 15 and the situation here in Acts 16, it’s easy to see the difference in viewpoint- however upon further observation, it’s clear that this scenario in Acts 16 that the act of Timothy being circumcised is justified and it’s an honorable act that is only going to help further the spread of the gospel, despite the tension that existed going into this decision, the end goal and need prevailed over this minor dispute. Now that Timothy was circumcised, he would have much more credibility with the Jewish people he was going to preach to. Not once did he break the law.

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