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).

Shayne 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?”