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?”

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

  1. Requiring Timothy to keep the law in this circumstance may have not only been keeping the law, but also a good choice for their missionary journey. As pointed out in class, Paul did not necessarily teach that Jews should stop adhering to the law, but that Gentiles should not have to suddenly adopt Jewish practices when saved. If Timothy really was Jewish then he would be held to the same standard that all other Jews were. Also, if he were not circumcised, it may detract from the message he and Paul were preaching. Their listeners may have potentially been focused on the fact that the man who was preaching about God to them did not even keep God’s law. Due to Paul and Timothy’s work, we are told in Acts 16:5, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.”


    • Acts 16:4 gives us the context for 16:5
      “…they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey.”
      Then, we are told in Acts 16:5, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.”


  2. It definitely was not a bad thing for Paul to have Timothy circumsised, especially since Timothy was okay with it. When I read this I think about 1 Corinthians 9:20,
    “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.”
    If Paul said this I would have to believe that he was a man of his word and wanted anyone traveling with him to do the same. Like P. Long said in class, if the Jews in the temple had found out that Timothy was not circumsised it could have started a lot of problems and the ability to reach people for God would have been lost.


    • Jess, you wrote, QUOTE:
      “If Paul said this I would have to believe that he was a man of his word…”

      So you believe Paul was a man of his word because – Paul said so? That alone is enough? I don’t quite understand.


  3. I do think that Paul was right to have Timothy circumcised. Since Timothy’s mother was Jewish, then he was supposed to be required to keep the law. I think that Paul would have been a hypocrite if he had not had timothy circumcised since he was, in fact, Jewish. If Timothy would have been of Gentile descent instead of Jewish, then Paul would not have had made Timothy keep the law. If Paul had not had Timothy keep the law, then it would have been pointless for him to go and tell other Jews to keep the law because Timothy, his companion on the journey, would not have been following the law himself.


  4. Was Paul a hypocrite?

    Was Paul “wrong” to circumcise Timothy?
    I don’t think so.

    Based on the Scripture record, did circumcising Timothy produce any good fruit for the kingdom of God?

    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?”

    I think Paul DID the right thing, but TAUGHT the wrong thing to the Galatians and Corinthians. Paul did one thing, but taught the opposite. Paul was a hypocrite.


  5. 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.


    • Can you please show me from the text in Acts why you believe that Paul circumcised Timothy “for the sake of the gospel”? I don’t see that – I see that Paul did it to please the local Jewish men in Asia, and it produced no good fruit there – and so God sent Paul to Gentile women in Europe, where Paul circumcising Timothy would be completely irrelevant.

      Do you believe it is a good thing, and a command of God, to become “all things to all people?” If so, can you please quote me which Bible text causes you to have that view?


  6. It is true, due to the fact that Timothy was definitely Jewish, him not being circumcised particularly would have stood as a barrier for reaching the Jews in places such as Lystra and Iconium. In addition, I remember how in class Dr. Long talked about the fact that Paul did not specifically tell the Jews that they should not obey the law. This occurrence of Timothy’s circumcision following chapter five on the discussion for or against circumcision among the Jews does give us a picture of Paul’s theological framework in going first to the Jew and then to Gentile. Paul had a heart for his people and wanted peace among them and the Gentiles who professed Christ. “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14).


    • …”by abolishing in his flesh the law with it’s commandments and regulations. [Ephesians 2:15]
      Yes, Paul wrote this… But is it true that Jesus abolished the law? Did Jesus agree with Paul on this?

      Let’s listen to the voice of Jesus for a change:
      “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets…” [Matthew 5:17]

      Paul and Jesus don’t agree.
      So are you going to listen to Jesus? or to Boss Paul the Pharisee?


  7. 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).


    • Can you explain please what connection (I Cor 9:22) has with Paul circumcising Timothy? If Paul had circumcised himself, I could see there might be an indirect connection. But regarding what Paul did to Timothy, I don’t see any connection at all.


  8. 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.


    • The Council came to a conclusion in Acts 15, and “The apostles and elders” wrote a letter, in which they referred to “our dear friends Barnabas and Paul.” Paul did not write this letter, and as Phillip noted, Paul never referred to it in all his own letters that he wrote himself.

      Paul did write a lot, passionately, to the Galatians and Corinthians, on the subject of circumcision. Could you please quote some of Paul’s extensive teaching on the relevant topic, to justify Paul’s action circumcising Timothy?

      If you believe that Paul was not being hypocritical, teaching against circumcision while secretly doing the opposite and circumcising Timothy, this should be easy to do.


  9. 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.


    • You wrote, QUOTE:
      “Paul wasn’t a hypocrite, simply because he wasn’t doing the opposite of what he said.”

      Have you read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and Galatians?

      If you read the entire chapter of Acts 15 carefully, you will notice that there is only one sentence recorded of Paul’s words- Acts 15:36. This has nothing to do with the Jerusalem Council. Paul said: “Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” That’s it from Paul in Acts 15.

      Luke quotes in Acts 15 some Pharisees, and The Apostle Peter at length, and James at length, and the entire text of the letter from the “apostles and elders.” So why should we think that the Jerusalem Council was all about Paul?


  10. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: “Each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him.” [1 Corinthians 7:17-20]

    So do we all agree that Paul’s teaching here was wrong, and Paul was a hypocrite, teaching the Corinthians QUOTE: “Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised.” but then circumcising Timothy yet never admitting it?


  11. 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.


  12. I hear crickets.
    Wait, its Jiminy Cricket, saying; “Let your conscience be your guide.”

    He must have been reading the letters of Paul, who didn’t need a second witness to back him up, because his own conscience was his second witness to testify on his behalf.

    Paul wrote to the Romans:
    “I speak the truth in Christ – I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit – I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.” [Romans 9:1-2]

    Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
    “Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, in the holiness and sincerity that are from God.” [2 Corinthians 1:12]

    So no one else in the world who ever lived, including Jesus, has a valid testimony without a second witness – EXCEPT PAUL ! Boss Paul the Pharisee doesn’t need another witness, because his own conscience is his witness !

    “Woe to those who call evil good
    and good evil,
    Who put darkness for light
    And light for darkness,
    Who put bitter for sweet
    And sweet for bitter.” [Isaiah 5:20]


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