The first major controversy the early church had to contend with strikes the modern reader a bit strange. Rather than debating the nature of Jesus or developing the doctrine of the Trinity, the first major theological problem was the status of the Gentile who has put their faith in Jesus. Before Acts 13, there were only a few Gentile believers (Cornelius and his household, for example). But after Paul’s mission to several cities in Galatia,
Are Gentiles converting to Judaism? If so, should they keep the Law? Or are they like the “God Fearers,” Gentiles who kept some of the Law but did not fully convert? For some Jewish Christians, there may have been an implied secondary status for the Gentile believer in Jesus who does not fully convert to Judaism and keep the Law.
But why was circumcision of Gentiles converts such a controversial issue? In Acts 13-14 Paul has success among Gentiles for the first time and establishes several churches with 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.
Based 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, circumcision was the key practice which set the Jews apart from the rest of the world (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 nor Gentile), gender (neither male nor 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.
Based on a fair reading of Galatians, Paul met with serious resistance for his Law-free Gospel from some Jewish Christians. What might have motivated these opponents of Paul? What is it about Paul’s preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles which shocked them?