Galatians, Circumcision, and Gentile Salvation

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?

4 thoughts on “Galatians, Circumcision, and Gentile Salvation

  1. Paul’s opponents may have been motivated by the drastic differences in what he was teaching verse what the Jewish keepers of the law had always known. Not that any of the things Paul was teaching in reference to the gospel was incorrect he was just teaching to the Gentiles the new laws and the new revelation he had received from God. Paul’s opponents would have been motivated to oppose his teachings because they would have tried to argue they were not true because it was things they had never heard before and went against what they were used to. Paul says in Galatians there is neither Jew nor Gentile and this would have raised an alarm to many who opposed Paul because now there is no differences and while the Jews will always be God’s chosen people the Gentiles now also are able to inherit the kingdom and this would have caused opposition from many law keeping Jews because the Gentiles are not under the Jewish law. Paul’s preaching of the gospel shocked them because it was drastically different than what they were used to and had heard before.

  2. Paul was teaching a religion never heard of before. A religion where as long as you had faith you were saved by Christ. Many religions back then were more based on works, as in sacrifices or worshipping a certain way. So its no wonder that his opponents thought this new religion blasphemous because they have always “worked” for their salvation. Paul made it available for everyone to reach out to God not only law abiding Jews. “Paul’s gospel of freedom from the law. For clearly if Jesus followers are free from the law, then Paul’s gospel offers no criteria for moral restraint” (TTP, 91). The concept of grace I’m sure was hardly understood especially among the agitators. Jews and Gentiles had always been separated, whereas Gentiles were looked down on and could never measure up to the Jewish faith. But, with Paul coming along and saying that there is no Jewish religion or Gentile that it is all one, this of course would have raised red flags in the agitators minds. How dare a man especially a Jewish man say that they are all the same in God’s eyes and they don’t have to abide by the law that they have been striving to reach since infancy.

  3. If the Jews desire circumcision that is their choice. The insanity lies in Americans routinely doing this to their baby and infant sons.

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