As he begins this new phase of the Gentile mission, Paul wants to take Timothy, a young convert from Lystra, as a companion. Like Silas, Timothy is an important companion of Paul and a foundational member of the early church in Asia Minor. Timothy is well known from the letters of Paul, mentioned as a co-sender of the two Thessalonian letters, Philippians, Philemon, and Colossians. He is called a “brother” (1 Thess 3:2, 2 Cor 1:1, Philemon 1:1) and a “fellow worker” (1 Thess 3:2, Rom 16:21). In addition, two letters are sent to Timothy, and he is mentioned in the greetings-section of Hebrews.
The problem is that Timothy’s father was a Gentile and he was never circumcised. That Timothy’s Jewish mother would marry a Greek is unusual, but not unknown. James Dunn suggests that the fact Timothy was not circumcised might be an indication that Eunice has already ceased practicing Judaism and did not circumcise her son. But 1 Tim 3:15 implies that Timothy was taught the Scripture from childhood by his mother and grandmother. Perhaps his father refused to circumcise his son. It is at least possible that he was God-fearing Gentile himself and allowed his wife to raise his son “more or less Jewish” with the exception of circumcision.
This is obviously speculation, but it is not clear from Acts 16 that Timothy’s mother was married to a Greek. It is at least possible that the husband was dead or had abandoned the family at some point, or possibly that there was never a marriage in the first place.
Why does Paul circumcise Timothy? This is often seen as a problem, since 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. Some scholars have suggested that Paul is inconsistent in the application of the decision of the council, or that Luke’s portrayal of Paul is inconsistent with his letters. Scholars have often wondered if the Paul of Galatians would have circumcise Timothy.
The circumstances of Timothy’s birth as Luke describes them in Acts 16:3 is the solution to the problem. While his mother was a Jew, his father was a Greek. The ruling that the one’s status as a Jew was traced through the mother’s line dates back to the time of Ezra. The Mishnah includes a similar ruling which most scholars date 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). From the perspective of most observant Jews in Asia Minor, Timothy was a Jew, not a Gentile.
If it is a fact that Timothy was, with respect to Jewish law, a Jew not a Gentile, then he ought to be circumcised when he accepted Jesus as Messiah and savior. Luke also tells us that the reason Paul circumcised him was pressure from the Jews in Lystra and Iconium. They presumably knew that 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. (I think that it is wrong to say that Timothy was “forced” to be circumcised, he was in agreement with Paul on this matter!)
Does Paul “do the right thing” in requiring Timothy to keep the Law, even though he argues passionately in Galatians that those whoa re “in Christ” are not “under Law?”