Acts 16:1-2 – Timothy and the Law

Rembrandt TimothyAs 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?”

19 thoughts on “Acts 16:1-2 – Timothy and the Law

  1. The fact that Timothy’s father was a Greek and his mother was a Jew makes it hard to speculate whether Paul did the “right” thing in requiring TImothy to keep the LawAt the beginning of Acts 16, Paul does in fact circumcise TImothy, but he he does so in the company of the Jews who were in their presence at the time. (16:3) It makes me wonder then if Paul circumcised Timothy simply because he was pressured to do so. I wonder what Timothy was thinking (in regards to circumcision) being that his parents came from either side. (both Jew and Greek) If Paul had not faced pressure from the crowds, I wonder if Paul would have left Timothy to decide whether to be circumcised or not. Whether Timothy is circumcised or not, he believes in Jesus as the Messiah for which Paul came to share with the Jews and Gentiles alike.

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  2. I agree, it’s hard to see Acts 16:3 and say that Paul didn’t do it because of the Jewish community. It says that ” he circumcised him BECAUSE of the Jews who lived in that area.” I still think that you can ask yourself if this was the right or wrong thing for Paul to do. Personally, I’m not really sure if it right or wrong. I feel like Paul could have asked Timothy, even though Timothy agreed to do it, it should be a decision that Timothy makes, not one that Paul makes and Timothy agrees with. One thing that I think we can take from this is Timothy’s commitment to the work of the ministry that they are in. This procedure was really painful, especially because he was an adult, so this really shows how strong Timothy is and it displays humility as he agrees to do something that will hurt him but help the ministry.

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  3. Phillip, Shaye Cohen has shown that Timothy was NOT classed as a Jew. Dunn, whom you quote, does nothing to refute him.

    Luke tells us that Paul circumcised Timothy because he wanted him to accompany him. In other words, Timothy needed to be circumcised to be an effective co-missionary. Timothy needed to be a “Jew to the Jews”. Why do we need any other explanation? Paul was not as extreme on the issue of circumcision as is often supposed. We have to take into account that in Galatians he is correcting the view that he supported circumcision.

    By the way, we are not told that Timothy was from Lystra. We are told only that he was there at the time.

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    • Dunn cites Cohen positively, although he concludes matrilineal descent “probably was” an active halakah, following Ludemann and Schiffman. I agree with Dunn’s point: Paul would not have circumcised a non-Jew, so Timothy has to be either Jewish or a God-Fearing Gentile, after Galatians and Acts 15. Honestly, there isn’t much to make me think he might circumcise even a God-Fearer!

      Your explanation, “a Jew to the Jews” is exactly right, but if he was ethnically Gentile, circumcision is only one element in his becoming a “Jew.” Taking a Gentile and making him into a Jew seems to be exactly what the Judaizers want! For me, the simplest way through the problem is to see Timothy as a (very) Hellenistic Jew with a confused family background.

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      • Phillip, perhaps our positions are close. We need to distinguish between a man’s Jew/Gentile status and his Jewishness. Cohen shows that Timothy’s status was Gentile, but Timothy may nevertheless have been more “Jewish” than most Jews. I would suggest that, while Timothy was a Gentile, he was the most Jewish of Gentiles. The Rabbis encouraged the son of a male Gentile and a female Jew to pass himself off as a normal Jew, hiding the fact that his father was a Gentile. Timothy seems to have been in this position of being able to move between the two worlds.

        Since I believe that “Timothy” was nothing other than Titus’s Jewish name, I think Gal 2:3-5 refers to Timothy. Timothy’s Jewishness may be reflected in the word “even” in 2:3, which could be paraphrased: “Not even Timothy (the most Jewish of Gentiles), who with ME was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised.” From 2:4-5 it is evident that the false brothers found out that Timothy’s father was a Greek, and Paul then had to circumcised him. The false brothers suggested that, in circumcising Timothy, Paul had conceded that circumcision is necessary, but Paul said that he had not done so (not for an hour). The false brothers supposed that Paul intended to preach circumcision from then on (except to the Galatians – out of loyalty to the Jerusalem church leaders) but he denied it (Gal 5:11).

        Levinskaya suggested that Acts 16:1-3 is the earliest evidence of matrilineal descent, but this seems like special pleading. Isn’t it just evidence of Timothy’s Jewishness, not of his Jewish status?

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  4. Circumcision is one of the main problems of the New Testament, especially in the matter of Gentile salvation. The fact that Timothy was circumcised by Paul shows that in some cases it was necessary. I think that the circumcision of Timothy was not something that Paul was inconsistent on, but something to be looked at to figure out the meaning. If Paul was anything it was not inconsistent, he is a man of many beliefs many of which he would die for. I believe it is impractical to believe that he had a lack of conviction and was inconsistent in some of his beliefs. I tend to agree with Dr. Long, I believe that since Timothy was technically a Jew, it made sense for him to be circumcised. I do not know if it was necessary, but to avoid offending and angering Jew’s that were involved in Paul’s ministry it was necessary. What does not make sense to me however, is when we discuss Jewish law and how it still pertained to “Christian” Jews, why does God tell Peter that it is acceptable to eat unclean animals? If God wants the Jewish people to continue with the Law, how can he tell Peter to eat things that go against the law?

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  5. I cannot say whether Paul did the “right thing” in regards to requiring Timothy to keep the Law through circumcision, because today we do not know the full extent of the matter. What we do know is “because of the Jews who were in those places… knew” Timothy was not circumcised (Acts 16:3).

    However, I know in ministry there are often small disputes. One party believes one thing (in this case, Paul and Timothy know that one does not need to keep the Mosaic covenant in order to be saved) and the other party believes another (in the other case, the Jews believe that Timothy should be circumcised because he is a Jew) casing an unneeded disagreement. Perhaps Paul and Timothy realized that this petty argument from the Jews was simply hindering their ministry and a waste of time, and in order to clear the air they simply compromised with the other party. I know in ministry not everyone has the exact same views but in order to make things happen people have to put their non-absolutes (non-foundational beliefs) aside in order to work as whole.

    Along with that, Paul perhaps knew that Timothy not being circumcised would be a stumbling block for the Jews in Lystra and Iconium. “Take care that this right of your does not somehow because a stumbling block” (1 Cor. 8:9). Just like James was saying in Acts 15, “Abstain from certain things because there are still Jews who observe these ceremonial laws and think them to be important”. Paul understood that the Jews believed it to be important that timothy was circumcised, even though he did not.

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  6. The fact that Timothy’s mother and father were of two different faiths could count for why he would be uncircumcised. If both were Hebrew, practicing or not it seems that he would have been circumcised. As it was just there custom, in order for him to not be it seems as though one member would have to be against it. If Timothy choose to be circumcised because he was a JEWISH Christian does that mean that all Jewish Christians in this day need to be circumcised. It seems as though Timothy not being circumcised would make ministry harder. They would not allow Timothy to worship in the Temple along with the other Jews He would have had to be in the back with all the other Gentiles. Timothy agreed to being circumcised though, and that shows that he must have saw the value in that as well. Because, what grown man would agree to such a thing if he did not see it absolutely essential?

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  7. The answer is in 1 Cor 19:20-23

    1Co 9:20  And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;….
    1Co 9:23  And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you. 

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  8. “Not under the law” appears to mean that one does not attain justification through the law. So a Jew could be “in Christ” and obedient to the law. Paul himself completes a vow and offers sacrifices at the Temple in Acts.

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  9. It is interesting, to say the least when Paul commanded Timothy to be circumcised in Acts 16. Especially, because this was something done ‘under the law’ and in Galatians Paul makes it clear that those who are ‘in Christ’ are no longer under the law. Therefore, the real question is why did Paul do this? And was it the right thing to do?
    First, I believe Paul did this because of the setting/scenario they were in. Meaning, although Paul believed one does not need to be circumcised because they are no longer held captive under the law (Galatians 4:7) he thought it was the right thing to do because those in the area who were Jews knew Timothy was not circumcised yet. Although they could have gone along and not made any changes, I think Paul knew everything would be easier and run more smoothly if Timothy was simply circumcised.
    Now, was this the right thing to do? I believe there are two sides to this. First, one could say it was right because it helped end a silly dispute faster which allowed them to carry out their mission. “So the churches were strengthened in their faith and grew daily in numbers (Acts 16:5).” If he was not circumcised the Jews many have gotten extremely upset about it and this could have caused them to prolong their journey. However, one could also argue this was not the right thing to do because it contradicts what Paul actually believed (that those who are in Christ are not under the law Galatians 2:16). Since Paul was already claiming new Christian doctrine by saying Jesus was the new savior why would he be afraid to claim circumcision was no longer needed? He clearly is against being under the law. “…and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified (Galatians 2: 16).” Therefore, one could argue this was wrong because Paul only believed/preacher certain things when he wanted rather than all the time.
    In the end, I believe this was the right thing to do. Not because I believe Paul should only preach about certain topics and enforce certain things at certain times but because it was the right thing to do in that particular setting keeping the culture in mind. First, I believe Paul was not a man of contradiction and did not only believe/preach about certain things at certain times. Second, by no means was it hurting the church for Timothy to be circumcised or going against the word of God so why not have it done if it makes their trip easier? By getting Timothy circumcised they did not have to argue, receive punishment, and so forth. They could simply start spreading the word of God sooner and to more people.

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  10. Wow. Very interesting that Paul made Timothy keep the law when so much of Pauline Literature stresses that we are free in Christ and that “God did what the law could not do, by sending his only son in the likeness of sinfulness flesh (Romans 8:3). What is more interesting than that is that Paul even made Timothy get circumcised as Acts 16:3 says “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his Father was a Greek”. Even though his mother was probably Jewish, I don’t think Paul was in the right by making Timothy get circumcised. I understand the argument of that Paul was being culturally aware to the Jews around him but his own theological point of being “no longer a slave but a son” (Galatians 4:7) would be in jeopardy.

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  11. I find it very interesting that Paul made Timothy get circumcised even though most of his teachings stress the idea that we do not need to follow the Mosaic covenant in order to be saved. However, I do not know all the information on this specific situation so I am unable to state if Paul was right or not by making Timothy get circumcised. Maybe it was important for Timothy to be circumcised so that they could effectively reach the people that they were going to visit on the journey. Maybe if Timothy was not circumcised, it would have been a stumbling block or distraction that people would focus on rather than focusing on the true message that Paul and Timothy would be sharing. While I am not sure if this was the right or wrong thing to do, it is definitely something that I am going to continue thinking on.

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  12. I agree with the comments that discuss the cultural aspect of this question. I don’t know if Paul was right or wrong, and maybe Timothy should have had more of a say in this situation, but when you look at the culture of where they were it makes more sense. If Timothy had to be circumcised so that the Jews that were there could focus more on what they were preaching rather than the fact that he was not circumcised, then I would consider it “the right thing” to expand the mission and further God’s kingdom. Although they are no longer under law, this just means that they don’t have to, but they can if they choose, so maybe this choice was willing so that the Gospel could be shared further.

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  13. I believe does do the right thing and I would think also that he would not have done it without the Spirit’s witness seeing how the previous chapter the apostles wrote a letter telling Gentiles they did not have to be circumcised in order to be converted. Peter makes a speech saying that God chose himself and others to preach the Gospel to Gentiles and God knows their hearts and gives them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to the believers in the audience (v. 15:7-8). Peter asks,

    “So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts. 15:10-12)

    Peter before making this statement says “He (God) made no distinction between us and them, for he cleansed their hearts through faith” (15:9).

    In addition Paul makes a powerful statement concerning this dynamic. Paul says, “There is only one God, and he makes people right with Himself only by faith, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. Well then, if we emphasize faith, does this mean that we can forget about the Law? Of course not! In fact, only when we have faith do we truly fulfill the Law.” (Rom. 3:29-21)

    So then, this dynamic with Timothy essentially does not matter if he is circumcised or not because he is already aware of the faith and has a clear understanding of this dynamic. Timothy’s mother was Jewish and his father Greek. In being Greek, the father would have not wanted his son circumcised. I would agree that it is possible Timothy’s father could have been at the most a God-fearing Gentile. However, concerning the status of Timothy. Polhill points out, “According to later rabbinic law, a child born of a Jewish mother and a Greek father was considered to be Jewish. The marriage of a Jewish woman to a non-Jew was considered a nonlegal marriage; and in all instances of nonlegal marriages, the lineage of the child was reckoned through the mother. (Polhill, Acts. p.343). So, I think it is safe to say Timothy was “Jewish” but never was circumcised. In fact, the Jews Paul and Timothy would be heading to knew and figured that since Timothy’s father was a Greek then it was very likely he was not circumcised (16:3). If this circumstance is anything like that of Acts 15, the religious leaders would advocate that any “Gentile” convert must be circumcised (Acts 15:1, 5). These leaders did not seem to be aware of faith fulfilling the Law as previously mentioned. Timothy knew. Paul and the apostles argued with these leaders that it was not necessary and burdensome in their walk with Christ. However, since these Laws of Moses have been preached in Jewish synagogues in every city on every Sabbath for generations, it would have been hard for the Gentiles to accept this in their conscience (Acts 15:21).

    Therefore, James says, “…My judgement is that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write and tell them to abstain from eating food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from eating meat of strangled animals, and from consuming blood” (Acts 15:19-20).

    Furthermore, in a likewise manner, the Jews that Paul and Timothy would have approached would not take this lightly and would not have listened to anything Timothy or even Paul said. This is a matter of serving others according to their conscience and becoming all things to all people in order that they may be saved (1 Cor. 9:19-23, Rom. 14).

    Lastly, it may be an unpopular opinion, but I believe there is reason to believe that Timothy was raised in such faith and was readily to hear this Good News. Paul said, that he remembered Timothy’s genuine faith for he shares the faith that first filled his grandmother, Lois and his mother Eunice (2 Tim. 1:5). The question is then if Timothy’s faith originated dating back to his grandmother then how does this change our perspective of what we would expect Timothy to be raised as a Jew or Gentile? It seems he thinks in the manner of both which is why I point out Romans 3:29-31. There is a reason Timothy is as special as he is, and Paul sees that God’s favor is on him and later prays even for a greater release of God’s favor on Him (2 Tim. 1:2).

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  14. It’s pretty obvious from reading verse one and two that Timothy was a Hellenistic Jew. And because of the nature of his full-time ministry, I would argue that it would be easier to just get circumcised. Having circumcision on your side with the Jews would probably make it easier to speak to them about the Messiah. As opposed to approaching them as a Hellenist who kind of agrees with Judaism. Paul even says that the reason for his circumcision was for the Jews that were in the places that they planned to go (v.3). I would say that it was completely necessary. Jews and Gentiles would be more apt to unite under that words of two circumcised leaders than they would with one circumcised and one not. They really had to display unity across Jewish and Greek background especially since the purpose of the trip was to deliver new decisions made in Jerusalem to all of the Churches (v.4).

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  15. I think you are correct when you say that one reason why Timothy was circumcised was because of pressure from the Jews. It is clear that the Jews took circumcision very seriously, and the fact that Timothy wasn’t circumcised would likely cause confrontation. This confrontation would likely hinder Paul and Timothy’s ministry. I think 1 Corinthians 8:19-23 spells out the motive behind Timothy’s circumcision very well. In this passage it is said that, “though I am free … I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” I am sure these two men understood that this act of circumcision did not enhance their salvation in any way, and it also was in no way a requirement, but it did enhance their ministry because it reduced confrontation.

    I think the reason Paul was so adamant in the previous chapter against circumcision is because they were trying to determine if it is a requirement in order to receive or keep salvation. The other believers were trying to add to salvation while Paul and Timothy were trying to enhance ministry. Verse 20 of 1 Cor. 8 spells out their intentions nicely as well, stating “to the Jews I became like a Jew, to win as many as possible.” I think this was exactly their intent.

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  16. for me it is easy to see why some could see Timothy as a jew from birth and therefore necessary to be circumcised. its the fact that the tradition of being jewish through ones mother was something that can be traced back so far and to this time period of history. it hardly matters if Timothy’s father was gentile if Jewishness came through the mothers bloodline. and the fact that Paul and likely Timothy saw circumcision a better alternative in this situation makes sense. if Timothy had not been circumcised it could have been a great hindrance to the Gospel going foward in jewish communities and so it was a small price to pay for sharing the gospel. also to say that Paul was inconsistent seems a bit harsh. situations can present themselves where one may feel differently than normal on something that they were strongly opposed to previously the fact of the matter is just because Paul is against circumcision at one time does not mean his opinion can change. moreover it seems likely he was not directly only angry about the idea of circumcision but rather the idea of circumcision being needed for salvation not much different than the GGF today which is not angry about Baptism but rather the idea of Baptism being necessary for salvation. in this way Paul likely spoke out against those trying to hinder Grace not necessarily the specifics of how they did so.

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