Second Temple period Judaism considered circumcision to be an important boundary marker. It was one of the key definitions of what it meant to be a Jewish person. Circumcision was a practice dating back to Abraham (Gen 17:9-14) and was intended as a physical sign of the covenant God made with Abraham to bless the whole world through his descendants. One of the factors in the Maccabean Revolt was a prohibition on circumcision of boys on the either day. At the time, some families did not perform the ritual in order to allow their sons opportunity in the Hellenistic world, but the Hasmoneans insisted on circumcision as a non-negotiable boundary marker.
Paul contrasts physical circumcision with an inward, spiritual circumcision (Romans 2:28-29). Even in the Old Testament there is a recognition that circumcision is of no value unless accompanied by obedience (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4; 9:26). This “spiritualized circumcision” is found in a number of Second Temple texts. For example:
Jubilees 1:23 But after this they will return to me in all uprighteousness and with all of (their) heart and soul. And I shall cut off the foreskin of their heart and the foreskin of the heart of their descendants. And I shall create for them a holy spirit, and I shall purify them so that they will not turn away from following me from that day and forever.
Odes of Solomon 11:1-3 My heart was pruned and its flower appeared, then grace sprang up in it, and it produced fruits for the Lord. 2 For the Most High circumcised me by his Holy Spirit, then he uncovered my inward being toward him, and filled me with his love. 3 And his circumcising became my salvation, and I ran in the Way in his peace, in the Way of truth.
1QS 5:5 No one should walk in the stubbornness of his heart in order to go astray following his heart 5 and his eyes and the musings of his inclination. Instead he should circumcise in the Community the foreskin of his tendency and of his stiff neck in order to lay a foundation of truth for Israel, for the Community of the eternal 6 covenant.
4Q434 Frag. 1 i:3 (4QBarki Napshia) 4QBless, Oh my Soula In the abundance of his mercy he has favoured the needy and has opened their eyes so that they see his paths, and their ear[s] so that they hear 4 his teaching. He has circumcised the foreskin of their hearts and has saved them because of his grace and has set their feet firm on the path.
In Ephesians 2:11, Paul refers to the Jewish practice as “circumcision made in the flesh by hands” (ἐν σαρκὶ χειροποιήτου). In Colossians 2:11 Paul says those who are in Christ have been circumcised “with a circumcision made without hands… the circumcision of Christ.”
What is quite remarkable is Paul’s claim that someone could keep the requirements of the Law yet remain uncircumcised and be “regarded as circumcised.” By saying this, Paul is saying a Jew who is circumcised and does not keep the Law is “no better than a Gentile” (Kruse, Romans, 143). This is a radical statement in the context of Second Temple Judaism: A Gentile could (potentially) be closer to righteousness than a circumcised Gentile. There is nothing similar to this in the literature of the Second Temple (Barrett, Romans, 59).
Going a bit further, Paul says the uncircumcised law-keeper will condemn the Jew, even though the Jew is part of God’s covenant as demonstrated by obedience to circumcision. Scholars fret over who these Gentiles may be, I suggest this is similar to Jesus saying Sodom will “rise in judgment over Bethsaida and Korazim.” The worst sinners in history will be better than someone who was so close to the truth yet ultimately rejected it.
Circumcision therefore is “a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (vv. 28-29). The “circumcision of the heart” is achieved by the action of the Holy Spirit, hinting at the activity of the Holy Spirit in salvation. What matters with respect to salvation is that the Holy Spirit has made the dead sinner alive again in Christ, not that the sinner was partially obedient to the Law.
The physical requirements of the Law are of no value if they are not accompanied by a real change of heart. Paul says that if a person tries to keep the law and fails he is not a Jew, the Law was not designed to provide salvation.
There are several implications which may follow from this. If the physical ritual did not really make a person right before God, could someone not practice the ritual and still be right with God? Paul certainly says this for Gentiles in Galatians, but for him to suggest this might be considered too radical for first century Jews. Is there any analogous practice or ritual in a modern Christian context which promises too much with respect to salvation?