The (non) Value of Circumcision – Romans 2:25-29

heart_circumcision_gwen_mehargSecond 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 Soul 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?

13 thoughts on “The (non) Value of Circumcision – Romans 2:25-29

  1. Circumcision was definitely used as a way of signifying who was part of the Covenant and who was not. However, before this came to be, Abraham’s faithfulness was calculated as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). Paul declares in Romans 3:10 that “there is no one righteous, not even one.” (NIV) All of humanity is considered unrighteous compared to the heavenly standard Christians are called to pursue. It is safe to say, then, that there is nothing a finite person could do to be considered righteous in the eyes of an infinite God. Verse 20 says that “none will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the Law.”
    Even though following the Law is an important thing to live by, it cannot and will not save anyone because the Law shows the mistakes that humans must be punished for. To touch briefly on the second question, I see an over emphasis on the importance of baptism within the modern church. When I was in high school I decided to be baptized as a declaration of my faith in front of my peers. However, there are some churches that may forbid someone from becoming a member if they have not been baptized. Other denominations say that baptism is the completion of salvation within a person. All this is doing is placing hoops for people to jump through in order to reach Christ. In light of both circumcision and baptism, at the end of the day, only faith can save a person.

  2. 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?

    I think that a person not practicing the ritual of circumcision can still be right with God. It does not take an outward sign for someone to be in a relationship with God. Moo states in in chapter 8 that it was not Abraham’s circumcision that made him righteous, as God called him righteous before his circumcision, and that the circumcision was just an action to signify the commitment between Abraham and God (Moo Chp. 8). To me, this seems to be the account that some churches take with baptism being a requirement for salvation today. While I believe baptism is not required for salvation, it can act as a sign to others that you are a believer in Christ, much like circumcision was in the time of the Jews.

  3. I believe that there is nothing humans can do to “make ourselves right with God”, only through faith in Christ and what he did for us can God put us into a right relationship with himself. It may have been a radical suggestion for the Jews who rejected this idea that Christ had come to bring. Paul ultimately was preaching Jesus message that like John 14:6 says “I am the way…except through me” If Jesus is saying that he is the only way tot the father than the Law was not the way to have a right relationship with God. similarly with circumcision I think that the church today takes seriously things like baptism which is mentioned above that certain churches do not let you become a member unless you are baptized. certain churches push infant baptism into the “promise” of the covenant with Gods people. If they Jews rejected Christ why would anyone want to be baptized into the promise that they failed to keep and second of all the covenant and the Law were for the Jews and not for us today. No matter, nothing we can do can save us. if we stopped attending church and stopped giving to the poor and stopped loving our neighbor would we still be saved? If we retained our faith? all these things do not save a person but they are done out of our obedience to God and his love for us.

  4. I do not necessarily believe that as Christians we have any sort of practice that is similar to circumcision beyond salvation. We use salvation I feel as a similar to the way the Jews use circumcision to truly live out who they are. We use salvation for that purpose as well. We use it to say we are “fully Christian” if you will. We choose to see salvation as the one way we are fully followers of Jesus because that is what he said as did God when he gave circumcision to the Jews in Genesis 17. We use salvation as our circumcision in a way of the vow we make and the covenant to live out our Christian faith.

  5. For some Christians, water baptism can be comparable to circumcision. I know that a certain student in my class grew up believing that for a Christian to actually be saved and go to heaven, you had to be water baptized. His church taught him that and they believe it. But this school doesn’t exactly endorse water baptism as a command, requirement or even a suggestion for Christians today. This gap between people who believe they can be made right with God by accepting what Jesus did for us and people who believe baptism is necessary for salvation–This gap seems like the gap that Paul was traversing with his audiences. I personally believe that water baptism is something that a Christian ‘should’ do as a profession of faith, but not that it leads to salvation. Christians can totally believe against baptism and still be forgiven of their sins, but i think they miss a big part of the love response that we have in our walks with God.

  6. I feel as though in the present day, Catholic people can be compared to the Jews of Paul’s time and Protestant Christians can be compared to the gentiles in Paul’s time. The Catholic faith has a strict set of rules they feel must be followed in order to gain salvation. They believe that a person must be baptized, must take part in communion, confession of sin to a priest, confirmation in the church, being married, men participating in holy orders, and giving last rites to those who are dying. Catholic people truly believe that without these things, a person will not gain salvation or they will spend an extended period of time in purgatory before entering Heaven. Protestant Christians believe the saving grace of Jesus Christ is all that is needed in order for a person to gain salvation. In Romans 3:10, it says that no person is righteous. A Catholic person is no more righteous than a Protestant person because of the laws they keep, God sees everyone equally. He looks for what their heart is like, for what they truly believe. We cannot be saved by our actions, but only by faith.

  7. Everyone has made excellent points about how circumcision, like baptism (or any other ritual) is useless without faith and potentially dangerous if pursued with ignorance or wrong motives.
    So I will focus more on the concept of spiritual circumcision. Physically, it was meant to be a marker, something that would stand out. Does your lifestyle show that your heart has been circumcised? Are you marked? Do you stand out? Circumcision is painful (or so I am told). Are you willing to experience extra pain to be set apart for God?
    Of course, all of this is ridiculously metaphorical. Perhaps the “spiritual circumcision” is a quick snip operation at the moment of salvation. But it is interesting to think of daily choosing to be marked as separate in the serious way Jews were marked by circumcision and dedicating our lives to God.

  8. Questions I have: what does circumcision signify prior to the time of Jesus? Who was the mohel? How was it done? Why is this chosen as the definitive sign of the covenant? See Lawrence Hoffman’s Covenant of Blood, for a reconstructed ceremony and some remarkable parallels of the blood of circumcision and the blood of the cross from a Jewish perspective.

    For the reader of the NT, are there any theological hints about how the author of Colossians thought about the sign of the covenant in the non-gender-specific act accomplished by the death of Jesus as Colossians 2:11 suggests? While there is an immediate parallel with baptism, who is the mohel in this case? (I.e. who does the circumcising of the entire body of the flesh?)

    • Like most things Jewish, I think there is a danger of reading current practice into the first century. Certainly they practiced circumcision, that is a major turning point for the Maccabean revolt. But did it look like a modern bris? Even the medieval practice might not be a fair guide. My point above is the ritual (for Paul) was not an effective way to deal with the problem of sin, and other second Temple voices agreed (even if his opponents in Galatia did not!)

      I have not read Hoffman, but my usual go-to for these questions is Shay Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness, or Louis Feldman, Jew and Gentile.

  9. I always wondered why the Jews were so proud of the practice of
    circumcision. In our eyes today it has no relevance to our salvation,
    but back then the Jews believed that it did and it showed their
    identity. “Circumcision was a very important mark of Jewish identity
    in Paul’s world” (Moo, 52). What Paul comes down to, throughout this
    section is the act is nothing without the doing of the law. As stated
    above, “Paul is saying a Jew who is circumcised and does not keep the
    Law is “no better than a Gentile” (Long, 1). It doesn’t matter if they
    have it because they don’t follow the laws that represent the reason
    behind the action. It’s like a contract, you may have the paper, but
    if you don’t keep the promise on that paper, it isn’t valid anymore. I
    feel like that is what the Jews are thinking the whole time they are
    listening to Paul talk about salvation. They don’t understand why Paul
    is saying that their contract is void, because they still have
    possession of the “contract signatures,” but they are no longer valid
    because they broke the laws.

  10. I can see why they valued circumcision so much because it was in their minds an easy and simple way to guarantee their salvation. But as Paul said this is not the case, the circumcision is a sign of being committed to Gods covenant relationship it is not the only step into securing salvation. As we know now Paul suggest that its not the Physical circumcision but the circumcision of the heart. So a Gentile could for sure have salvation outside of circumcision. This is because they actually follow God with their hearts and not by trying to gain salvation through physical acts such as circumcision.

  11. Circumcision in a sense has more to deal with than just the physical changes that make place. Rather than suggest the new Gentile believers experience circumcision, Paul clearly says the exact opposite. Because the Gentiles are not under the Law, they are not required to be circumcised.
    Paul considered sinning against the Law to be the same as being uncircumcised, while living a life that honored and glorified God is something which would be the equivalent of circumcision.
    Paul was telling the church that what was on the inside was truly what matters in the eyes of the Lord. Rather than the physical changes that result from circumcision, there must be spiritual circumcision which takes place in the hearts of those who choose to follow Christ.
    Today, circumcision is very different than a ritual or part of the Law. Rather it is a choice by individuals to make regarding the health of their children. The change in a person’s heart is truly much easier to live out today due to the cultural changes which have occurred surrounding circumcision. However, in turn, we must also realize that the way to apply this passage remains the same. At the core, the problem is the physical manifestation of an inward change. Many people can appear to be changed, but truly have no change in their heart – meaning they are not true followers of Christ and therefore are not indwelt with the Holy Spirit. Instead, our hearts must be conformed to that of Christ in every way.

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