“Mirror Reading” Galatians

As Thomas Schreiner points out in his recent commentary on Galatians, when he wrote this letter, Paul did not need to explain the situation and background to his readers (p.31). They knew what the situation since it concerned them. We are therefore at a great disadvantage when we pick up the letter to the Galatians because we have to infer the situation from what Paul says in the letter itself.

Mirror ReadingThis process of inferring a background for a letter like Galatians is known as “mirror reading.” We only have access to one side of the story. It would be ideal if we were able to read documents written by the opponents of Paul, or a letter from the Galatian churches explaining what the problem was and asking Paul for advice. In the case of Galatians, we have only Paul’s side of the story as he describes it in Galatians.

I think that there are a few other “resources” for reading the situation in Galatia that resulted in the letter Paul wrote to his churches. The book of Acts is an obvious candidate for a source, although sometimes Luke’s theological agenda forces scholars to wonder about his accuracy. In the case of Galatians, for example, there are some chronological problems, but Luke and Paul generally agree on how the Galatian churches got there and what the opponents were teaching in Paul’s churches.

There are other resources that help us to accurately mirror read is the literature of the Second Temple period. Some of these are Jewish, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Psalms of Solomon. There are hundreds of documents that collect Second Temple Jewish literature to help us understand the Jewish world view reflected by Paul’s letters. While Josephus may not always be accurate (especially when talking about himself), his Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews are essential reading for understanding this period in history. I might recommend Paul Maier’s Josephus: The Essential Writings (Kregel, 1988) as a good entry point for students wanting to know more about Josephus.

Other resources are Greco-Roman. These might be less helpful, since they often reflect popular misconceptions of how Judaism was practiced in the first century. There are several excellent collections of this kind of material that save the student from having to sift through the hundreds of Loeb volumes looking for good background material. My favorite is Jewish Life and Thought among Greeks and Romans edited by Feldman and Reinhold (Fortress, 1996). Fortress also recently published Documents and Images for the Study of Paul edited by Elliott and Reasoner (2011). I have also enjoyed Robert Louis Wilken’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (Yale, 2003).

While it would be ideal for a reader of Galatians (or a student of Pauline theology) to have letters from the opponents, I think that there is sufficient data to support Paul’s description of the situation in Galatia as accurate.

Is it “fair” to include Acts as background to Galatians? Should we use other Jewish writings as supplementary materials for understanding this letter? What are the dangers of this approach?

Did Paul Convert From Judaism to Christianity?

For most Christians, Paul’s experience on the Road to Damascus in Acts 9 is the classic story of the conversion of the chief of sinners. Jesus himself appears to Rabbi Saul and confronts him with the truth of the resurrection and Saul completely changes everything about his life. For preachers, Paul’s experience is a clear example of what God can do in the life of every sinner. Paul refers to his experience as example of the lavishness of God’s grace and mercy.

There are some real problems with this view of Paul’s experience. Whether Paul was converted or not generates heated discussions among scholars and puzzles some outside the academy who assume Paul had a conversion experience not unlike their own. Aside from the assumption Paul experienced an existential crisis of faith, do the terms Judaism and Christianity really mean two different things in the mid-30s AD? Does Paul shift from one form of Second Temple Judaism to another? Is it more like changing Christian denominations than converting paganism to Christianity?

In Thinking through Paul, Longenecker and Still offer three reasons for scholarly debate over Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road (TTP 31). First, the terminology used to describe Paul’s experience varies within Acts and even within the letters of Paul. Did Paul experience a vision in Acts 9? How is that vision related to his 2 Corinthians 12? If this was a vision, perhaps it is more like the prophetic calling of Isaiah or Ezekiel rather than a conversion experience. Does Romans 7:13-25 describe Paul’s struggle with keeping the Law as a Jew? All of these are open questions!

Billy Sunday, Evangelist A second problem is the chronological relationship between Paul’s “conversion” and his “mission.” Perhaps it is inappropriate to describe Paul as converting from Judaism to Christianity in the modern sense of the word. Did Paul experience a conversion experience similar to a person who attends a modern evangelistic meeting, raises their hand and walks forward to “accept Jesus”? Or was his experience more of a calling to a particular mode of ministry, the mission to the Gentiles?

The relationship between conversion and mission raises a third problem for Longenecker and Still, how should Acts be used to unpack what happened to Paul? For some scholars, Luke’s story of the early church is suspect: he is a later writer trying to emphasize the unity of the church and (perhaps) promote Paul as a more significant leader than he really was. For other more conservative interpreters of Acts, Luke tells his story with a theological agenda but he does not create events out of nothing. He tells the story of Paul’s conversion three times in order to highlight the theological significance of Paul’s mission.

Yet it seems clear Paul had some kind of experience that really did cause him to rethink everything, even if he did not reject all aspects of Judaism in favor of Christianity. By appearing to Paul in his resurrection glory, Jesus radically changed Paul’s thinking in a way which cannot really be described as “conversion” in the contemporary sense.  It was a prophetic call like Isaiah or Ezekiel which resulted in a transformation of Paul’s thinking about who Jesus is and what he claimed to be.

Over the next few posts I will take up these topics and examine a few of the texts in which Paul describes his own calling to ministry. Perhaps this is a discussion that ought to stay in the academy, but I wonder if it is surprising to hear Paul did not experience a conversion in quite the same way modern Christians do?

Book Review: Craig A. Evans, and David Mishkin, eds. A Handbook on the Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith

Evans, Craig A. and David Mishkin, eds. A Handbook on the Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2019. 354 pp.; Pb; $24.95.  Link to Hendrickson

This book attempts to be “a comprehensive yet concise primer on the Jewish roots of the Christian faith.” The book therefore contains a series of short articles on aspects of Judaism written from the perspective of Jewish Christianity. Co-editor David Mishkin is a faculty member of Israel College of the Bible in Netanya, Israel and contributor Erez Soref serves as president of ICB. Many contributors to this collection are also associated with ICB, but there are several sections written by New Testament scholars who have done significant work on their assigned topic. In addition to Craig Evans as an editor and contributor of two articles, there are three essays from Andreas Köstenberger, two each from George Guthrie, Scot McKnight, Brian Rosner, and Jason Matson and a section on early devotion to Jesus by Larry Hurtado.

The book has thirteen chapters divided between four sections; each chapter has three to five subsections written by various contributors. Since this is a handbook, the subsections are brief and can be read individually. The book uses in-text citations and each section concludes with a Works Cited. These references can be used for further study of the individual topics.

The titles for the four sections use a metaphor of an olive tree, beginning with the Soil (exploring the Jewish ground from which the Christian faith developed), the Roots (tracing the Jewish world, life and teaching of Jesus), the Trunk (developing the Jewishness of the disciples of Jesus and the apostle Paul) and finally the Branches (the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity).

In the first part of the book surveys the Jewish soil from which Christianity developed. The first chapter examines God’s plan for Israel by tracing various covenants in the Hebrew Bible. After an introductory chapter on the kingdom and covenants, there are short descriptions of the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic and New Covenants. Seth Postell discusses the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 15 and 17, concluding “the Abrahamic covenant provides God’s unconditional commitment to restore the blessing through the provision of the seed and the land” (16).

Chapter 2 reviews God’s plan for the nations in the Torah, Prophets and Writings. The essays in this chapter recognize the nations as Israel’s enemy and enticer, but also the salvation of the nations “in the last days.” Like the second chapter, chapter three reviews messianic prophecies in the Torah, Prophets and Writings. The section on the Torah focuses on the “prophet like Moses.” Brian Kinzel’s section on messianic psalms is an excellent overview, including both Jewish and Christian interpretations of these Psalms. Craig Evans contributes a frustratingly brief section on the New Testament use of the Old. After about a page on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Evans divides the section into Matthew and John (“the two most Jewish gospels”), Mark and Luke, and Paul and Hebrews. Evans has a second contribution on the Jews and Judaism in the Gospel if John in chapter 9. It is impossible to do justice to Paul’s use of the Old Testament in a half page. Although the handbook has a chapter on Paul, there is nothing more directly on his use of the Old Testament. Likewise, the complex exegesis of the book of Hebrews needs further explanation. Fortunately chapter 9 has a good section on Hebrews by George Guthrie.

The fourth and fifth chapters deal with a few details of Second Temple Judaism. Chapter four surveys the “appointed times” (Sabbath, Passover, Shavuot, Purim and Hanukkah). For each special day, the authors provide a synopsis of the day in the Hebrew Bible, some discussion of the special days in the New Testament, and a short note on the practice today. Chapter 5 is entitled Tabernacle and Temple, although the chapter comprises two sections on the atonement and salvation in the Old Testament. A third section by George Guthrie concerns Jesus and the tabernacle/temple. He connects Second Temple period expectations of an eschatological Temple with Jesus’s apocalyptic prophecies and the “cleansing” of the Temple. Further, he draws attention to Paul’s teaching of the church as a temple of God (Eph 2:19-22) and Jesus’s replacement of the Temple in the Gospel of John. This section could have including the superiority of Jesus to the tabernacle in Hebrews and the apocalyptic replacement of the Temple in Revelation.

The second section of the book is focused on the life and teaching of Jesus as a representative of the Jewish world. Chapter 6 covers the archaeology, literature, social groups and institutions of Second Temple Judaism, including a section on Jewish messianic expectations prior to the time of Jesus. Sheila Gyllenberg contributes an excellent article on the archaeology of Jesus, briefly summarizing place names and material remains which bear on Jesus research. She contributes a second section in the chapter on the Jewish literature of the period, Jim Sibley surveys Second Temple social groups and Andreas Stutz has sections on Jewish institutions (synagogue, temple, etc) and Messianic expectations in the Second Temple period. After a short comment on general messianic expectations, he divides the expectations into three sections, Hellenistic Judaism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Rabbinic Judaism.

Chapter 7 examines the “Jewish life and identity of Jesus” beginning with Craig Evans’s overview of the ministry of Jesus, Andreas Stutz gives a short piece on the Son of man in Daniel 7.  Stutz points out Daniel 7:13-14 was “unequivocally related to the messiah” and that Jesus applied the title Son of Man to “exclusively and unambiguously to his return (see Matt 24:30; 26:64, Luke 21:26-27)” (158). Andreas Köstenberger contributes two sections to this chapter, one on the I Am statements in John and another on the trials and crucifixion. Finally in this section, Larry Hurtado gives a brief summary of his view on early Christian devotion to Jesus. For Hurtado, although Jesus was revered during his ministry, devotion to Jesus as God “seems to have been a major escalation in which the risen Jesus was given the kinds of reverence that are otherwise restricted to God” (175).

After a short section by Köstenberger on Jesus as a rabbi, chapter 8 discusses two examples of Jesus’ teaching, the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount (both sections by Scot McKnight). McKnight points out Jesus was not a moral philosopher in the Greek (or modern) traditions, but a Jew, and Jewish ethics derive ultimately from God. Jesus’s teaching is therefore based on the law, prophets and wisdom (189). Russell Morton has a short section on one of Jesus’s most Jewish forms of teaching, the parables.

The third section of the book (“the trunk”) is devoted to the development of Christianity first by the Jewish disciples of Jesus (ch. 9) and then by Paul (ch. 10). The goal of both these chapters is to highlight the Jewishness of the earliest followers of Jesus. As Jim Sibley points out, the early church “did not need to conduct a careful search for its Jewish roots. It was entirely Jewish!” (206). For many Christians, Paul is an example of a Gentile Christianity which rejected the Law. But as Brian Rosner says in his section on Paul in modern scholarship, Paul was a Jew “who believed Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s long-awaited Messiah, had called him to the servant, prophetic, and priestly task of heralding the gospel to the nations” (235). Although Paul is clear the Gentile followers of Jesus are not “under the Law,” he often has a positive view of the Law (242). Chapter 11 is devoted resurrection as key to the Jewish message of Christianity. Resurrection was anticipated in the Old Testament, developed in the Second Temple period and was the central to Paul’s theology.

The final section of the book concern the parting of the ways in early Judaism (David Mishkin), early Christianity (Jason Matson), and the Middle Ages (Ray Pritz). Although neither Mishkin nor Matson point to a specific event which forced Judaism and Christianity to develop in separate directions, Christianity’s developing Christology and devotion to Jesus as God forced Jews to consider Christians as blasphemous (286, following Larry Hurtado and Michael Bird).

The final chapter of the book offers some suggestions for the “mending of the ways.” Erez Soref traces the roots of the Messianic movement in modern Israel. This movement includes both Jews and Arabs (302), an alliance which is not without its problems. Messianic Jews and evangelical Arabs often view one another with suspicion, but hope to have a “weighty missiological effect on a war-torn land” (306).

Conclusion. A Handbook on the Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith is just that, a handbook. As such, the articles are tantalizingly brief, but the authors provide sufficient bibliographical material to point interested readers in the right direction. Since many of the writers are associated with Israel College of the Bible or other Messianic Jewish organizations, some readers will find the perspective of the book too narrow. Given the purpose of the book to draw attention to the Jewish roots of Christianity, this should not be a reason to avoid the book. For readers interested in exploring the Jewish Christianity from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, this Handbook will be a valuable guide.

NB: Thanks to Hendrickson for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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?”

Acts 15:13-21 – James and the Jerusalem Council

One of the most interesting things about the Jerusalem meeting is that it is James who appears as the key leader and is described as rendering a decision on the matter of Gentiles and the Law (Acts 15:13-21). The structure of the Jerusalem community seems to center around elders, and James appears to be the leader of this group of elders. To take up a thread from earlier in the book, the Jerusalem community is living like a new Israel. In the early history of Israel, Moses led as a prophet, but through a council of 70 elders.

council-of-jerusalemWithin this community there are some who are “more conservative” with respect to the Law, primarily Pharisees (v.5). These Pharisees accept Jesus as the Messiah, but consider the Gentiles who are coming to Christ as a result of Paul’s mission as “joining Israel.” If the community thought of itself as new Israel, then Gentiles in Paul’s churches were like Gentiles who joined Israel in the Hebrew Bible. The ought to “convert” and accept Jewish Law and practice.

Luke intends his description of the meeting in Acts 15 to show to Theophilus that the church is an orderly independent entity that functions in a way that is similar to the Greco-Roman world. A question that effects the whole is presented to an assembly, which debates that issue and makes a decision that the whole accepts (Witherington, Acts, 451). Luke describes a report from Peter and Barnabas, explaining that the Holy Spirit has come upon Gentiles as it is the Jews at Pentecost, and that miracles are being done by the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles.

James states that it is not right to “trouble” the Gentiles with the Law. The verb παρενοχλέω is rare in the New Testament, only used in this passage. It does appears in 2 Macc 11:31 in a text describing the Jews being permitted to “enjoy their own food and laws” without being troubled by the Greek authorities. In that case, the Jews were not to be “troubled” over their keeping of boundary markers like circumcision or food laws, here in Acts the Gentiles are not to have the Law imposed upon them.

The position of James in the Jerusalem council bears on the date of the writing of the Epistle of James. While this cannot be stated too dogmatically, it appears that the letter of James written before the Council as well. He is clearly writing to Jews, especially those Jews that are living outside of Palestine. He is also dealing with the same sorts of issues, how do we “keep the law” in the new age? The fact that he deals with the same language as Paul (“justified by faith”) is remarkable, as if he has heard Paul’s teaching and is trying to clarify it for the Jewish audience.

Perhaps James is the best to make the statement since he stands between the two parties, the Gentile Party represented by Paul, and the Circumcision party represented by the Pharisees. It is hard to know just how much “power” James has at this point, but the resolution seems to keep both sides happy.

Does it seem like this solution satisfies everyone? Paul never (specifically) mentions it in his letters and he continues to have trouble with Judaizers.

Acts 15:7-11 – Peter and the Yoke of the Law

YokePeter reports his experience with Gentile salvation and argues that requiring Gentiles to keep the Law is placing an unnecessary yoke upon them (Acts 15:7-11).  He first briefly reminds the assembly of his encounter with Cornelius, a conversion which was confirmed by evidence from the Holy Spirit. At the time this was a shock to Peter and his companions, as well as to the Jerusalem community. Cornelius received the Spirit before he converted to Judaism. In hindsight, this may be the reason that the Spirit comes upon him even before baptism, so that there can be no question that Cornelius was saved apart from conversion.

When Peter describes the Law as a “yoke” on the Gentiles he is not necessarily criticizing the Law. In Judaism, the idea of being “yoked” to the Law is a positive image, although there is often the implication of completeness – if you are yoked to the Law, you are required to keep it all (Bock, Acts, 501).  To live under the yoke of the Torah or yoke of Wisdom was to live as God intended!

Sirach 51:26 Put your neck under (wisdom’s) yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by.

PsSol 7.8-9  For you will have compassion on the people Israel forever  and you will not reject (them); And we are under your yoke forever, and (under) the whip of your discipline.

m.Aboth 3:5 R. Nehunya b. Haqqaneh says, “From whoever accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah do they remove the yoke of the state and the yoke of hard labor. And upon whoever removes from himself the yoke of the Torah do they lay the yoke of the state and the yoke of hard labor.”

m.Ber 2.2 Said R. Joshua b. Qorha, “Why does [the passage of] Shema precede [that of] And it shall come to pass [if you keep my commandments]? So that one may first accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and afterwards may accept the yoke of the commandments.

Despite being given the Law, Peter says the forefathers were never able to “bear the yoke.” Luke 11:46 uses a similar phrase with respect to the traditions of the Pharisees, so it is possible Peter has  “beyond the Torah” traditions in mind.  I really cannot see the requirement of circumcision for converts to Judaism  as one of these sorts of burdens, however.

What is more, Peter calls the imposition of law on the Gentiles “testing God.”  Luke used πειράζω in Acts 5:9, Sapphira “tests” the Holy Spirit.”  To “test God” is to invite disaster! Like Gamaliel’s advice to the Sanhedrin, perhaps it is better to let Paul continue rather than to be on the wrong side of God’s work in this new age. In fact, Peter has already learned God accepts Gentiles without circumcision when the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius (before circumcision and before baptism!) For Peter, it is dangerous for the Jerusalem community to impose the Law on these new Gentile converts.

Peter therefore is agreeing with Paul, God saves both Jew and Gentile by faith.  But God has only given the Law to Israel, not the Gentiles. He agrees with Paul’s claim that Gentiles are not converts to Judaism, although he may stop short of agreeing that Jews and Gentiles both are converts to something new, a new people of God which Paul will later call the “body of Christ” (Eph 3:1-6). Peter is not saying that Jews ought to disregard Law, but only that Gentiles ought not be given this additional burden.

Acts 15 – Why is Circumcision So Important?

In Acts 15:2, Paul and Barnabas have a “sharp dispute” with people who have come from Jerusalem to Antioch to urge Gentile converts to submit to circumcision in order to be saved. Why was circumcision such an important issue in Acts 15? Why does Paul think it is important enough to travel to Jerusalem and discuss the matter with Peter, James, and members of the Jerusalem community who were Pharisees (Acts 15:5)?

Copy (17th century) of Garofalo, The Circumcision of Christ, 1519Circumcision was a major factor in Jewish identity. While the practice of circumcision itself is not unique to the Jews in the Ancient world, although some of the traditions based on the Hebrew Bible are specifically Jewish.  Circumcision is given as a sign of the Covenant of Abraham in Genesis 17, yet the ritual itself did not confer “spiritual blessing” as a sign of the covenant.  For this reason the prophets told the people that they needed a “circumcised heart – clearly a metaphorical use of the idea of circumcision (Deut. 10:16, 30:6; Jer 4:4; Ezek 44:7, 9).

There is strong evidence that during the intertestamental period and into the first century, at least part of the Jews thought that circumcision was required for the convert to Judaism.  (See, for example, Lawrence Schiffman in Jewish and Christian Self-Definition Volume 2 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 115-156, especially 125-127.  Schiffman discusses the Talmud (Yebamot 46) and the importance of the Izates story in Josephus Antiq. 20.2.4, see this post for more details on this story).

For the Jew, circumcision was one of a handful of important boundary markers which set them apart from the rest of the world.  For the Gentile, circumcision was a strange mutilation of the flesh.  Greco-Roman writers who comment on Judaism usually ridicule the practice.  Marital, for example, seems to find a great deal of (naughty) humor in the Jewish practice (Epigrams 7.35.3-4; 7,82, 11.94).

Paul does not reject circumcision for Gentile converts for practical missionary concerns. Sometimes Paul’s Law-free Gospel for the Gentiles is described as a shrewd move on Paul’s part in order to make a Jewish religion more palatable to the Greco-Roman world. But Gentiles were attracted to Judaism in the first century. Shaye Cohen suggested several levels of attraction to Judaism, including simple admiration of Jewish life, benefaction towards Jewish synagogues, joining the Jewish community, and full conversion to Judaism (The Beginnings of Jewishness, 140-197; “Respect for Judaism by Gentiles according to Josephus,” HTR 80 (1987): 409-430). Michael Bird argued Second Temple period Jews successfully proselytized Gentiles, although Judaism was not a missionary religion (Crossing over Sea and Land, 149). If Gentiles were already attracted to Judaism and some did in fact fully convert, this may explain why Paul’s Gentile churches in Galatia were tempted to accept circumcision and other Torah practices as a part of their new faith in Jesus.

As an analogy, the evangelical Christian church has more or less accepted rock-styled praise bands as necessary to appeal to the modern world.  Most churches have (rightly) rejected the idea that worship music must be played only on a proper pipe-organ.  In most cases, this shift in worship style is motivated by a desire to stay contemporary for evangelistic reasons. This is how some see Paul’s rejection of circumcision as a entrance requirement into faith in Jesus. Richard Pervo, for example, suggested the implied reader of Acts believed Gentiles were eager to participate in the divine promises but found some practices of Judaism to be an obstacle. This is particularly true for circumcision, but Sabbath and food taboos were also considered odd in the Greco-Roman world. Pervo finds it difficult to imagine why Paul’s Gentile converts would have been receptive to Jewish practice in the light of the narrative of Acts, yet Galatians presupposes some Gentiles were tempted to fully convert to Judaism by submitting to circumcision (Pervo, Acts, 334).

Such a view makes light of the practice of circumcision in the first century. If this is the sign of Abraham’s covenant  given by God, how can it be rejected as inconsequential?  Paul does not merely call circumcision for Gentiles meaningless, he says it is dangerous.  If one allows himself to be circumcised, he is in danger of nullifying the grace of God! (See Gal 1:6-9, for example.)  Paul arrives in Jerusalem in Acts 15 convinced that any Law added to the Gospel is no gospel at all, including circumcision.  Whatever God is doing among the Gentiles in Asia Minor (Acts 14), there is no conversion to Judaism.  Schnabel makes this point in Paul the Missionary in the context of the book of Galatians (126): “Paul insists that the Gentiles do not have to become Jews before they are accepted by God as followers of the Messiah” (emphasis added).

Perhaps my analogy to modern worship-practice is lame because music is not an essential part of the Gospel. Why is Paul so upset in Acts 15:1-2 at the suggestion Gentile converts ought to submit to circumcision?