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?

 

 

Acts 15 – What Was the Jerusalem Council?

As Paul and Barnabas moved into new territory they evangelized the Gentiles directly. After the initial contact in a town at the synagogue, the work of evangelism focused on the Gentiles of the community. The church was expanding into areas where the Jewish Christians would not have naturally seen as their “mission field.” As Gentiles accepted Christ and began to fellowship with ethnic Jews, some problems arose primarily concerning the Gentiles not keeping of the Law. By Acts 15 enough Gentiles have accepted Jesus as messiah and savior that some Jewish Christians in Jerusalem argue they ought to start keeping the Law, beginning with circumcision but food taboos (implied from decision in Acts 15:24-29; but see also the situation in Galatians 2:1-11-15).

We know from Acts 10 that Peter was instructed by the Lord to preach the gospel to Cornelius, a Roman Centurion and God-Fearer. Peter was hesitant to do so, and after he returns to Jerusalem the Jewish Christians there question Peter closely about why he had entered into the house of a Gentile. Peter appears to have understood that salvation was moving into the Gentile world. But Paul was doing more than preaching to God-Fearers in the synagogues who were keeping most of the Law in the first place. He was preaching the gospel to Gentiles and telling them that they did not have to keep the Law in order to be saved. This means that they did not have to worry about Jewish food laws or circumcision, two of the most fundamental boundary markers for the Jew in the first century.

Not Like This

Not Like This

Until Paul reached out to Sergius Paulus in Cyprus, Christianity was a messianic movement within Judaism. People who were accepting Jesus in Jerusalem (and even Antioch) were not rejecting the Law. They remained fully “Jewish” in every sense other than they believed the resurrected Jesus is the Messiah.T hey appear to have maintained ritual purity as they always had, they ate only clean foods, and they continued the practice of circumcision for converts to the faith. This conflict In Acts 15 between Jewish Christians and Gentile (Pauline) Christians was the first major problem in the church. The issue appears in several of Paul’s letters (Galatians primarily, but it is also found in 1 Corinthians, Colossians; Romans 9-11 deals with the problem of the Jews in the current age).

Acts 15:1 indicates some people came from Jerusalem to Antioch and said “unless you are circumcised according to the customs taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This means a Gentile God-fearer like Cornelius must fully convert to Judaism in order to be a real follower of Jesus. This group of Jewish Christians are usually called the Judaizers, although scholars working on Galatians call them “the agitators” or simply “Paul’s opponents.” Since Galatians implies these opponents were sent by the Jerusalem community, some scholars call them the “men from James” (Gal 2:11-12, sometimes using the modifier “allegedly”).

From the book of Galatians it is clear Paul told his Gentile converts they ought not submit to circumcision since they were not under the old covenant. In fact, there is neither Jew nor Gentile in this new age. Gentiles were not converting to a form of Judaism, nor are Jews rejecting Judaism and becoming Gentiles. For Paul, what is happen is something new and radical, God is accepting both Jew and Gentile by faith apart from the works of the Law. (See this post on whether Galatians was written before or after Acts 15). The relationship between Paul’s Galatian opponents and the “certain men” who traveled to Antioch to tell Gentiles circumcision was required is complicated; for now it is important to observe there are some Jewish believers in Jesus who understand this new movement as a kind of reform movement within Second Temple Judaism and not a new religion.

In his commentary on Acts, Darrell Bock makes the excellent observation that this “council” ought to be called a “consultation” since it is not like the later church councils which decide doctrine for the church. This is quite true, although (in my view) Bock does not take this far enough. Paul does not take his teaching that Gentiles are not required to keep the Law to Jerusalem in order to be approved by the apostolic community. He does not argue his case and accept the will of the apostolic community. Rather, Paul reports what it is that God has been doing and the “Judiazers” appear accept Paul’s position on the issue.

What is at stake in the Jerusalem Council? We know the Jerusalem community agrees with Paul that Gentiles ought to be free from the “yoke of the Law” as Peter puts it (15:16), but there are some issues which will cause friction in Christian communities with both Jewish and Gentile believers. What are the implications for Paul’s mission if the Jerusalem community disagreed with his law-free Gospel for the Gentiles?

Galatians 1:6 – I Am Astonished!

One of the first thing the reader of Galatians must realize is that Paul is very upset that some people in his churches are considering keeping the Law as a part of their salvation.  Why is Paul so harsh on those that are preaching that Gentile sought to keep the law?

F. F. Bruce suggests that Paul knows that law-keeping for salvation is a “snare and a delusion” from his own personal experience. He had kept the law as perfectly as anyone, yet he had not been pleasing to God. But he clearly sees that now. In addition to the simple self-deception of law-keeping legalism, Paul knows that there are dangerous implications for those gentiles that try to keep the Law, they risk not really being saved.

I am shocked, shocked!

I am shocked, shocked!

This is possible, but it does not really take into account recent studies on Paul and Judaism. For example, the Pharisees did not really think that keeping the law made one right with God. The Jew is right with God by election (God chose Israel), and the Jew stays right with God by keeping the Law as best as he can.

Not all Jews had to be Pharisees, but all Jews keep the “Works of the Law:” Sabbath, Food Laws and Circumcision were the principle boundary markers which defined “a Jew. ” I think that Paul means that if the Galatian Gentiles keep the boundary markers, they will be not really different than Gentile god-fearers. These people worship in the synagogue and try to keep the law as best they can as non-proselyte Gentiles.

To acknowledge Jesus is to acknowledge that the Law has been fulfilled in him as the Messiah and the believer is under no obligation to keep the law.

The fact remains that Paul’s gospel is that God sent Christ into the world to rescue those who were condemned in this evil age. Gentiles are not converting to Judaism, they are saved apart from the Law. If they are converting to Judaism, then they are not really saved, since the Jew also needs to accept the Gospel.

The harshness we detect is perhaps more of a product of our modern, western multiculturalism. Paul declares boldly that there is only one Gospel, his Gospel. The others are wrong, with the result that a person cannot be right with God apart from Paul’s gospel.

Acts 15 – Why was Circumcision So Important?

Circumcision 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 Second Temple 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, Schiffman in Jewish and Christian Self-Definition Volume 2 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 115-156, especially 125-127.  Schiffman discusses Talmud Yebamot 46 and the importance of the Izates story in Josephus Antiq. 20.2.4).

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).

It is not the case that Paul rejected circumcision for Gentile converts because it would result in more Gentile converts.  Some have taken Paul’s stand on the Law as motivated by practical missionary concerns.  In this view, Paul considered circumcision such a road -block to Gentile mission that he rejected in order to reach the pagan world.  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 do evangelism in a contemporary context, to provide more meaningful worship to the younger generations, etc.  Paul did more or less the same thing, it is argued, in rejecting the so-called strange elements of Judaism for his Gentile churches.

Church SteelpeSuch a view makes light of the practice of circumcision in the first century.  If circumcision was given by God as the sign of Abraham’s covenant, how could Paul reject it 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.

Eckhard 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).  The  Gentile believer is therefore not a member of “new Israel” being formed in Jerusalem, but something new altogether.  Later, Paul will call this new people of God the “body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27; Eph 3:1-6).