Acts 16:3 – Was Paul a Hypocrite?

In Acts 16:3, Paul circumcised Timothy, a Hellenistic Jew who begins to travel with Paul during the second missionary journey.  The problem is Paul’s reasons for circumcising Timothy at this time. 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. One option is to dismiss this story as a fiction created by Luke to create the appearance of unity in the Early Church (F.C. Baur). Since it does not seem likely the Paul of Galatians would have circumcised Timothy, this story is taken as evidence Luke to not know Paul or the letter of Galatians. Or perhaps Paul was just inconsistent in the application of the decision of the council.

Timothy_stained-glassThe traditional answer for this dilemma is rooted in Luke’s description of Timothy’s parents in Acts 16:3. Since his mother was a Jew, his father was a Greek, he would have been considered ethnically Jewish. The ruling that the one’s status as a Jew was traced through the mother’s line dates back to the time of Ezra and the Mishnah includes a similar ruling often dated 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).

Shayne Cohen has challenged the relevance of these texts and argued Timothy was actually a Gentile who happened to have a Jewish mother (“Was Timothy Jewish (Acts 16:1-3): Patristic Exegesis, Rabbinic Law, And Matrilineal Descent,” JBL 105 [1986]: 251-268). He states “The Roman law of persons is completely irrelevant” for this case since there is no hint either of Timothy’s parents were Roman citizens. The Rabbinic texts often cited cannot be dated to the first century with any certainty. For Cohen, Ezra use of matrilineal descent is not relevant since it is not mentioned again in any Second Temple document other than the implication in Acts 16:3. Even if matrilineal descent was a principle in the first century, there is no evidence Hellenistic Jews in Asia Minor would have recognized it as valid. Finally, Cohen points out that no other New Testament text implies Timothy was a Jew. Even 2 Tim 1:5 does not require Timothy to be Jewish.

Yet Timothy is circumcised in Acts 16:3. I think it is wrong think Timothy was forced to be circumcised. He was complete agreement with Paul on this matter! I suggest that despite Cohen’s objections, from the perspective of the most observant Jew in Asia Minor, Timothy was a Jew, not a Gentile. Luke also tells us the reason Paul circumcised him was pressure from the Jews in Lystra and Iconium. They presumably knew 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.

Craig Keener sees this incident as an example of Luke’s literary-theological agenda (3:2321). After achieving unity on the issue of Gentile circumcision, Luke reports Paul did not excuse Jewish Christians from circumcision. Luke intentionally told this story after Acts 15 to emphasize the fact Paul was not a threat to Jewish heritage.

Does Paul do the right thing in requiring Timothy to keep the Law, even though he argues passionately in Galatians that those who are “in Christ” are not “under Law?”

Acts 15:37-40 – A Parting of the Ways: Part 2

[This is another post by a student in my Advanced Acts Studies seminar class, Camron Befus. Camron prepared a lecture on the conflict between Barnabas and Paul, so I asked him to write two blog posts on the topic.]

Argument 2Barnabas wishes to take his cousin John Mark on a second missionary journey Paul has proposed. But Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had already deserted them in Pamphylia and not continued with them in the work. They had such a “sharp disagreement that they parted company…” (Acts 15:38-39). Luke uses the word παροξυσμὸς for “sharp disagreement,” which is an odd choice of words to describe Paul’s disagreement. The word most often is used as “to stir to anger,” “to be irritated,” to do something that causes a person to get upset at a person. This is exactly what happened to Paul, as he was “provoked to anger” by Barnabas request.

This word is used in the Septuagint to describe God’s anger or wrath when he is provoked:

Deuteronomy 1:34-35 “When the Lord heard what you said, he was angry and solemnly swore: “No one from this evil generation shall see the good land I swore to give your ancestors…”

Deuteronomy 29:27 “Therefore the Lord’s anger burned against this land, so that he brought on it all the curses written in this book.”

Jeremiah 32:37 (LXX 39:37) “I will surely gather them from all the lands where I banish them in my furious anger and great wrath; I will bring them back to this place and let them live in safety.”

Luke describes Paul as being very angry at Barnabas wishing to bring John Mark along, and we quickly see they even split up because of this disagreement. From Luke’s perspective Paul evidently believed he is in the right in this discussion. Luke chooses a word commonly used to describe the unfaithfulness of the Israelites towards God to describe Paul’s anger. Did Luke use this word because he was agreeing with Paul decision to be against John Mark coming on the trip? Or did Luke use this strong of a word for this disagreement because he was disappointed in Paul having such a strong reaction against his companion?

Some scholars believe Paul is the one who is in the wrong: he did not wait for the Holy Spirit’s leading to go on a second missionary journey. It was the Holy Spirit who had moved Paul and Barnabas to be commissioned and go on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-4). Perhaps God used Paul’s impatience to show him that good does not come from not waiting on God.

Paul was not going to change his mind about bringing John Mark and Barnabas must have felt the same way, so they parted ways. Their solution to the problem was to continue reaching the Gentiles, although they will no longer work together. Barnabas took John Mark to Cyprus and Paul recruited Silas and went to Derbe. They went to the towns Paul had visited on his first missionary journey.

What did Luke intended by using this particular word to describe Paul’s anger? Who was in the right in this conflict over John Mark?

Acts 15:37-40 – A Parting of the Ways: Part 1

[This is another post by a student in my Advanced Acts Studies seminar class, Camron Befus. Camron prepared a lecture on the conflict between Barnabas and Paul, so I asked him to write two blog posts on the topic.]

The first conflict in Paul’s ministry occurs over a particular person (Acts 15:37-40). Paul proposes to his colleague Barnabas to revisit the churchs they had planted from their first missionary journey (Acts 13-14). Barnabas agrees but wants to take John Mark along. Mark had accompanied them on their first missionary journey but abandoned them half way through the trip (Acts 13:13).

Businessmen fightingThe Bible gives no reason for John Mark’s rapid departure in Perga of Pamphylia. Scholars have speculated on the reason for his departure because it caused Paul to be against John Mark coming on the second missions trip. His abandoning the group appears to be the principal reason if not only reason for Paul not desiring him to join them. Some have speculated that John Mark was home sick and therefore decided to return to Jerusalem where his mother is believed to have lived (Acts 12:12).

Another reason for his quick departure was that, James the leader of the Jerusalem counsel, was keeping tabs on Paul and his new ministry, and John Mark was there for the wrong reason. He abandoned them after he had seen what Paul’s message was and reported back to the counsel.

It is also sometimes suggested John Mark was still immature in Paul’s eyes. Paul did not wish to bring a ministry in itself along on what was certain to be a difficult trip as Paul knew hardship and persecution was coming. Acts 15:38 says “but Paul did not think it wise to take him.” This phrase might be translated as, “Paul did not think him ready.” Another factor is that John Mark was the cousin of Barnabas (Col. 4:10) which meant he would most likely side with Barnabas on any discussion. Whatever the case for his departure Paul was against Barnabas’s desire to bring John Mark along.

Another area that might have contributed to Paul and Barnabas going separate ways is found in Gal. 2:11-13, “The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.” Barnabas is influenced by the men who were sent to Antioch. These men would not eat with the Gentiles and Barnabas joined them. This is important depending on how Gal 2 fits into the chronology of the book of Acts. If the Antioch Incident occurs after Acts 15, then Barnabas would have sided with Paul in the Jerusalem Counsel against circumcision but then back stabbed Paul because he was influencing the Gentiles to turn back to the Law. If it is placed before the Jerusalem Counsel occurs in Acts 15 then Barnabas would have sided and back Paul up at the Jerusalem counsel. This would have shown Paul his true understanding of the ministry to the Gentiles and that he had a backbone.

Many scholars have argued Gal 2 occurs before Acts 15, perhaps sometime in Acts 11. The reason for this is that in Gal 2 Paul states he went to Jerusalem to meet with the counsel by a revelation and meet in secret (Gal 2:1-2). This was done to further explain and understand the ministry God had called him to. He does the speaking to the counsel while in Acts 15 Paul is just a witness and Peter does the talking. In Acts 15 Paul does not go on his own accord but is sent by the church in Antioch who wanted to understand more thoroughly what to do when it came to circumcision.

Was Paul correct in splitting ways with Barnabas over John Mark? Was the main cause for Paul and Barnabas going separate ways because of the disagreement over John Mark or do you believe that something was adding to it as well? Was Luke trying to mask a bigger problem behind the disagreement over John Mark?

Acts 15:13-21 – James Emerges as a Leader

Saint JamesOne of the most interesting things about the Jerusalem meeting is that it is James who appears as a 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.

Within 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. They 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.

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.

I wonder if this solution really satisfied everyone, since Paul never (specifically) mentions it in his letters and he continues to have trouble with Judaizers.

 

Acts 15:7-11 – Putting God to the Test

Test in ProgressPeter 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.

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 traditions which go “beyond the Torah” 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.” The verb is often used for testing something to see if it is genuine or a person to see if they will prove themselves to be true. Perhaps this is why Luke used πειράζω in 5:9, Sapphira “tests” the Holy Spirit in order to see if he will “prove true.” But to test God is always to invite disaster! Peter already knows if God has accepted a Gentile without circumcision and given the Gentiles the Holy Spirit, then it is dangerous for the Jerusalem community to require circumcision as a proof of God’s commitment to Gentile salvation.

Peter is agrees 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 should not be given the additional of the Law.

What are the ramifications of Peter’s speech here in Acts 15? In the short term, this may sway James’s mind to accept Paul’s view of Gentiles and the Law, but do you think Peter’s views were enough to change thinking of the opponents of Paul in Galatia or in Antioch? Perhaps more interesting is the application of Peter’s agreement with Paul for modern church life and practice; do we “test God” today with any modern practices?

Acts 15 – Defining “Christian”

Church Keep OutThe first major controversy the early church dealt with strikes the modern reader a strange.  Rather than debating who Jesus was or beginning to develop the doctrine of the Trinity, the first major theological problem they need to solve was the status of the Gentile who has faith in Jesus.  Are Gentiles converting to Judaism? If so, at what level should they keep the Law? Are they “God Fearers”?  Are they Proselytes? If there is an implied secondary status for the Gentile believers, how does that status effect their participation in the church?

Why was circumcision of Gentiles such a controversial issue? In Acts 13-14 Paul had success among Gentiles and established several churches with mixed congregations of Jews and Gentiles. Some Gentiles may have been “God Fearers” who worshiped in the synagogues, but others may have been converts from paganism with no grounding in the ethics of the Hebrew Bible. Jews would have continued to keep the Law as Christians, but what about these Gentiles? Should they “fully convert” and submit to circumcision?

This was not a minor difference in practice. It was seriously controversial for several reasons. First, circumcision was a major factor in Jewish identity. Prior to the Maccabean revolt, the practice of circumcision was suppressed and families that had their son circumcised were put to death (1 Mac 1:60-61). Some Jews forcibly circumcised Jewish boys if their families did not follow the tradition (1 Mac 2:46). This imposition of circumcision was described as “They rescued the law out of the hands of the Gentiles and kings” (1 Macc 2:48). Given the rising Jewish national of the middle first century, it is not unexpected some Jews might insist on circumcision for all people claiming to be Jews, including the new Messiah Jesus movement.

Second, for many in the Greco-Roman world, circumcision was one of the most ridiculous practices of the Jews.  Marital, for example, seems to find a great deal of humor in the Jewish practice (Epigrams 7.35.3-4; 7,82, 11.94). The practice was seen as a strange mutilation of the flesh and a sign of extreme dishonor. For this reason, some Jewish men underwent surgery to reverse the makes of circumcision (1 Macc 1:15, see for example Neil J McEleney, “Conversion, Circumcision and the Law,” NTS 20 [1974]: 319-341.)

Third, Paul was teaching his Church in Galatian there is neither Jew nor Gentile in the Body of Christ (Gal 3:28). If Gentiles convert to Judaism, then the church is Jewish; if Jews rejects the Law and behave like Gentiles, then the church is “Gentile.” Paul’s point is God is creating something different than Judaism in the present age. The “church” is not a form of Judaism nor is it a Gentile mystery religion. The church in Paul’s view transcends ethnicity (neither Jew or Gentile), gender (neither male or female) and social boundaries (neither slave nor free).

Authorized-PersonsFor Paul, if the Gentiles are forced to keep the Jewish boundary markers, then they have converted to Judaism and they are not “in Christ.”  This would have been radical in the first century Jewish world, but it is still remarkably difficult for Christians two thousand years later.  There is a perception people have to “act like a Christian” to be right with God. There are certain “boundary markers” defining who is “in” and who is “out.” Most of the time these are unacceptable behaviors: matters of food and drink, entertainment, etc. While doctrine is important as well, I have seen more exclusion based on how someone looked before finding out what they believe.

I do not want to reduce the controversy over circumcision to a trite discussion over whether Christians can get tattoos. Acts 15 represents the first time Christians thought about what the people of God were in the new age of the Spirit. To what extent does modern Christianity elevate practice to the level of a boundary marker? Do we still exclude people from the Body of Christ on the basis of ethnicity or social status? How does the decision of Acts 15 speak to these issues?

Acts 15 – The Significance of the Jerusalem Council

Darrell Bock makes an important observation concerning this “council.” He suggests it ought to be called a consultation rather than a council since it is not like the later “church councils” which decided doctrine for the church (Nicea, for example). This is true, although I think Bock does not take this far enough. Paul does not submit his Gospel to the elders at Jerusalem and he certainly is not requesting permission to waive the requirements of the Law for Gentiles. Nor is he described as arguing his case or reaching a compromise with the apostolic community in Jerusalem.

As Paul and Barnabas moved into Asia Minor they evangelized Gentiles who were not connected with a Synagogue. These are not God-fearing Gentiles like Cornelius. Paul was expanding his mission into areas (geographically and culturally) the Jerusalem church would not have naturally considered 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. These teachers are sometimes called “the Judaizers” since they were interested in converted the Gentiles to a form of Second Temple Judaism.

apostles-creed3The core of the problem is that up until Paul, Christianity was a messianic movement within Judaism. The people accepting Christ in Jerusalem (and even Antioch) were not rejecting the Law. They remained fully “Jewish” in every sense. They maintained ritual purity as they always had, they ate only clean foods, and may have continued the practice of circumcision for converts to the faith. For many of the earliest followers of Jesus, Christianity was not a “new religion” as much as a reform movement within Judaism.

This conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile (Pauline) Christians was the first major problem in the church Luke reports, although Gal 2 describes Paul’s conflict with Peter and Barnabas over table fellowship. It is possible Luke alludes to the the Antioch Incident in Acts 15:1-2, but this is unlikely since the main issue in Acts is circumcision of Gentile converts, not eating with Gentiles.

Acts 15:1-2 says people from Jerusalem travelled to Antioch and were teaching people were not saved unless they were “circumcised according to the custom of Moses.” I will deal with the idea of “circumcision for salvation” in my next post, but at this it is enough to observe that some Jews refused to recognize Gentiles as “right with God” if they were not fully converted to Judaism, including circumcision.

Is it surprising there was a serious break between some teachers in Jerusalem and Paul with respect to Gentile salvation? This is the first generation of the Church, yet there is a serious problem caused by Gentiles accepting the Jewish Messiah as savior. How deep is the rift between Paul and these teachers?