The Circumcision Controversy
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 30 July 2015; Revised 17 October 2018
Scripture: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the Messianic Jewish Family Bible: Tree of Life Version, © 2014 by Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society. Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions. Quotations marked with the initials "BR" indicate the translation of the author.
Sources: Bibliographic data for scholarly publications cited may be found at the end of the article. References to tractates of the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); online. Click here for Talmud Abbreviations.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).
Circumcision among Jews predates the commandments given to Israel at Sinai. It was originally given to Abraham. The surgical removal of foreskin from the male penis was required by God as a sign of covenantal relationship (Gen 17:10-14; Acts 7:8). For Jewish males God commanded that circumcision be performed on the eighth day after birth (Gen 17:12; 21:4; Lev 12:3; Acts 7:8), regardless of the day of week. The significance of the time is not stated in Scripture but modern medical researchers discovered that the two main blood clotting factors, Vitamin K and Prothrombim, reach their highest level in life, about 110% of normal, on the 8th day after birth. These blood clotting agents facilitate rapid healing and greatly reduce the chance of infection. Any circumcision done earlier requires an injection of Vitamin K supplement.
According to Rabbinic interpretation, "circumcision and all its preliminaries supersede the Sabbath" (Shab. 131b). Circumcision supersedes Sabbath observance because it is connected with thirteen covenants (Shab. 132a). This interpretation is taken from the fact that the word "covenant" (Heb. b'rit) occurs 13 times in that chapter. The priority of circumcision was also deduced from the fact of its being given as a covenantal sign (Gen 17:11) before the Sabbath was designated a covenantal sign (Ex 31:16). In addition, circumcision was considered equivalent to saving a life, which too superseded Sabbath observance.
In the Tanakh circumcision was first performed on adults (Gen 17:23-27). Then Abraham circumcised Isaac when he was eight days old (Gen 21:4) who likewise circumcised Jacob and Jacob circumcised his sons (Gen 34:15). We may presume that the Israelites continued to practice circumcision during the 400 years the Israelites resided in Egypt. However, Moses had failed to circumcise Gershom, his firstborn son of his Midianite wife Zipporah (Ex 2:22), and ADONAI sought to kill Moses for his disobedience (Ex 4:25-26). Zipporah performed the circumcision and so preserved ADONAI's mission in Egypt. Moses could not be the leader of Israel if he did not set the example. It was probably because of his own personal experience that Moses later determined to establish a special religious ritual among God's people for circumcision called Brit Milah, "Covenant of Circumcision" (Acts 15:1, 5).
When God established the Passover in Egypt He required that any "stranger" or "sojourner" (i.e., a non-Israelite) who wished to share in the Passover had to be circumcised (Ex 12:44-49). This requirement would later become an important theological issue. After deliverance from Egypt the Israelites neglected to circumcise their children during the forty years in the wilderness, no doubt a reflection of their rebellion against God. Before Israel could enter the Promised Land it became necessary for Joshua to have all adult males born during the wilderness years to be circumcised (Josh 5:3-7). Thereafter circumcision was a settled matter in the nation of Israel. In fact, during the time of Esther many non-Israelites decided to become "Jews," which meant circumcision (Esth 8:17).
After Alexander the Great conquered the world he and his successors sought to educate and assimilate people in the Greek way of life. Many Jews were seduced by this philosophy and abandoned Jewish customs. They became known as "Hellenists," and where the term appears in the apostolic writings it is not a compliment (John 7:35). During the time of the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes (203-181 B.C.) many Jews in their adoption of Hellenistic culture abandoned circumcision (1Macc 1:15) (Tarn & Griffith 223-227). However, Antiochus went further and required that Jews leave their sons uncircumcised (1Macc 1:48). However, Jews faithful to the Torah (referred to as Ioudaioi or Judean Jews in the Besekh) rebelled against such tyranny. The cultural divide against Hellenistic Jews and Judean Jews had long-term consequences that continued even into modern times.
After the Roman period many Gentiles began to be interested in Judaism and Pharisees welcomed converts. Some Gentiles chose to be fully identified with Israel by becoming proselytes (DNTT 1:360). The first mention of "proselyte" is in Matthew 23:15. Proselytes were of two kinds, those circumcised ("righteous proselytes) and uncircumcised ("gate proselytes") (Jacobs). Rabbinic Judaism later added immersion as a requirement for the righteous proselyte (Yeb. 46a). The circumcised and immersed male proselyte was considered as a "child newly born" (Yeb. 22a). The righteous proselyte was bound to all the doctrines and precepts of the Torah (Ex 12:19, 43-49; 20:10; Deut 1:16; 5:14; 14:21; 26:10-11; 31:9-13), and considered a full member of the Jewish people. A righteous proselyte could participate fully in all religious festivals and enjoyed all the legal rights and privileges accorded native Israelites (Deut 1:16; 5:13-14; 10:18-19; 14:29; 16:11-14; 24:14, 17, 19-21; 26:12-13; 27:19; 28:43). In terms of piety a righteous proselyte lived as a Judean Jew.
Because of the practice of circumcising adult Gentiles in Judaism, circumcision became a major controversy within the Body of Messiah in apostolic times. Advocacy of adult circumcision among disciples of Yeshua was promoted by a minority group that Paul identifies simply as "The Circumcision" (Acts 10:45; 11:2; 15:1, 5; Rom 4:12; 15:8; Gal 2:12; Col 4:11; Titus 1:10). From these passages we may deduce the following facts about them: (1) They embraced Yeshua as the Messiah. (2) They were from Judea. (3) They were a sect of the Pharisees. (4) They expected that Gentile believers be circumcised according to the custom of Moses and embrace their brand of Judaism. Circumcision was just the beginning.
The theology of the Circumcision sect was grounded in the concept of "covenantal nomism," a term coined by E.P. Sanders in his 1977 book Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Covenantal nomism means that one is made right with God by being a member of the covenant people (Israel), which guarantees a place in the world to come (Sanh. 11:1; Leman 110). Building on this basic belief the sect held that (1) there is no salvation outside Israel (Gen 35:11; Isa 42:6); (2) Brit Milah (ritual circumcision) is the sign of the covenant people (Gen 17:11); (3) there is one law for Jew and Gentile (Ex 12:48; Num 15:16). Therefore, a Gentile believer must become a full proselyte to receive the benefit of salvation. To become a proselyte required immersion and Brit Milah (Yeb. 22a; 46a). It's important to note that in the Besekh "circumcision" refers to the religious ritual attributed to Moses (Acts 15:1), not just the surgery.
The Circumcision Party could even argue their viewpoint from the standpoint of example. Abraham, the father of our faith, had been circumcised. Yochanan the Immerser, the forerunner of the Messiah, had been circumcised (Luke 1:59). Yeshua, the Messiah and Savior, had been circumcised (Luke 2:21). Paul himself had been circumcised (Php 3:5). Should we not follow in their steps (cf. 1Pet 2:21)? The Circumcision Party made a compelling argument and their influence was felt throughout the Body of Messiah.
The legalistic doctrine became a lightning rod for Paul to define the basic theology of the Yeshua movement and prior to the meeting of the elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15) he fired off his confrontational letter to the congregations of Galatia. In his Galatian letter Paul does not mince words in his direct confrontation of what he considered heresy worthy of being cursed by God (Gal 1:8). When he came to Antioch and discovered that Peter had failed to take corrective action, he rebuked Peter to his face.
"If you, who are a Judean Jew [Grk. Ioudaios], live like a Gentile and not in a Judean manner [Grk. Ioudaikōs], why are you compelling the Gentiles to Judaize [Grk. Ioudaizō]? (Gal 2:14 BR)
It is from this verse that Christian commentators derive the term "Judaizers" as descriptive of the sectarian group, because they sought to conform disciples of Yeshua to Mosaic rules and practice and live in a Judean or Jewish manner (Danker 176). For these radical Pharisees circumcision simply represented the totality of a Gentile adopting the Pharisee life, even though God never commanded Gentiles to be circumcised for salvation. Paul's Galatian letter did not settle the matter for his adversaries were waiting for him when the apostles were called together in Jerusalem to discuss the matter.
The Circumcision sect presented their belief system, but the apostles unanimously rejected it. Peter strongly rebuked the legalists by saying, "Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?" (Acts 15:10 NASB). Jacob ("James"), the Lord's brother and leader of the Jerusalem congregation, concurred saying, "Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles" (Acts 15:19 NASB). At Jacob's suggestion the apostles drafted a short list of ethical expectations of Gentile disciples (Acts 15:23-29).
Luke notes that after the meeting Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways. Mark had deserted Paul at Perga (Acts 13:13), so Paul did not want to work with him (Acts 15:38). Barnabas naturally took the side of his relative. The reason for Mark's defection was likely related to the circumcision issue. The root of the divide may be found in what happened at Paphos when the Roman Sergius Paulus became a believer (Acts 13:5-12). Mark likely objected to the offer of salvation to the Gentiles on condition of faith alone.
As the apostle to the nations nothing stirred Paul's feelings more deeply than the grace God had extended to those outside Israel. Paul stood almost alone initially in his opposition to the legalistic theology of the sect. Barnabas, for a time, had fallen prey to this error (Gal 2:13) and in this Mark may have been influenced by his cousin. In Paul's much later letter to the Colossians he includes John Mark along with Aristarchus and Justus as having formerly been members of the Circumcision sect (Col 4:10-11). That Paul was able to influence these men to his point of view and particularly in the case of Mark to rejoin his ministry team says much about Paul's leadership ability.
Unfortunately, the Circumcision sect did not disappear. The Jerusalem meeting had only addressed the matter of requirements imposed on Gentiles. They failed to make a clear decision about requirements on Jewish disciples. Peter had voiced an important point:
"We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Yeshua, in the same way as they are." (Acts 15:10-11)
Peter the Galilean could well have been looking at the Judean Pharisees when he said "you put God to the test." The "we" who believe and are saved are the Messianic Jews (Nazarenes). God never intended that the freedom granted to the Gentiles in terms of legalistic traditions should be denied to Jews. So when Paul wrote to the mostly Jewish congregations his discourses on the Torah become especially relevant. Unfortunately, when Paul returned to Jerusalem from his third missionary journey he had to confront the slander that he taught Jews to forsake circumcision, which was symbolic of Pharisaic traditions (Acts 21:21).
Paul never counseled Jews to quit circumcising their babies. Rather he remonstrated against those who would force Gentile disciples to become proselytes to Judaism. Paul references adult circumcision some 38 times in seven of his letters: Galatians, 1Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Titus. So it is in the context of the teaching of the Circumcision sect that Paul felt the need to explain key theological terms like the good news, sin, grace, faith, forgiveness, salvation, law and covenant.
The Circumcision sect was the worst kind of Pharisees, not unlike the seven types of bad Pharisees condemned in the Talmud as hypocrites (Avot 5:9; Sot. 22b). Years later Paul had to warn Titus about the continuing threat of this group:
"For there are many who are rebellious, vain talkers and deceivers, especially those from the circumcision. 11 They must be silenced—those who upset entire households by teaching what they should not, for the sake of dishonest gain. 12 One of them, one of their own prophets, said, 'Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.' 13 This testimony is true. For this reason rebuke them sharply, so they might be sound in the faith, 14 not paying attention to Judaic myths and commands of men who turn away from the truth. 15 To the pure all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure. Both their mind and conscience are defiled. 16 They claim to know God but their deeds deny Him. They are despicable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed." (Titus 1:10-16 TLV)
The Circumcision sect was likely the forerunner of the Ebionites, a splinter Jewish group that existed in the second century into the fourth century. Unlike the Nazarenes, the Ebionites rejected the divine pre-existence of Yeshua and virgin birth. They claimed that Yeshua earned the right to be the Messiah by his faithful observance of Torah. As with the Circumcision sect of the first century, the Ebionites required that Gentile believers be circumcised and keep Jewish laws. Other evidence suggests that the Ebionites rejected Paul, a natural consequence of their position concerning the Torah (Skarsaune 204).
Danker: Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
DNTT: Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3 vols., ed. Colin Brown. Zondervan Pub. House, 1975.
Jacobs: Joseph Jacobs & Emil G. Hirsch, "Proselyte," Jewish Encyclopedia (1906). JewishEncyclopedia.com, 2002-2011.
Leman: Derek Leman, Paul Didn't Eat Pork: Reappraising Paul the Pharisee. Mt. Olive Press, 2005.
Skarsaune: Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity. InterVarsity Press, 2002.
Tarn & Griffith: Sir William Tarn and G.T. Griffith, Hellenistic Civilization. 3rd Edition. Edward Arnold Publishers, Ltd., 1952.
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