The Circumcision Controversy
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 30 July 2015; Revised 27 March 2020
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 In addition, circumcision was considered equivalent to saving a life, which too superseded Sabbath observance.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 years the Israelites resided in Egypt. However, Moses 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.
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.
During 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 term "proselyte" as used in the Besekh (Matt 23:15; Acts 2:11; 6:5; 13:43) is known in Rabbinic tradition as the righteous proselyte (Heb. ger tzedek) or proselyte of the covenant (Heb. ger ha-b'rit). The proselyte chose full identification with Israel (cf. 2Chr 2:17-18; Esth 8:17), and, if male, had to comply with three requirements to complete conversion: (1) circumcision (Ex 12:48); (2) ritual ablution or immersion in a mikveh (Yeb. 46a); and (3) a sacrifice of atonement or burnt offering (Ker. 2:1; 8b, 9a). The preferred sacrifice was of cattle, but to lessen the hardship an offering of fowls was considered to be sufficient.
A righteous proselyte was considered as a "child newly born" (Yeb. 22a). A righteous proselyte was considered a full member of the Jewish people and thus 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). 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). The proselyte was to be present at the reading of the Torah (Deut 31:12), demonstrating his willingness to be bound by its demands. In terms of piety a righteous proselyte lived as a traditional Jew in accordance with Pharisee traditions.
Because of the practice of circumcising adult Gentiles who converted to 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 righteous proselyte to receive the benefit of salvation.
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.
While Paul and Barnabas were ministering in Syrian Antioch certain men from Judea came and began teaching, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you are not able to be saved" (Acts 15:1 BR). Great dissension occurred in the congregation and Paul later noted that even Barnabas was swayed by this false teaching (Gal 2:13). Moreover, Peter happened to be present at the time and began acting in a hypocritical manner to accommodate the Judaizers. Paul rebuked Peter for accommodating this heresy, saying.
"If you, who are a traditional Jew [Grk. Ioudaios], live like a Gentile [Grk. ethnikos] and not as a traditional Jew [Grk. Ioudaikōs], why compel the Gentiles [Grk. ethnē] to Judaize [Grk. Ioudaizō]? (Gal 2:14 BR)
Christian commentators derive the term "Judaizers" from this verse as descriptive of the sectarian group, because they sought to conform Gentile disciples of Yeshua to Pharisaic 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. As a result of the internal strife in Antioch the congregational elders appointed Paul and Barnabas to take the matter to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2).
The Circumcision sect presented their belief system, but the apostles unanimously rejected it. Having been chastened himself Peter strongly rebuked the legalists by saying, "Now, therefore, why are you testing God to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?" (Acts 15:10 BR). Jacob ("James"), the Lord's brother and leader of the Jerusalem congregation, concurred saying, "Therefore I judge not to trouble those from the nations turning to God" (Acts 15:19 BR). The elders ruled against the need for circumcising Gentiles and at Jacob's suggestion the apostles drafted a short list of ethical expectations of Gentile disciples (Acts 15:27-29).
After having returned to Antioch Paul learned that the Judaizers had gone to Galatia where they caused great spiritual harm. He then fired off his confrontational letter to the congregations of Galatia. See my article Introduction to Galatians. 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. 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 TLV)
Peter the Galilean could well have been looking at the Judean Pharisees when he said "you put God to the test" (15:10). The "we" who believe and are saved are the Messianic Jews. 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 infant circumcision, a sign of God's covenant with Israel (Acts 21:21).
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. Paul never counseled Jews to quit circumcising their babies. However, he was strongly opposed to circumcising adult Gentiles (1Cor 7:18; Gal 5:2-3). Paul was so annoyed by the practice that he suggested that Judaizers castrate themselves (Gal 5:12).
The unstated principle is that circumcision is only for babies and the responsibility of the parents. A child is not responsible for his the sin of his parents and does not need to provide a remedy for their failure. The most important thing is the condition of the heart. In fact, the true Jew is not defined by circumcision of the flesh but circumcision of the heart (Rom 2:28-29; Col 2:11-12).
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).
Timothy vs. Titus
Some commentators in the past have accused Paul of inconsistency since he circumcised Timothy but not Titus (cf. Acts 16:3; Gal 2:3). Timothy and Titus are both supposed to have been Gentiles. Commentators resolve the supposed conflict by asserting that Timothy was actually a Jew by virtue of his mother. However, there is no definitive evidence that matrilineal descent was the determinative principle in the first century. Indeed, the Bible does not address the matter of Jewish identity, which became an issue after the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans (AD 132-136) resulted in the Jews being removed from the land of Israel. What is relevant to the story is the covenantal rights granted to Israel (Ex 6:8; 19:5-6; 29:45; Deut 29:1-15).
Children considered mamzer (illegitimate) were denied covenantal rights to the tenth generation, an idiomatic expression for all time (Deut 23:2). The Targum explains the mamzer as one born of fornication or of an unclean Gentile. Basically a mamzer was one born of any connection forbidden in the Torah or forbidden under penalty of extinction (Jastrow 794). Jewish law (Mishnah) codified in writing by Rabbinic scholars (c. 200 AD), imposed this guiding principle for intermarriage.
"MISHNAH: There is a principle with regard to the halakhot of lineage: Any case where there is betrothal, i.e., where the betrothal takes effect, and the marriage involves no transgression by Torah law, the lineage of the offspring follows the male, his father. ... And any case where there is a valid betrothal and yet there is a transgression, the offspring follows the flawed parent." (Kiddushin 66b)
Thus, the "flawed parent," that is, the one who did not satisfy the Torah as an acceptable marriage partner, determined the status of the children of the marriage. The Mishnah made it even more explicit in declaring that if a daughter of Israel married an idolater and bore a son, the son would be considered mamzer (Yebamot 69b; cf. fn 26 on 47a). The ineligibility of the mamzer for covenantal rights would be for all time (Yeb. 78b). We should note that illegitimacy in this instance is only a religious category and does not mean "born out of lawful wedlock" as currently defined. If Timothy's father was a heathen Greek as commentators claim, then Timothy had no covenantal rights. He would have been regarded as a Gentile.
In my view Timothy's father was actually a Hellenistic Jew who failed in his duty to have his son circumcised on the eighth day after birth. See my commentary on Acts 16:1. In the narrative Luke does not intend to say that Paul forced Timothy into circumcision, but it was done with Timothy's full agreement and perhaps request. Paul may have been disposed toward performing the circumcision because he viewed Timothy as a son and himself in loco parentis (1Cor 4:17; Php 2:22; 1Tim 1:2). Luke then provides the compelling rationale for Timothy to be circumcised.
Circumcision was personally important to Timothy to affirm his own covenantal identity as a Jew. In addition, the fact that Timothy lived among traditional Jews and would be ministering to traditional Jews was an important incentive. Timothy did not want to be thought of as having denied his Jewish identity by becoming Messianic. Timothy became the example for Paul's later stated principle, "To the traditional Jews I became as a traditional Jew, so that I might win traditional Jews" (1Cor 9:20 BR). Timothy purposed to be like his mother, not his father.
Titus is generally considered to be a Gentile because he is identified as a Hellēn in Galatians 2:3. Unlike Timothy we know nothing of the parents of Titus. However, I submit that Titus was in fact a Hellenistic Jew. See my commentary on Titus 1:4. Perhaps he had a Hellenistic Jewish father, but not a Jewish mother. It was not uncommon for Hellenistic Jews to forgo circumcision (Tarn & Griffith 224). In any event Paul refused to submit to the Judaizer demand that Titus be circumcised. Consider the actual wording of Paul's statement about Titus: "But not even Titus, who was with me, being a Hellēn, was compelled to be circumcised" (Gal 2:3 BR).
If Paul had intended to label Titus as a Gentile he would have used the word ethnos, and if he had used ethnos his statement would make no sense. Paul would never have compelled a Gentile to be circumcised, since adult circumcision of Gentiles was thoroughly repugnant to him (cf. Php 3:2-3). The negative adverb "not even" (Grk. oude) points to an exception to a rule. In other words, Paul did not insist that a rule that normally applied would be required of Titus. As a Hellenistic Jew Titus had not been circumcised as an infant, but Paul was not going to insist on the covenantal sign be required in his case. Why?
Paul made decisions based on spiritual expediency, which is the quality of being appropriate to the goal of the decision consistent with biblical values. The duty for circumcision belongs to Jewish parents and there is no command in the Torah for adults to circumcise themselves (cf. Rom 4:15). Luke explains that the circumcision of Timothy was done for practical reasons, not because Timothy was in a state of sin while uncircumcised. Titus was likely much older than the youthful Timothy, who may have only been in his teens when Paul circumcised him.
In the case of Titus there was also no compelling reason for circumcision. As events transpired his ministry was among Hellenistic people in Corinth, Crete and Dalmatia. Moreover, Titus had experienced circumcision of the heart (cf. Rom 2:29). In Yeshua he was equal to circumcised Messianic Jews (cf. Gal 5:6; 6:15; Col 3:11) and being a recipient of God's grace made him a co-heir with them (Titus 3:7).
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.
Jastrow: Marcus Jastrow, Dictionary of Targumim, Talmud and Midrashic Literature. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1903, 1926. Online.
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.
Copyright © 2015-2020 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.