If Paul Had Circumcised Gentiles

under-law-torahWe are Torah Submissive, meaning that we try to obey to the divine instructions revealed in the Pentateuch. We recommend Torah observance for Christians (= believers in Messiah Yeshua) as the proper way of sanctification of their lifestyle. We do not believe however that eternal salvation is merited or gained by performing specific commandments. In other words, we are not legalists.

-from the Doctrinal Position page
at Messianic613’s Weblog

I once read a comment written by the author of the above-quoted statement on someone else’s blog saying that a “One Law” position seemed the most likely consequence of the requirement to integrate Gentiles into the first century Jewish movement called “the Way.” This was based on that author’s personal understanding of the New Testament record and the Bible as a whole.

I wish I could find the original comment but it’s lost in the vast wasteland of the blogosphere and I wouldn’t know how to retrieve it. Still, I hate not being able to adequately cite my source when crafting a response. (I also want to say at this point, that although I don’t agree with all of said-author’s opinions, I find this person to be intelligent and reasonable in all comments and rebuttals.)

Given all that, I found myself wondering this morning what was the easiest thing for Paul to do as Christ’s (Messiah’s) chosen emissary to the Gentiles. In the Book of Acts, Luke records in the first six or seven chapters how “the Way” was being established in Jerusalem and Judea. The Spirit was given to the Apostles in Acts 2:1-4 and afterward, Peter spoke boldly for the Messiah. Many Jews in Jerusalem, both native and visiting from the diaspora for Shavuot, became disciples (Acts 2:37-42). Peter began teaching at Solomon’s Portico (starting at Acts 3:11), the early Messianic community among the Jews was formed (starting at Acts 4:32), and in spite of persecution from the ruling Jewish authorities, the Messianic disciples did not cease in their work (Acts 5:41-42).

Acts 8 shows us how the gospel message of the Messiah began to spread out from Jerusalem and Judea, extending into other parts of Israel and into Samaria. Philip encounters the Ethiopian Eunuch (a study unto itself) which results in that message being taken south, at least to the descendants of those Jews who journeyed to that land in the time of Solomon. But God had further plans for the good news of Messiah than to have it shared only with Jews and Samaritans.

The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

Acts 9:11-16 (NRSV)

Saul (Paul), the persecutor of Jewish disciples of “the Way” was chosen specifically by Messiah as his instrument to take the name of Messiah before the Gentiles as well as before kings and the people of Israel.

But what did it mean to take the name of Messiah before the Gentiles?

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves (emph. mine).

Matthew 23:15 (NRSV)

When the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to continue in the grace of God (emph. mine).

Acts 13:43 (NRSV)

These two, quick quotes tell us that it wasn’t particularly unusual for non-Jews to convert to sects of Judaism. We also know from Acts 10:1-2 and Acts 13:16 that Gentiles who were called “God-fearers” also attended synagogue and were devout but not necessarily on a “track” to convert, and God-fearing Gentiles, although they likely shared some religious and lifestyle practices with the Jewish people, were not considered Jewish or members of the covenants as were born Jews or the “devout converts to Judaism.”

Paul was specifically selected to fulfill the following mandate:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

Matthew 28:19-20 (NRSV)

Apostle-Paul-PreachesBut how was he supposed to do that, exactly? I know, based on your understanding of the Bible and the last two-thousand years of Christian and Jewish history, you think the answer is obvious (although that answer isn’t the same for everyone), but it wasn’t actually that clear-cut back in the day.

Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders.

Acts 15:1-2 (NRSV)

There seemed to be a disagreement, even among the Jewish disciples within the Way, as to just how to integrate the Gentiles. As we can see here, there were some Jewish people who advocated for the Gentiles to become devout converts to Judaism. Paul and Barnabas disagreed with that opinion. It took a decision by James and the Council of Apostles in Jerusalem to settle the matter, but even then, it wasn’t really settled (It was before God but not, apparently, before men).

When they heard it, they praised God. Then they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law. But as for the Gentiles who have become believers, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.”

Acts 21:20-25 (NRSV)

“After I had returned to Jerusalem and while I was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw Jesus saying to me, ‘Hurry and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. And while the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing by, approving and keeping the coats of those who killed him.’ Then he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”

Up to this point they listened to him, but then they shouted, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.”

Acts 22:17-22 (NRSV)

up_to_jerusalemAs we can see, even after the declaration by the Council about the status of Gentiles in the Jewish Yeshua (Jesus) movement, it appeared to be very confusing to even thousands of Jewish believers, all zealous for the Torah, just exactly what Paul was teaching to the Jewish and Gentile disciples in the diaspora. Was he teaching Jews to abandon Torah? Was he teaching uncircumcised Gentiles to observe Torah like the Jews? Paul appears to deny both allegations. Jews didn’t have a problem with what Paul taught about the Torah and Messiah. They only had a problem with the Gentiles being included without being circumcised and made to convert to Judaism!

It seems that the easiest thing for Paul to have done and the least dangerous way for him to fulfill his mission, was to enact the Matthew 28:19-20 mandate by converting Gentile disciples to Judaism! It would have solved all or at least most of his problems among the Jewish people. It would have been completely consistent with the practices of other branches of Judaism in his day. No one would have batted an eye.

So why didn’t he do that?

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

Acts 10:44-48 (NRSV)

If Peter thought that Cornelius and his Gentile household should be made to convert in order to enter into the Messianic movement, between the Gentiles receiving the Spirit and baptism by water, the males should have been circumcised. But he didn’t order this to be done. We have no record in the Bible that this was ever done to Cornelius, the males in his household, or any of the male Gentile disciples of the Messiah (you may disagree based on Timothy, but remember that Titus was a specific example of a Gentile not being circumcised, see Galatians 2:3).

Peter presented his experiences with Cornelius as legal testimony in the Acts 15 proceedings.

The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Acts 15:6-11 (NRSV)

Peter saw first hand how Gentiles had their hearts cleansed by faith and received the Holy Spirit, even as the Jews did, but were not required to be circumcised and take on the full weight of the Torah in the manner of the Jews (for my opinion on the full implications of the Acts 15 decision on the Gentile disciples, see my multi-part Return to Jerusalem series).

john-the-naziriteMost Christians believe that what Paul did was to abandon the Torah and teach other Jews to do so, as well as teaching the Gentiles that grace replaced the Law. Paul denied this during multiple legal hearings and I don’t believe he was lying. Some people believe that Paul obligated the Gentile disciples to the full weight of the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jews without requiring them to convert, but my understanding of the NT record makes this unlikely as well (For more on this, see The Evidence of Luke and The Evidence of Acts 15).

It is also apparent, although it would have been the easiest option for Paul to use, that he did not require the Gentiles to convert to Judaism in order to become members of “the Way.” If that were his tactic, then I seriously believe very few Gentiles would have gone that route, which would have severely inhibited if not stopped cold dead the spread of the good news of the Jewish Messiah among the Gentiles.

Go to Acts 15:30-31 to find the statement supporting how the Gentiles felt about not having to be circumcised and not being obligated to take on the full weight of the Law which, as Peter said, was “a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear.” To force the full yoke of Torah upon the Gentile disciples, Peter said, would be “putting God to the test.” which, as we’ve already learned, is a “no-no.”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Luke 4:12 (Deut. 6:16)

It might have been easier on Paul and easier on the Jewish people involved in “the Way” to have accepted a message of the good news that included Gentiles actually converting to Judaism, but I don’t think that’s what God wanted. From what I can tell, it would have severely inhibited mass Gentile adoption of faith in Messiah, if circumcision of the males and full adherence to the Law were necessary. It’s interesting to note that if those were indeed requirements, we probably wouldn’t have anything called “Christianity” today and we might even have (although this is debatable) a branch of Judaism that continued to worship a first century Rabbi/Prophet as Moshiach. If that were the case, Gentiles would be welcome to join that faith only if they were willing to convert, but otherwise, they would not be considered full members.

Given how few Gentiles convert to Judaism in the world today, how would the whole world be taught the good news of Messiah, come to faith, and believe? How would the Matthew 28:19-20 mandate be fulfilled?

2 thoughts on “If Paul Had Circumcised Gentiles”

  1. Hi James,
    I wish more people would start learning, reading and researching God’s Word on their own, like you. I enjoyed this post very much, even though I see the subject in a bit of a different way. I struggled with this question a lot, as I look at God’s Word as a whole. (Where all of scripture agrees with itself). I would like to leave a comment on how I see this, just for your review. God instituted Circumcision, even though it became a necessary rite to enter Judaism, later. God has said that their is one Law for Israelite and Gentile (Exo12:49, Lev 24:22). Personally, I believe we cannot pick and choose what we like out of God’s Commandments. This being said, I also believe it is not something necessary for salvation as clearly judged by James in Acts 15 at the council of Jerusalem. But I believe it is something that we should all individually look into, as it is part of God’s Commandments. We must notice that all the commandments that are mentioned in Acts 15:20 are from the Mosaic Law. What I also noticed was that James counted on the Gentiles to learn Moses at the synagogue(Acts 15:21). In Acts 16:1-3, it says Paul circumcised Timothy. Paul was not a person who was scared of Jews. If he truly believed that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised, ever – why did he circumcise timothy? Now, these are not questions for you – James. But questions that I had, in my personal study. Personally, I think that circumcision is NOT needed for Salvation. (we are saved only through Grace given by our Heavenly Father). As we walk with God, we must obey His commands, which “circumcision” is also part of. (It should be done when we are ready, and able to commit to Him and His commandments fully). Just my thought. 🙂 May you be a blessing to others! Love – Ramesh

  2. Greetings, Ramesh. Thanks for commenting.

    I agree that salvation isn’t dependent on Gentiles being circumcised or obeying the Torah mitzvot, however I also believe that in Acts 15, James and the Council of Apostles established the differences between how Torah is applied to Jewish and Gentiles disciples of Yeshua.

    I’ve spent a long time studying this and wrote a multi-part series called Return to Jerusalem that you might be interested in. Food for thought.

    Thanks again. Peace.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.