Jews practicing Judaism in the first century observed the rite of circumcision, so it may seem natural enough to conclude that Paul’s arguments depreciating, when not opposing, circumcision undermine the very idea that Paul should be interpreted as a representative of Judaism. But Paul’s position is much more nuanced than the readings on which the interpretive tradition’s conclusions depend; so too is the practice of the right within Judaism.
-Mark D. Nanos
from the beginning of his essay:
“The Question of Conceptualization: Qualifying Paul’s Position on Circumcision in Dialogue with Josephus’s Advisors to King Izates”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)
So begins this rather lengthy article of Dr. Nanos’ on why, contrary to what is typically believed within Christianity today, Paul actually was a very good representative of the Judaism of his day, and why, again contrary to Christian tradition, Paul did support ritual circumcision of Jewish boys on the eighth day of life, though this was not required of non-Jewish boys, even among those families who were devoted disciples of Yeshua (Jesus).
Even if I were just to quote those passages in Nanos’ paper I highlighted as significant, this blog post might become almost as long as the original article. I will try to be brief and also to capture the essential points being made in this fourth submission to the “Paul Within Judaism” book (and yes, I realize it’s been quite some time since I’ve offered a review of this material).
In real estate, the predominant credo is “location, location, location.” In Biblical exegesis, it’s “context, context, context”. Our traditional view of Paul relative to Judaism and circumcision (and most other things) tends to disregard that context, that is, the first century Jewish context in which the Apostle wrote, taught, and lived.
According to Nanos, viewed and read within that context, alongside “similarly qualified statements made by other Jews,” Paul always remained properly observant to the Torah of Moses and upheld circumcision of Jewish males as a continued sign of the Abrahamic covenant between the Jewish people and God.
If Paul opposed circumcision, it was specifically regarding the proselyte ritual to convert a non-Jew to Judaism, as was the tradition of his day (and ours).
I should make clear that, as Nanos writes, Paul did not object to non-Jewish practicing Judaism alongside ethnic Jews and converts, or at least he didn’t object to them behaving “Jewishly” within a Jewish social and community context. This did not require these Gentile disciples to become obligated to the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jewish people. Rather, for the sake of social discourse with their Jewish mentors as well as elevating the non-Jews’ spirituality and moral/ethical behavior to the level Hashem expects of those who were created in His Image, they behaved, as I have just said, “Jewishly,” or in a way that an outside observer might believe is “Jewish”.
Nanos slowly builds his arguments (which are too long to cite in detail here) regarding how we can read Paul and how the Apostle uses the term “circumcision,” “circumcised” (for a Jew), and “foreskinned” (for Gentiles including Gentile Yeshua disciples) to show that Paul supported (male) Jewish disciples being circumcised but not so the Gentile believers. Paul only was against circumcising Gentile Yeshua-disciples and fully supported the circumcision only of Jewish Yeshua disciples along with all other Jewish males.
The gospel’s chronometrical claim creates the basis for Paul’s resistance to circumcision of Christ-following non-Jews. He believes that now they must represent those from the other nations turning to the One God of Israel, and thus, that they must not become Israelites…
Nanos turns to a story related by Josephus, the narrative about the circumcision of the non-Jew Izates, King of Adiabene. Rather than attempt to familiarize you with that story from Nanos’s full rendition, you can find a summary of the life and significant experiences of Izates, specifically his familiarity with and eventual conversion to Judaism, at Wikipedia (not the best of sources, but it will get you started…feel free to Google Izates for more).
In short, Izates, who was a contemporary of Paul, encountered a Jewish advisor named Ananias, who familiarized the young King with Judaism, so much so, that even without converting, Izates took on a number of “Jewish” behaviors and, to a casual observer, could have been mistaken for acting “Jewishly” if not being “Jewish”.
Another advisor, Eleazar, told Izates that it was improper for him to study Torah without converting. Izates greatly desired to convert, but Ananias believed the King’s subjects would not accept the rule of a Jewish King (how ironic, since one day, the whole world will be ruled by a Jewish King, King Messiah).
Even uncircumcised, that is, as a Gentile, Izates (as well as his mother) were practicing a form of Judaism without being Jewish. And while the advice of Eleazar won out and the King did indeed convert, Nanos makes the point that both Paul and Ananias held quite similar points of view, that it was unnecessary for a non-Jew to convert in order to worship “[sebein; literally , ‘honor,’ ‘respect,’ or ‘fear’] God without circumcision…”
Here’s an important point Nanos made:
…Izates had not yet given up his desire to become circumcised: thus Eleazar “urged him [Izates] to accomplish ‘the work’ [or ‘the rite,’ ton ergon].” Eleazar is a Jew from the Galilee, and likely a Pharisee…
Terms such as “the act,” “deed,” or “work” as we find in Paul’s writings on “the works of the law” (see Galatians 3:2 for example) specifically refer to the Apostle’s disapproval of Gentiles undergoing ritual circumcision for the purpose of conversion in order to be justified before God. Again, Paul’s “works of the law” had nothing to do with forbidding Jewish Yeshua-disciples from being circumcised nor was Paul preaching against Torah observance for the Jewish followers of Messiah.
Nanos quotes Josephus (quoting Eleazar) as outright stating that one must be a Jew in order to be obligated to the commandments of the Torah of Moses. In Eleazar’s case, the only way to resolve the conflict of a non-Jew even voluntarily observing some of the mitzvot was for him to “complete the act,” “rite,” “work” of conversion through circumcision.
Ananias, on the other hand, like Paul, saw devotion to God and observing a life of moral and ethical excellence as a Gentile was Izates’ proper response “apart from becoming a Jew, and thus, apart from becoming under Torah on the same terms as a Jew (a distinction that people of his [Itazes] kingdom are represented as grasping…).”
Nanos dovetails off of Josephus to re-engage Paul, stating:
Moreover, this raises interesting comparisons with Paul’s insistence that faith(fullness) for Christ-following non-Jews requires abstaining from becoming Jews through circumcision, while at the same time insisting that they turn away from cults associated with familial and civic gods, which would be expected to apply to themselves in most Jewish groups…
So Paul expected that Gentiles as Gentiles behave “Jewishly” but not become Jewish. However behaving “Jewishly” does not mean they became Jews without a bris and were in any manner obligated to the 613 commandments as were/are the Jewish people, either born or converted.
Such unorthodox behavior creates for them [Yeshua-believing Gentiles] an anomalous identity leading to sociopolitical marginalization, both from Jews, who do not share their chronometrical gospel claim to be neither guests nor proselytes but full members alongside of Jews, and, for different reasons, from their non-Jewish families and neighbors. If even those who become proselytes may be regarded with suspicion as atheists and traitors, then likely all the more threatening would be those who remained non-Jews if they simultaneously claimed the right to abstain from honoring their fellow non-Jewish people’s gods and lords.
I suppose a brief explanation of the term “chronometrical gospel” is in order. As I understand it, the term refers to a time-based event in the overarching salvational plan of God for Israel and the nations, whereby with the first advent of Messiah ben Joseph, Gentiles were granted, for the first time in human history, the opportunity to be equal partakers in the blessings of the New Covenant (Jer. 31, Ezek. 36) without becoming Gerim as was required in the time of Moses, and having the third generation of their offspring being accepted as an Israelites (thus partaking in the Sinai covenant), or in first century (and later) times by undergoing the rite of the proselyte and converting to Judaism.
From the life, death, resurrection, and ascension onward, non-Jews were provided a new and better path by which we can swear fealty to God through the faithfulness of the Jewish Messiah King.
We also see from the above-quoted passage, that Yeshua-believing Gentiles were accepted as social equals and sharers of the New Covenant blessings of the Holy Spirit and the promise of the resurrection, not only without being required to first convert, but without the identical obligation to perform the Torah mitzvot, an obligation that remains exclusive to born-Jews and proselytes.
Nanos brings up something especially relevant to the role of the “Messianic Gentile” today, the matter of identity ambiguity. Just like our first century counterparts, we modern Gentiles in Messiah, when within (Messianic) Jewish communal space, are not Jews but are also not allied with our former identities as non-believers. We are expected to take the moral high road, so to speak, and particularly in Jewish space, we say Jewish prayers (although our prayers are sometimes adapted due to us not being Israel), attend prayer services with Jews, attend the Torah service with Jews, eat kosher food when we dine with Jews, cover our heads when davening with Jews, and committing many other acts that look pretty “Jewish,” even though we are not Jews.
In many ways, we are neither fish nor fowl, and the question of just what Messianic Gentile behavior actually is supposed to look like is often a matter of spirited debate.
Changing the discourse about Paul by adding a contextual tag to virtually every statement made about his standing on Jewish matters, such as the circumcision of non-Jews, is a good place to begin for those who are attempting to conceptualize Paul within Judaism…
It would be nice if our Bibles contained such “tags” to make Paul appear more within his own context to those of us reading him thousands of years later in a religious, cultural, and conceptual environment definitely outside of his original context.
Sadly, no such Bible exists (to the best of my knowledge), but Nanos does attempt to give us examples:
In the shortest sense, this could consist of no more than adding the phrase “…for Christ-following non-Jews” to statements made about them in order to avoid universalizing the matter under discussion.
…such as, “for non-Christ-following Jews”
…by adding “for Christ-following non-Jews who are participating in Jewish communal life”
“…who practice Judaism according to the teachings of Paul”
Or even better…
policy changes toward these non-Jews, hence… “for Christ-following non-Jews who practice Judaism according to the chronometrical claim of the gospel proclaimed by Paul and the other apostolic leaders of this Judaism.”
You get the idea. What would have been understood as a matter of course by the original readers of Paul’s epistles almost completely eludes lay-person, clergy, and Christian scholar (or most of them) twenty centuries later in our American churches, seminaries, and universities.
Getting back to the role of the ancient Messianic Gentile who was not expected to observe many/most of the mitzvot in the manner of the Jews, what God did (and does) expect of them (us)…?
…and Paul regarding what signifies faith(fulness) alone for non-Jews is striking…
Or in more detail:
This reasoning parallels Paul’s argument about Abraham’s becoming circumcised as a “sign” of his faithfulness (based upon Gen. 17:11); yet Abraham for Paul illustrates why faith(fulness) for Christ-following non-Jews is shown [specifically] by their [our] not becoming circumcised (Rom. 3:27-4:25; Gal. 3:1-4:7; passim). Paul insists that these non-Jews represent the children promised to Abraham from the other nations before he was circumcised…
…they [we] must remain non-Jews, that is, must not become members of Israel.
That, in a nutshell, so to speak, is the particular path of the ancient and modern Messianic Gentile. The evidence of our faith is to deliberately not become circumcised, that is, to avoid converting to Judaism, within the Messianic community or otherwise, and to fulfill our destiny as the children from the nations called by His Name, thus fulfilling the promise God made to Abraham about his gaining (faithful) children from the nations…that is, us.
By either converting, or unjustly claiming full obligation to the Torah as if we were converts without a bris, we are making a mockery of God’s promise to Abraham, and denying our own role as non-Jews in Messiah, further throwing God’s prophetic word back in His Face (as it were).
In contrast, Paul argues for faith(fulness) alone exclusive of circumcision as the decisive action for the Christ-following non-Jews he addressed, even though it came at the price of marginalization.
In other words, if you’re a Messianic Gentile and you at least sometimes feel marginalized, both in the Messianic Jewish world and in the Church among more traditional Christians (and I know what that feels like), that’s normal.
But Nanos believes Paul was not seeking to bifurcate faith for the Gentile vs. actions/deeds for the Jews. Both Jews and Gentiles are saved by faith(fulness), but what is required by the faithfulness of the Gentiles does not include an identity transformation by becoming Jews and/or Israel. That identity is reserved and the faithful Jews are assigned obligations and duties not incumbent upon the Gentiles in Messiah.
Or as Nanos puts it…
Paul appeals to principle, not expedience. He defines the principle as faith(fulness) according to what is appropriate for them as non-Jews, which can be different in specific ways from that faith(fulness) might consist of for those who are Jews.
Hopefully, I’ve captured the essence of Nanos’ arguments. He tends to approach his core points from numerous different directions, and adding a great deal of detail that sometimes defies my ability to succinctly review him. Nevertheless, there are two major takeaways from this essay as I see it:
- Any statements made by Paul that appear to devalue or require the elimination of Torah observance and circumcision by all Yeshua-believers, when read within Paul’s original first century Jewish context, only apply to his non-Jewish audience, the Yeshua-believing non-Jews in the Messianic ekkelsia.
- Any statements made by Paul that appear to require full observance of the Torah commandments and circumcision by all Yeshua-believers, when read within Paul’s original first century Jewish context, only apply to his Jewish audience, the Yeshua believing Jews in the Messianic ekkelsia (although they would also apply to Jews who were not Yeshua-believers since all Jews have Jewish identity, being Israel, and obligation to the Torah of Moses at the core of their being Jews).
I’ll continue with my reviews as time allows.
Note: Edited at Portland International Airport using PDX’s free wifi and free electrical power in their business courtesy room.