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The Curious Case of the Circumcision of Timothy

Updated: Jul 13, 2023





Question: If Jewish believers are no longer Jewish, why, then, did Paul circumcise Timothy?


I just read two interesting books. They both dealt with the issues of clean and unclean in the Torah and how those issues play out in the New Testament. Both were (surprisingly) stimulating books; however, David deSilva concludes that Jewish believers no longer are unidentified as Jews after the apostles. “The Christians have been separated from their former ‘normal’ identity as Jews or pagans, having suffered the loss of property and reputation and other such things as bind them to their former status in that society.” [1]

When you refer to first-century Jewish believers as Christians, it causes confusion. Paul refers to himself as a still Jewish (Rom. 11:1) and still a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). And who were those Pharisee believers in Acts 15? “Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up” (v. 5). There is not one Jewish believer in the Book of Acts who thinks that he has joined a new religion. They have found the Jewish Messiah!

Matthew Thiessen, the author of the second book, argues that while Yeshua’s life was a decisive force against all impurity (“A holy power emanates out of Jesus’s body and can overcome all sources of impurity”[2]), he also stresses the ongoing relevance of the Torah for Jewish believers. Yeshua did not get rid of the purity laws; he made them obsolete. We are now pure through him.

Does Yeshua contradict himself in the same chapter? No.

In Mark 7, Yeshua rebukes the Pharisees for not obeying Torah. And yet, this is the very chapter that scholars use to wrongly suggest that Yeshua annulled the kosher laws. Thiessen asks, “How likely is it that Mark would stress obeying God’s commandments in a story in which Jesus rejects God’s commandments as they pertain to the consumption of impure animals?” [3] Not likely!


Timothy

Timothy had a Jewish mother and a Greek father. I think it is safe to say that his mother was Hellenized (she embraced Greek culture over her Jewish heritage). A minority of Jews at that time, seeking to be successful, rejected a Torah-observant life because it separated them from the rest of society. [4] The fact that she did not circumcise her son all but confirms this.


If you take the position that Paul is now preaching that circumcision is of no value to the sons of Abraham, you would have to conclude he is a hypocrite for circumcising Timothy (Acts 16:3). Why would Paul rail against the Galatians for embracing circumcision, and yet he himself circumcises his young protégé? To answer this question, will ask another question: Why didn’t Paul circumcise Titus (Gal. 2:3), who also traveled with him? John Polhill writes:


Many scholars have argued that Paul would never have asked Timothy to be circumcised since he objected so strenuously to that rite in Galatians (cf. 6:12f.; 5:11). That, however, is to overlook the fact that Galatians was written to Gentiles and Timothy was considered a Jew. There was no question of circumcising Gentiles. [5]

Paul objected to the Galatians being circumcised because they were doing it as a condition for salvation. Titus was not circumcised because he was not Jewish. It was of no value to him. But soon after learning of young Timothy, Paul corrects this egregious breaking of the Abraham covenant. Remember, God nearly killed Moses on his way back to Egypt because he had not circumcised his sons. (See Exodus 4:24-26)


Remember, it is the same Paul who writes that circumcision is of great value to the Jewish people (Romans 3:1) that wrote just a few verses before that true circumcision is of the heart (Rom. 2:29). I don’t think there’s any question that true faith must begin in the heart, but it is then expressed through our body. In other words, if I love orphans and widows in my heart, I will use my physical body to help them with food, support, etc. Just thinking about it is not enough (James 1:27, 2:14ff).


Some might say that Paul only circumcises Timothy because it would help him evangelize Jewish people. “To the Jew I became a Jew, to win the Jews” (1 Cor. 9:20). But if Paul’s message to the Jewish people is the same message that he preached to the Galatians—circumcision is of no value—then there is no need to circumcise Timothy. In fact, presenting him as uncircumcised, despite being Jewish, would be a better witness if, indeed, Paul is now saying that the New Covenant supersedes the Abrahamic Covenant. Remember, Jeremiah doesn’t say the New Covenant replaces the old covenant but that the Holy Spirit writes the Torah on our hearts.


God is Faithful

Paul circumcises Timothy because God is still faithful to the Jewish people through the Abraham Covenant. Remember, the Abrahamic covenant is not about eternal life. It is about God raising up a nation to Abraham and giving them the land of Israel for his own purposes. Furthermore, while the New Covenant stressed the importance of table fellowship with Gentiles and Jews together (Torah-observant Jews would not eat with Gentiles for fear of becoming unclean), we find no evidence of Jewish believers eating non-kosher food. We find no evidence of Jewish believers forsaking circumcision. Not one case where a Jewish believer is instructed to not circumcise their son.


When Peter has his vision of eating unclean animals, he doesn’t immediately go and eat bacon. The Bible says he was wondering about the meaning of vision (Acts 10:17). He knew that it did not mean he was to break the commandments. He would soon understand that this was God, saying that the gospel is for the Gentiles as well. “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34-35).


Augustine and Jerome

We do see Paul in Acts 21 pay for the purification rights of several men who had taken a Nazarite vow and sought to go to the Temple and make the appropriate sacrifice. Jerome (5th century Church Father) “contends that Peter and Paul only ‘pretended to observe the commandments of the law.’ They did so in order to make it easier for Jews to believe in Yeshua.” [6] His adversary Augustine, concludes that God permitted it only for the first generation of Jewish believers. [7]


Jerome is clear on this issue in his famous unbiblical quote: “But insofar as they want to be both Jews and Christians, they are neither Jews nor Christians.” [8] He would see the modern Messianic Jew as a heretic. [9]


It’s important to note that over the centuries leading up to Jerome and Augustine, the church had come to emphasize God’s rejection of the Jewish people. Israel collectively was responsible for killing Jesus. The bishops worked hard to condemn the Jewish people. The bias blinded them theologically in the same way that Christian slaveowners justified slavery.


But any honest reading of the Book of Acts shows that while God graciously opens the door for the nations to receive eternal life, those Jews who followed him never even considered the idea that they were no longer Jews, as DeSilva (above) contends. In Acts 21, James (Jacob was his actual name) doesn’t tell Paul about all the former Jews who have become Christians but speaks of the “tens of thousands of Jews [that] have believed, and all of them are zealous for the Torah” (Acts 21:20).


 

[1] deSilva, David A.. Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity (pp. 32-33). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.


[2] Thiessen, Matthew. Jesus and the Forces of Death (p. 346). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


[3] Thiessen, 189.


[4] DeSilva, 32-33. “If [a Jew] desires the approval and affirmation of the members of the Greco-Roman culture (and the opportunities for advancement, influence, and wealth that networking in that direction can bring), he may well abandon his strict allegiance to Jewish values. This was the course chosen by many Jews during the Hellenistic period. In the period leading up to the Maccabean Revolt, for example, priestly families in Jerusalem itself exhibited eagerness even to remove the mark of circumcision, to throw off the Mosaic restrictions on their dealings with a Gentile world, and to achieve for Jerusalem the status of a Greek city for the sake of the respect this would bring in the eyes of the Greek elites in Antioch (1 Macc 1:11-15; 2 Macc 4:7-15)… Most Jews, however, chose to remain faithful to their ancestral law and customs, and to preserve their culture and its values.


[5] John B. Polhill, Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 342–343.


[6] Kinzer, Mark S.. Postmissionary Messianic Judaism (p. 204). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle


[7] Kinzer, 205.


[8] Kinzer, 203.


[9] Kinzer, 203.


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