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Would Paul Have Circumcised His Son?

March 25, 2014

In the course of explaining in his prologue why he bracketed Paul out of the discussion in his book, The Birth of Christianity (HarperCollins, 1998), John Dominic Crossan makes one of his characteristically punchy statements:  “But, to put it bluntly and practically, if Paul had had a son, he would not have circumcised him” (xxv).  In reading this years ago, my own immediate response was the opposite.  Moreover, over the last fifteen years I’ve often asked colleagues in NT/Christian Origins how they would respond to the question:  Would Paul have circumcised his son?  And the response overwhelmingly has been “Yes, of course!”  (So, as I often said to students, I may be wrong, but I’m not idiosyncratic!)

The larger issue pithily put in Crossan’s memorable statement is what continuing place Torah may have had in Paul’s view as “apostle to the gentiles.”  As I read Paul, his critical comments about Torah are typically in the context of refuting those fellow Jewish believers who thought that gentile believers should take up Torah-observance fully (i.e., effectively, become Jewish proselytes) as a requisite part of their conversion, in addition to faith in Jesus.  So, e.g., his discussion of Torah in Galatians seems to me clearly in this context.

Paul does also bemoan the many fellow Jews who rejected Jesus in the name of Torah, and acted (ignorantly in his view) as if Torah-observance continued to be the sufficient basis of a relationship with God (esp. Romans 10:1-4).  Certainly (Paul held), now that Jesus the Messiah has come, it is not possible to be “justified in God’s sight by deeds of the Law” (Rom. 3:20).  For now, “apart from the Law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed” in Jesus (Rom. 3:21ff.), and he is now the revelation that must be acknowledged in trust/faith.

But in other statements the same Paul affirms Torah as a genuine revelation of God.  For example, he asks (rhetorically) does this new development (Jesus) “overthrow the law”?  And his immediate response is “Absolutely not!” (Rom. 3:31).

So, Paul vigorously opposed the demand that gentile believes must adopt Jewish Torah-observance as a condition for their salvation.  But what did he likely hold with regard to Jewish believers?  So far as I can tell, Paul had no problem with fellow Jewish believers remaining Jews, and that includes remaining Jewish in observing Torah as a marker of their Jewish identity.  So long as they didn’t treat Torah-observance as a universal requisite of believers, it was OK for Jewish believers.  So far as being part of God’s redeemed people is concerned, especially so far as gentile believers are concerned, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything” (Gal. 6:15).

But does this mean that Paul was guilty of the charge ascribed to some zealous Jewish believers in Jerusalem that Paul taught “Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs” (Acts 21:21)?  I doubt it.  I can’t find any Pauline text in which Paul addresses fellow Jews and tells them to “forsake Moses” and the Torah.

Instead, in passages such as Romans 14 Paul seems to treat with equanimity fellow believers who do or do not observe customs that appear to be expressions of Torah.  (And, as commentators typically note, Paul’s use of “weak” and “strong” in this chapter is likely ironic, reflecting the outlook of some in Rome who thought of themselves as “strong”.)  And, it’s interesting that Acts claims that Paul did have Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:1-3; because his mother was Jewish, an early witness to the view expressed later in rabbinic texts that Jewish descent is traced through the mother).

So, in my view (and contra Dom’s), if Paul, the apostle to the gentiles, had married (a nice Jewish woman) and had a son, I am pretty sure that he would have had him circumcised.  As I’ve noted before, Paul’s readiness to undergo repeated synagogue floggings is a strong indication that he continued to feel strongly his Jewishness, and was willing to pay with his own flesh to remain a member of his ancestral people.

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  1. Excellent article, very helpful and insightful! Could we also say, Paul’s willingness to undergo synagogue floggings to remain a member of his ancestral people, is because of his profound faith in Christ? If so, would it also serve as evidence of primitive Christianity’s disconnect from the cultic worship of Judaism? Thanks again for the article.

    • Thanks. I take Paul’s readiness to undergo synagogue floggings as prompted by two things: (1) his desire to remain part of his historic people, a Jew/Israelite; and (2) his refusal to give up his gentile mission (the message and activity that likely caused the offence that led to him being flogged).
      I don’t see how you can find any indication of a “disconnect from the cultic worship of Judaism”, whatever that means. Jewish believers (such as Paul) continued to frequent synagogues (until/unless they were expelled), and temple (until it was destroyed). They saw no incompatibility in being both Jewish and believers in Jesus.

  2. Patrick permalink


    I agree with you, just not your conclusion. Paul was an ethnic Jew and he said all his first birth Jewish assets to HIM were meaningless compared to the knowledge about Christ. Not just for a Gentile convert who we agree he was addressing.

    If they were meaningless to Paul now, isn’t it reasonable to think he viewed them meaningless to fellow Jewish Christians as well as new Gentile converts?

    • Patrick: For heaven’s sake, read the statements in context! Paul says that those things on which he previously depended are now, in light of the superiority of Jesus, of no value to him, as a means of establishing his relationship with God. That’s the issue, not Jewishness per se. And the context opens with Paul warning Gentile converts not to be taken in by those who say that circumcision & Torah-adoption are a further necessity beyond faith in christ. So, he recites his own move in the opposite direction: He had everything that the circumcision-party advocates, and more, and yet he went on to Christ, in light of whom all his prior bases for relationship with God are now relativized. This tells us nothing, however, about whether Paul discouraged fellow Jewish believers from continuing their ethnic observance of Torah.

  3. I understand that and was merely pointing out that Paul’s views on “resurrection-life” would have informed his views on circumcision as those of a past epoch. As Paul said in Galatians, “for in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

  4. Professor Hurtado,
    I fully see why Paul would have had a son circumcised. Forgive me if it’s a silly question, but he would also have baptised him?

    • Michael: Not a silly question at all! But your question does presuppose a prior question: Was infant baptism practiced in “Pauline Christianity”? If not (and many are the scholars to think it wasn’t), if instead it was a believer’s action, then no one would have baptized sons.
      But behind the question is a more serious one: What did Paul think of Christ vis-a-vis Torah-observance? And for that the answer seems to me pretty clear. For Jews as well as gentiles, Jesus Christ is the unique and necessary mediator of full/righted relationship with the God of the biblical tradition. The practice of baptism (in Jesus’ name) commenced, it appears, among Jewish believers in Judea. And this means that they saw this as the right response to God’s new revelation in Jesus the Messiah and heavenly Lord.

  5. ‘For now, “apart from the Law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed” in Jesus (Rom. 3:21ff.), and he is now the revelation that must be acknowledged in trust/faith.’

    Romans 3:21 is interesting indeed.

    ‘But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ’

    According to Paul the righteousness of God was testified to by the Law and the Prophets.

    Did Paul regard Jesus as a prophet?

    • No, Steven. Paul says that Jesus was testified to BY the Law and the Prophets (of the OT).

  6. I think it also interesting that Paul rebuked Peter for withdrawing from gentiles during meals …

    • It’s important that the meals in question weren’t just any kind, but the meals that signified fellowship of believers in Christ. That’s what was involved in Peter and the other Jewish believers withdrawing from the meals: They were (at least as Paul saw it) effectively denying fellowship to the gentile believers, treating their trust/baptism in Christ as insufficient, and threatening the unity of the body of believers.

  7. Edwin_a423478 permalink

    “Would Aquaman have raised his son on land?”

    Apologies if such an analogy strikes you as offensive, but I’m unfortunately ‘that guy’ who insists on examining the evidence from an empirical rather than a ‘faith-based’ perspective….

    You are talking about a handful of epistolary texts that could well have been written by more than one person within a period of more than one century… No?

    You admit: “…over the last fifteen years I’ve often asked colleagues in NT/Christian Origins how they would respond to the question: Would Paul have circumcised his son? And the response overwhelmingly has been ‘Yes, of course!’ (So, as I often said to students, I may be wrong, but I’m not idiosyncratic!)”

    In other words: appealing to authority/consensus may be invalid in a strictly logical sense, yet in your eyes still provides practical and/or rhetorical benefits in some important literary sense… Am I in the ballpark, or way off course?


    • Edwin: You’re waaaaaay off course. First, you have no basis for your wild assertion that the established letters of Paul may have been written “over a century or so”. These issues have been attacked, debated, analysed by every conceivable means and from every perspective, and the 7 now virtually undisputed letters (of the 13 bearing his name) are so because they have met the tests. Read the history of scholarly debate and learn something before making sofa-claims.
      Second, my discussion proceeded simply on the basis of weighing the evidence (there’s no “faith perspective” in this scholarship, it’s hard historical analysis), attempting to form a view of how Paul saw his ancestral Jewishness in the light of his belief that Jesus was Messiah, etc.

  8. Great article – thanks!

  9. CJ Tan permalink

    Dear Dr Larry,

    Appreciate your post and I’m largely in agreement with you.

    I am curious though about 1 Cor 9:19-23 – what did Paul mean by ‘I became like one not having the law’? Was it limited to him fraternizing freely with Gentiles?

    CJ Tan

    • CJ: I take the phrase “I became as one ‘outside the Law’ [ανομος]” in 1 cor 9:21 as Paul’s use of a term that was used of gentiles by Jews: literally “lawless/without the law”. It’s rhetorical flourish (as so often in Paul) here, as he declares his entire commitment to his mission. This “as though outside the law” would have meant sharing gentile food, and treating gentiles as full co-religionists. It was, as I say, how some Jews would have seen his behavior (and may have been one of the factors in his receiving repeated synagogue floggings).

  10. Matthew permalink

    Interesting question. I don’t think he would have circumcised his son for Torah observance, assuming it was not a stumbling block issue for his wife (didn’t the practice start with Abraham though)… or perhaps he would have if the same circumstances that compelled him to circumcise Timothy arose. Would it be better to say he ‘allows’ Christians to observe torah practices, based on whether it could become a stumbling block issue for them, but they are not obliged to do so under the new covenant?

    • Matthew: The question isn’t what “Christians” should do, but what Jews who put faith in Jesus should do. For Paul, full Torah-observance by gentile believers was wrong, as it could mean that Jesus wasn’t enough. For Jewish believers, Torah-observance was OK, because their subsequent faith/baptism meant that Torah was already deemed now inadequate by itself as a means of relationship with God. I.e., Torah-observance (in Paul’s eyes) became a mark of Jewish identity, and Paul regarded ethnic Israel as still having a purpose in God’s plans.

  11. Tim Reichmuth permalink

    Dr. H.,
    So would your understanding of Paul accepting that Jewish believers in Jesus following the Torah also include allowing them to be involved in temple sacrifices prior to its destruction? If so, how would this square with Hebrews, which at least seems to have come from Pauline circles? Thanks for the opportunity to continue to interact and grow!

    • Tim: I find no critique of temple or sacrifice in Paul. Indeed, his positive use of temple imagery for the churches and believers, and sacrificial imagery for Jesus’ death, etc., could suggest that he had a generally positive view of them. Acts certainly presents Jerusalem believers continuing to frequent the temple, and at the hours of prayer (when morning and evening sacrifice was offered), and even pictures Paul going to the temple to pay sacrificial vows for himself and other Jewish believers (21:17-26). So, this (probably gentile) author of Acts had no problem with this.
      If your notion of sacrifice is shaped solely by the treatment in Hebrews, you’re assuming (incorrectly) that sacrifice was typically atonement for sins. It wasn’t. More typically, sacrifice was thanks, and expressions of worship to God. And the critique in Hebrews makes no mention of the Jerusalem temple, only the wilderness tabernacle. And no mention of sacrifices as such, but only the day-of-atonement sacrifice, one a year.
      So, there’s more to the situation of ancient Jewish believers that you might think.

  12. Patrick permalink

    I share the view that Paul wanted Timothy circumcised for strategic missionary reasons, not Torah observance.

    Since that seems accurate to me, I would say Paul would circumcise his son, but, not because of the old Torah’s prescriptions. So Jews might lend him an ear later in life concerning the new Torah of Christ.

    Paul made it clear to me anyway in Philippians 3, the old markers for what is a “Jew/God’s people” counted for nothing anymore. Counted for skubila. For an ethnic Jew or a Gentile. What counted now was the authentic knowledge of exactly who Jesus of Nazareth is so God can circumcise our hearts w/o hands.

    Paul was a Jew and he meant that for him as well, IMO. Circumcision meant nothing theologically to Paul post conversion. Hebrew of Hebrews and all that.

    • Patrick: You’re reading texts, including Philip 3, out of context, making generalizing judgements instead of the specific ones appropriate to the texts. In Philippians, Paul is addressing GENTILE believers, warning them not to be taken in by Judaizing advocates. Their faith in Christ, he says, is all they need to qualify as full memb, ners of God’s people.
      And then in vv. 4-11, Paul describes how he, as a fully observant Jew, has put faith in Christ, no longer trusting in Torah-observance by itself as the basis of his relationship to God, but now trusting in Christ. Moreover, for the sake of his gentile mission, he has come to regard all of his Jewish attributes as now worthless IN COMPARISON TO CHRIST.” I.e., they don’t suffice any longer, but require faith in Christ.
      This doesn’t amount to saying at all that Torah is worthless! It’s saying that it’s worthless as an alternative to Jesus. His derisive references to circumcision are all in the context of discouraging GENTILES from feeling it necessary.

  13. Dear Larry,
    The question is quite interesting, and as an exercise in counterfactual history, I would like to take it a step further. In principle I agree that upon marrying a Jewish woman, Paul would most likely have his son circumcised. I am not so sure, however, that he would have proceeded in the same fashion upon marrying a Greek lady and establish their permanent home e.g. in Corinth or Athens (cf. Jewish descent being traced through the mother).
    I also see the circumcision of Timothy a bit more nuanced: according to Acts 16:3 Paul had Timothy circumcised “because of the Jews” (διὰ τοὺς Ἰουδαίους), who were in those places and knew that Timothy’s father was a Greek. So, the circumcision became a sort of test of Timothy’s integrity/credibility (?) in their eyes. Luke’s explanation could thus be regarded in this manner also: had Timothy not intended to bring the Gospel to the Jews at all, but e.g. were to approach only the Gentiles in a town reasonably far away from Lystra (e.g. in Lampsacus), where nobody would know him or his origin, I would have my doubts as to whether Paul had still insisted upon him being circumcised. Paul’s aim was to remove any obstacle or stumbling-block from the path of evangelisation. Since the Greeks in Lampsacus could not care less whether their apostle was circumcised or not, to paraphrase Peter’s words from Acts 15:10, why place “the yoke” on Timothy’s neck?

    • Istvan: We’re veering off into speculative flights. My question was intended merely to provoke consideration of the larger issue: Did Paul approve Jewish believers continuing to practice Torah?

      • I think yes, he would have approved of this continued practice. In the same fashion as he would probably not have objected to any Jewish believer discontinuing their practice of the Torah (i.e. to start a Christian life similar to those of Gentile origin), if they felt that it suited them better spiritually. This is the true Christian freedom, or, in Paul’s own words, “the upright or straight walk according to the truth of the Gospel” (Galatians 2:14). What Paul clearly did not approve of but rather vehemently protested against was hypocrisy and double standards, as it is clearly shown by Galatians 2:11-14. He did not have any problem with Peter starting to live like a Gentile among the Gentiles in Antioch – as long as he was consistent, and did not want to impress the visitors from Jerusalem by suddenly separating himself yet again from those Gentiles with whom he had no problem to share a meal before the visit of James’ companions. This episode reveals Paul’s straightforward and laudable attitude towards the whole issue: be a Christian in the way it suits you best, but be consistent about it irrespective of the momentary circumstances.

      • Well, Istvan, I’m not so sure that Paul would have encouraged Jewish believers to decide for themselves whether to observe Torah or not. To throw off Torah altogether (for Jews) would have meant effectively to disassociate yourself with your people.
        In any case, I read the reference to Peter as living like a gentile in Gal. 2:14, portraying him as “living like a gentile” as a rhetorical expression, capturing how those from Jerusalem saw the practice of sharing the church-meal with gentiles. I.e., he accused Peter of pretending agreement with those “men from James” when he had been ready to share the meal prior to their arrival. The issue in Gal 2:11-21 isn’t in my view whether Jewish believers can/should continue to observe Torah, but whether Torah-observance was MANDATORY for ALL believers as a necessary basis of full redemption and fellowship. Paul says Jesus is the sufficient and necessary basis, and Torah is now superseded by Jesus, becoming now essentially a mark of Jewish ethnicity before God.

      • Larry,

        Always great blogging on Paul! When I think of your initial question, I have two main considerations, 1) Paul’s understanding of human customs in light of the new epoch bestowed on the world by Christ, the world without “master or slave, man or woman, Greek or Jew” and 2) what he personally aspired to in tension with what he considered others ready to comprehend. For instance when I think of the coming age, privately Paul would have seen all human customs as “dung” in light of “being in Christ,” and when I think of Paul as he addresses the “weak” in Romans (only book), he seems to reluctantly concede that some of his Jewish Christian brethren may think it still necessary to keep Jewish customs. But do I think Paul himself would have kept suggested Jewish customs to others, my answer would be no. On the contrary, I think he would have seen the lack of need for Jewish customs as “the freedom” found in Christ. The freedom gospel that he offered to others, as he says in Romans “first to Jew and then to Greek.” Essentially this is his Gospel message and what made his message distinctive from the other Apostles. We will never know the true answer to your question, but it certainly requires some more than “speculative” reflection into the Apostle Paul, and that is always a good thing.


      • Thanks Rob, but I fear that you’re incorrect in thinking that for Paul gender and national differences were simply effaced. Instead, he meant that they were not be function as they typically did, as obstacles to full acceptance and affirmation of the others as co-religionists. He would not have undergone repeated synagogue floggings if he felt that his Jewish ethnicity were now meaningless.

  14. J.J. permalink

    Interesting discussion. But what if Paul married a Gentile woman. Would he want their son to be circumcised?

    • JJ: A red-herring. My question was simply to tease out the real issue: Did Paul apintprove Jewish believes continuing to live like Jews and observe Torah? I think yes, so long as it didn’t interfere in fully accepting his gentile believers.

      • Robert permalink

        “So far as I can tell, Paul had no problem with fellow Jewish believers remaining Jews, and that includes remaining Jewish in observing Torah as a marker of their Jewish identity.” 

        “… so long as it didn’t interfere in fully accepting his gentile believers.”

        So, is it your view that while Jewish believers could continue to observe kosher, for example, this was no longer required and could even be detrimental in terms of table fellowship with Gentile believers?

      • Richard: The issue (e.g., in Galatians) wasn’t whether Jewish believers kept some kind of kosher in their homes. The question was whether they required gentiles to practice Torah (and so kosher practice) also as a condition for Jesus-fellowship. The latter Paul opposed . . . vehemently.

      • chappymartin permalink

        I agree he allowed Jews to continue to practice, but there was something he also called the law of freedom which he considered better than that. So when Christ comes back to a new earth there will just be the law of freedom and not the mosaic law

      • Yeah, well that’s a “faith” claim, and not really relevant to the issue also. We’re not talking about post-parousia life but how Paul thought Jewish believers should live now.

      • Re: your response (to my response) above, I think Paul would have seen the progression of human existence in two stages, 1) the here and now or “being transformed” and then 2) the Kingdom to come, where “to be outside the body was to be with Christ.” In light of number 1 I think Paul might have considered his Jewish identity and the ethnic identity of others as significant. But in the number 2 world to come, I don’t think it would matter. “If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body, ” and I don’t think in Paul’s understanding that “spiritual” body would maintain an gender, slave status, or ethnicity. It would be along the same lines as when Jesus said, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scripturesi or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”

      • Well, Rob, I wasn’t blogging about resurrection-life, but about how Paul saw the role of Torah, esp. for Jewish believers in Jesus.

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