Paul and Gentile Circumcision
In the recent Nangeroni Seminar on “Paul as a Second-Temple Jew,” predictably the topic of male circumcision came under discussion. As readers of Paul’s letters will know, in a few of them (especially Galatians) Paul is at pains to resist the efforts of others (likely some other Jewish Christ-believers) who urged gentile converts to complete their conversion by being circumcised (and so adhere to observance of Torah as a committed Jew). These advocates of “Judaizing” may well have pointed to the view of Abraham’s conversion that we have reflected in Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 44:19-21, where Abraham “kept the law” and “certified the covenant in his flesh . . . Therefore the Lord assured him with an oath that the nations would be blessed through his offspring.”
The phrase “certified the covenant in his flesh” is an obvious reference to male circumcision, and to Genesis 17, where Abraham circumcises “every male” in his household. The “Judaizing” advocates appear to have urged that Paul’s gentile converts had made a good start in responding in faith to the gospel of Jesus, but they should now complete their conversion, following Abraham’s example, by (male) circumcision.
Paul’s rather intricate argument in response in Galatians 3 focuses on the same Genesis material, but Paul uses the sequence in the opposite manner. He underscores that in Genesis 15:6 Abraham’s believing response to God’s promise is “reckoned” to him as “righteousness” well before and apart from the subsequent reference to circumcision in Genesis 17. So, Paul contends, this means that Abraham’s “righteousness” didn’t depend on circumcision, which only came later. So, he reasoned, circumcision wasn’t (and isn’t) a condition for being reckoned righteous.
But one of the questions that arises in discussions of the controversy over male circumcision is how would anyone know whether you were or weren’t circumcised. Well, the immediate answer is that in the Roman era the public bath was a central item of practically any town of any significance. That’s where you bathed, relaxed, did business deals, socialized, etc. So, quite obviously, unless you stayed completely to yourself and never socialized, everyone (or at least other males) would readily know whether you were or weren’t circumcised! This appears to be the reason why we have references to some Jewish men actually undergoing a surgical operation to try to reverse their circumcision (let’s not go into details!). Indeed, given what was involved (the discomfort and the dangers of infection and also social ostracism), it’s curious that Paul felt it necessary to argue so strongly against male circumcision of his gentile converts. Those advocating circumcision must have been fairly persuasive!
But another thing to note is the place of the male phallus in the ancient Roman culture. As any museum of Roman-era antiquities will demonstrate, the phallus was very much “out there” on view. E.g., statues of male deities and males ascribed some kind of god-like status (e.g., Roman emperors) often (even typically) are shown nude with their genitals fully in view. There was even a deity known for his massive penis, Priapus, a god associated with fertility, and the phallus itself appears often (e.g., on vases and other items) as a common symbol of fertility. Roman-era people were, in general it appears, much less prudish in depicting couples copulating and in other references to sexual activities.
But also the stylized phallus often was used as a symbol for good health, good fortune, etc. We have examples of a stylized phallus in a house-mosaic from Ostia, where it appears to be simply a good-luck symbol. We have amulets worn around the neck with representations of the phallus, serving as a personal good-luck charm. We have stylized phalluses set into walls at street-corners and at bridges, apparently intended to ward off accidents. We have necklaces and rings, including childrens’ rings, with stylized phalluses, apparently intended as good-luck charms. (For abundant evidence of all these matters, see the richly illustrated volume by Catherine Johns, Sex or Symbol: Erotic Images of Greece and Rome, Austin: University of Texas Press; London: British Museum Publications, 1982.)
So, although it may seem odd to us to have people arguing in public and Paul writing candidly about male circumcision, and some might even blush at the candor of it all, in that Roman-era setting it wasn’t so strange to do so.
But, to return to Paul’s argument with advocates of “Judaizing,” his reason for resisting so strenuously the circumcision of his gentile converts to Christ appears to be this: He believed that Christ’s resurrection had inaugurated the special time foretold in the Jewish scriptures (OT) in which the non-Jewish peoples/nations would forsake their idolatry and turn to the God of Israel (e.g., Isaiah 60:1-7). That is (as several scholars have recently emphasized, e.g., Paula Fredriksen), these prophecies portray gentiles coming to God as gentiles, not as converts to Judaism. So, Paul seems to have thought, to require gentile believers to undergo male circumcision and adopt Jewish observance of Torah was to fail to recognize the new eschatological situation ushered in through Christ’s resurrection.
Contra the claims of some, Paul didn’t oppose gentile circumcision simply to make his message more “marketable” and less demanding. Instead, believing whole-heartedly that Jesus had been designated and installed Messiah (through his resurrection), and under the impact of his revelatory experience of Jesus as God’s “Son” (e.g., Galatians 1:13-15), Paul energetically traversed a good deal of the Roman world announcing to non-Jews that the special day of God’s favour to/for them had arrived, and that they could now become part of the promised family of Abraham in Christ.
But, also contra the claims of some, Paul’s opposition to requiring non-Jewish males to be circumcised does not imply that Paul would have discouraged Jewish believers from circumcising their sons. To be sure, Paul held that fellow Jews, as well as gentiles, should recognize Jesus as Messiah and Lord. I don’t see the grounds for the claims of some that Paul saw Jesus’ redemptive significance as relevant only for gentiles. But Paul also seems to have continued to see himself as a member of the Jewish people, and saw the Jewish people as having a continuing significance in God’s redemptive programme (e.g., Romans 9–11). As I read him, for Paul there was no problem in fellow Jewish believers continuing to see themselves as Jews and observing Torah (and so, e.g., circumcising their sons), so long as they didn’t require non-Jewish believers to do so. So long as fellow Jewish believers recognized the surpassing significance of Jesus, as the new defining criterion of the enlarged family of Abraham, their Torah-observance was OK.