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Paul and Gentile Circumcision

July 3, 2014

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.

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  1. When Paul stated that he warned for three years with tears that following his death, wolves would rise up among them and not spare the flock, he was talking about the demographic shift, along with historical events and political alliances that led the nascent ekklesia to turn on the Jews both within and without?

    • The words ascribed to Paul in Acts 20:29 are more commonly taken as reflecting “heresies” that “distort” the gospel.

  2. A Duomai permalink

    My question is slightly off the topic but very relevant.

    Very often Christians in India find ourselves in situation where we are offered food/sweets offered to idols by our Hindu friends. Refusal to take that would appear unkind/impolite/intolerant and would offend them. The Hindus would have no problem at all in taking, if we share, the bread and the wine, and sometimes when we take them to the church they complain that we don’t offer them the bread and the wine when we take them ourselves.

    My wife’s parent came to faith from Hindu background. So she is not okay about eating this kind of food given by Hindu neighbours. From my side it’s my grandparents who came to faith. And I think it’s fine to eat such kind of food.

    In 1 Cor 8 Paul seems okay with eating such food. But in 1 Cor 10 he seems to be against it. What is your understanding?

    • In 1 Cor 8 Paul seems to allow his former pagan converts to eat food purchased in the marketplace (even knowing that the meat may have come from a pagan temple), as “the earth is the Lord’s.” And he advises believers that they can accept a dinner invitation at a pagan house and eat whatever is provided, asking no questions. If, however, the pagan host makes an offering at the table, e.g., pouring out a bit of wine to a god, etc., or specifies that the meal is in honour of a god, they the believer is not to partake.
      In 1 Cor 10, however, Paul is dealing with questions about joining in pagan religious ceremonies in temples, which he portrays as “idolatry”. This he forbids, declaring it incompatible with participation in the believers’ fellowship and the “table of the Lord”. In settings such as yours, you are much closer to the originating situation of 1 Cor than Westerners are .

  3. tlctugger permalink

    ^^ We do know of Jewish men who underwent “epispasm”, a serious operation to reverse circumcision. ^^

    Foreskin restoration in antiquity was absolutely non-surgical. Just draw the skin forward, loop a twine around it, hang a weight, and go about your day – for a few years.

  4. Dave Lindsay permalink


    I think the scene of Galatians 2:3-5 fits perfectly with your observation about the public baths:

    “But not even Titus, who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you.”


  5. Originally, in the Maccabean period, undergoing epispasm was because they wanted to participate (nude, of course) in Greek athletics in the gymnasium. Roman baths were a later introduction to the east. Athletics in the gymnasium were of course a major feature of life for elite men in the hellenized cities of the east throughout the Roman period. I guess in the baths you could, if you cared, be fairly modest about wearing a towel until you got into the water, but in the gymnasium you’d spend much of the day stark naked. However, as you say, everyone went to the baths. Even the rabbis went to the baths. I think even Jews, who were more sensitive about nudity than most people, just thought it was natural to be naked around and in water. Fishermen worked naked, even on shore. The Victorians were the first to invent bathing trunks.

  6. Jason permalink

    Hello Dr. Hurtado. I have a question about a particular point that you brought up; that Paul’s “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…in which the non-Jewish peoples/nations would forsake their idolatry and turn to the God of Israel “.

    How did Paul’s beliefs about the inauguration of this special time square with his belief in the timeframe of the Parousia? What I mean is, if Paul thought that this was the period that Gentiles would finally turn to the Jewish God, wouldn’t it have been sensible for him to believe that the turning away from idols, and turning towards the God of israel, would take ages to be accomplished? And if so, wouldn’t that place the Parousia (in his mind) in the far distant future? Ultimately, I guess what I’m asking is, did Paul expect the Parousia to come relatively soon, or at a much much later date?

    • We (or at least I) don’t have access to Paul’s thinking about the time of Jesus’ “parousia.” He clearly placed a lot of hope on it. But one thing to consider is this: Paul didn’t necessarily think that every pagan had to convert. He seems instead to have worked with a kind of representative outlook. So, e.g., in Rom 15:18-23, Paul refers to having “fully preached the gospel” from Jersusalem to Illyricum, saying that he has “no further place” to work in these regions. He’d hardly hit every town in that arc of geography! So, the “fullness [pleroma] of the gentiles” was likely something less than a whole-population conversion. Moreover, given that he believed that God was the one at work through his mission, he may well have thought that it could all be accomplished within a decade or so, perhaps less.

      • Jason permalink

        That makes sense. Thank you for taking the time to answer Dr. Hurtado.

  7. James Ernest permalink

    > 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!).

    Larry, did you happen to see the RBL review of the Green & Mcdonald volume? The reviewer says that circumcision normally consisted of just a nick in the foreskin, not its removal. I never heard that before and don’t know the evidence.



    • James: I don’t know the reviewer’s basis for this claim. We do know of Jewish men who underwent “epispasm”, a serious operation to reverse circumcision. And we know that pagans regarded Jews as disgraceful in showing the male glans.

  8. Tim Reichmuth permalink

    Dr. H.,
    IMO, Jesus’ Messiahship is clearly the central teaching in Paul. As such, Paul’s call for all people, Jew and Gentile to recognize this revelation seems to presuppose that it is not their ethnicity that needs to be different but the source of their relationship with God, now exclusively through Jesus. How this impacted their Torah observance seems to be more along the line of it’s value for establishing or maintaining a covenant relationship with God. Paul’s revelation of Jesus as Messiah ties covenant relation solely to being ‘ in Christ’. Therefore, a Jewish believer in the Messiah Jesus would certainly not been required to give up his Torah observance nor a Gentile believer be required to be Torah observant. Historically it seems that the more Gentile the Church became, the greater her distance from Torah observant Messianic Jews, the greater the distance she assumed between the Torah and Paul.


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