Gentile Circumcision by Matthew Thiessen

One of the central questions facing early Christ followers as the movement spread to non-Jews was whether gentiles needed to undergo circumcision and observe the Jewish law. Yet this question was already debated amongst some Jews prior to the birth of the Jesus movement, so early Christ followers were not the first to wonder if and how the Jewish law applied to non-Jews. But the question of whether and to what degree gentiles needed to Judaize became central to Christ followers precisely because of the common belief that Israel’s God was now saving gentiles.

Paul’s letters provide indirect evidence that some early Christ followers believed that gentile believers needed to undergo circumcision and adopt the Jewish law in its entirety. For instance, certain people in Galatia encouraged gentiles there to undergo circumcision (Gal 6:12-13). At least some of the Galatians found this message appealing, desiring to come under the Jewish law (Gal 4:21) in order to become Jews and thus sons of Abraham. In fact, Paul himself used to preach circumcision to gentiles, although scholars debate whether this occurred before the Christ event or after (Gal 5:11). Paul’s letters to Christ followers in Rome and Philippi provide additional evidence that gentile Christ followers were tempted to undergo circumcision (e.g., Rom 2:25-29; Phil 3:2-6).

Why did Paul write against gentile circumcision?

Paul, though, repeatedly wrote to dissuade gentiles from being circumcised. He did not do this simply because he thought that circumcision was unnecessary; rather, he argued that circumcision was positively detrimental, separating gentile Christ followers from Christ and from grace (Gal 5:3-4). In contrast, he argued that the reception of Christ’s Spirit through faith forged a connection to Abraham that rebirths gentiles as sons and seed of Abraham (Gal 3:7, Gal 3:29; cf. Rom 4). Paul elsewhere claimed that he taught in all Christ communities that those who were uncircumcised (gentiles) ought to remain in that state, while those who were circumcised (Jews) ought to remain in that state (1Cor 7:19). This rule suggests that while Paul thought Jewish Christ followers ought to remain law observant, gentile Christ followers should not seek to become Jews or keep the Jewish law.

Although scholars debate the historical value of the Acts of the Apostles, it too addressed the question of gentile circumcision. In it, certain people, including some Christ-believing Pharisees, claimed that gentile Christ followers needed to undergo circumcision and keep the Jewish law (Acts 15:1, Acts 15:5). Nonetheless, the early leaders of the movement determined that gentiles only needed to keep those parts of the Jewish law that specifically pertained to non-Jews (Acts 15:19-20). Again, the author of Acts made clear that Jewish Christ followers ought to circumcise their newborn sons, while gentiles should not practice circumcision (Acts 21:17-26).

Did later generations of Christians still debate gentile circumcision?

The question of whether gentile Christ followers ought to undergo circumcision continued long after the first century CE. In the fourth century, for instance, Epiphanius averred that the Ebionites and Cerinthians argued, on the basis of Matt 10:25 and Luke 2:21, that all Christ followers should imitate Jesus in undergoing circumcision (Haer. 30.26.2). Nonetheless, most later Christian writers rejected the need for gentile Christians to undergo circumcision, at times dismissing physical circumcision entirely (e.g., Gosp. Thom. 53; Barn. 9.4), at other times noting that the commandment to circumcise (Gen 17:12-14; Lev 12:3) pertained only to Israelites, not to gentiles (e.g., Origen, Comm. Rom. 2.13.11–12).

Matthew Thiessen , "Gentile Circumcision", n.p. [cited 12 Nov 2019]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/gentile-circumcision

Contributors

thiessen-matthew

Matthew Thiessen
associate professor of religious studies , McMaster University

Matthew Thiessen is associate professor of religious studies at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada. He is the author of Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision, and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2011) and Paul and the Gentile Problem (Oxford University Press, 2016).

a person who is not Jewish

an early Christian gnostic sect

an early Jewish Christian sect

Christians who were not Jewish prior to their conversion.

an early Christian writer who lived in the second–third centuries CE

Gal 6:12-13

12 Those people who are telling you to get circumcised are only trying to show how important they are. And they don't want to get into trouble for preaching abo ... View more

Gal 4:21

Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law?

Gal 5:11

11But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.

Rom 2:25-29

25 Being circumcised is worthwhile, if you obey the Law. But if you don't obey the Law, you are no better off than people who are not circumcised. 26 In fact, i ... View more

Phil 3:2-6

2 Watch out for those people who behave like dogs! They are evil and want to do more than just circumcise you. 3 But we are the ones who are truly circumcised, ... View more

Gal 5:3-4

Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. 4 You who want to be justified by the law have cut ... View more

Gal 3:7

so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham.

Gal 3:29

29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Rom 4

The Example of Abraham
1What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh?2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has someth ... View more

1Cor 7:19

19Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything.

Acts 15:1

The Council at Jerusalem
1Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of M ... View more

Acts 15:5

But some Pharisees had become followers of the Lord. They stood up and said, “Gentiles who have faith in the Lord must be circumcised and told to obey the Law o ... View more

Acts 15:19-20

19 And so, my friends, I don't think we should place burdens on the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 We should simply write and tell them not to eat anything ... View more

Acts 21:17-26

Paul Visits James at Jerusalem
17When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us warmly.18The next day Paul went with us to visit James; and all the elde ... View more

Matt 10:25

25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will ... View more

Luke 2:21

Jesus Is Named
21After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived ... View more

Gen 17:12-14

12-13 From now on, your family must circumcise every baby boy when he is eight days old. You must even circumcise any man or boy you have as a slave, both those ... View more

Lev 12:3

3On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.