"To Circumcise, or not to Circumcise." THAT is the question for Paul and the Author of the Book of Acts.

St. Paul preaching in Berea

Copied fromRejection of Pascal’s Wager

Another area where the account in Acts contradict Paul’s direct testimony is in the area of circumcision. In Acts we are told that Paul had one of his disciples circumcised because of expediency; to avoid problems for his mission with the Jews in the region:

Acts 16:1-3

He reached Derbe and Lystra. And behold, there was a disciple there by the name of Timothy, the son of a Jewish-Christian woman and a heathen father, who was held in good repute by the brethren in Lystra and Iconium. This man Paul wanted to go with him, and he took and circumcised him, because of the Jews who were in the region; for they all knew his father was a heathen.

This action is at odds with the statements of Paul on circumcision in Galatians. First Paul tells us that he took Titus, an uncircumcised Greek, to Jerusalem during the meeting on the very issue of circumcision for non-Jewish Christian. He stood his ground before the apostles and Titus was not circumcised.

Galatians 2:1-6

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas taking Titus along with me. I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us-we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you.

Later on, in the same letter, Paul explicitly repudiated a rumor circulated by his opponents that he practiced circumcision for expediency!

Galatians 5:10b-11

But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision?

This, of course, is a blatant contradiction to Acts 16:1-3! A commonly attempted defense to get around this problem is to cite Paul’s saying about him being “all things to all people”:

I Corinthians 9:19-23

For though I am free to respect all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I become as a Jew. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have to be all things to all people, so that I might by all means save some people. I do it for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Thus, according to this explanation, Paul was merely circumcising Timothy in order “to win those under the law” and to be “all things to all people”. However this defense is seriously flawed. As the German scholar Gunther Bornkamm asserted, the passage above fits within the context of I Corinthians chapters 8 to 11 which gives a proper understanding of the freedom Paul was talking about. It is not a carte blanche to do anything in order to win people over to the gospel. [15]

Both the context of I Corinthians 9:19-23 and the content of these verses themselves show that Paul could not modify the gospel itself according to the particular characteristics of his hearers. The whole of his concern is to make clear that the changeless gospels, which lies upon him as his [obligation] (9:16), empowers him to be free to change his stance. This means, however, that in the light of the gospel Paul no longer recognizes as such the religious position of the various groups described. [16]

In other words, Paul treats the potential converts situation as a “given”. Thus he does not expect a Jew or a Gentile to abandon their way of life or change in order to live as a Christian.

I Corinthians 7:17-20

However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule to all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone as the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.

This is analogous to, say, a person’s gender. It made no difference whether the person is a man or woman before he or she becomes a Christian. Indeed we find in many cases Paul lumping a person’s previous religious affiliations with gender, nationality, education and social status. (See Galatians 3:28, I Corinthians 7:18, 12:13; Colossians 3:11) [17] Thus, as Haenchen reminds us, the freedom Paul preaches is the freedom not to follow the Mosaic law, not the idea of freedom to follow it! [18] Furthermore within the context of Acts, the incident was suppose to take place just after the Jerusalem council where Paul had been guaranteed a Gentile mission free of circumcision. Remember that Timothy was already a Christian; in view of what Paul himself wrote I Corinthians 7:17-20 above, it is impossible that Paul would have had him circumcised. [19] Thus Acts 16:1-3 is another unhistorical portrayal of Paul by Luke. [b]


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