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Wednesday, February 07, 2018

A Better Job

Paul had Timothy circumcised. He didn’t require the same of Titus, and makes a point of saying so. Then he went and told the Galatians, “If you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.”

Three apparently similar situations. Three completely different responses: You SHOULD, You don’t NEED to and You absolutely must NOT under any circumstances. Yet Paul had not made some sudden grand discovery about the circumcision question right in the middle of his life and ministry. And he certainly was neither inconsistent nor hypocritical.

A Servant to All

Paul met Timothy in the city of Lystra in Lycaonia (modern-day Turkey), roughly 750 miles from Jerusalem by land. Timothy’s mother Eunice was an ethnically Jewish convert to Christianity living abroad. His father was Greek.

In Israel, the custom was to circumcise a male child on the eighth day as a symbol of God’s covenant with his people. In Timothy’s case this wasn’t done. Perhaps Timothy’s father objected. Perhaps living so far from home made circumcision a non-issue: the penalty for breaking the covenant was being cut off from one’s people, and Timothy already was. Whatever the reason, he had not been circumcised though, to his mother’s credit, he had been regularly exposed to the Old Testament as a child, which had prepared him for the message of Christ.

Luke specifically tells us Paul had Timothy circumcised “because of the Jews”. Paul wanted to take Timothy with him in his travels, and he considered it a necessity to confront his fellow Jews with the gospel first. Wherever he came across a synagogue, he would begin teaching there, going to the Gentiles only once his message had been rejected, which seems to have happened pretty much everywhere. Bringing a Greek into the temple in Jerusalem was considered an act of defilement to a holy place. It is hardly a stretch to suggest the same was true of synagogues wherever they might be found.

Thus Timothy’s circumcision was a matter of necessity if he was to be of any use to Paul in the work of God. It had nothing to do with either theology or hygiene.

The strategy was consistent with Paul’s approach generally: he said, “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” He refused to put barriers in the way of his audience, considering their salvation more important than his personal freedoms. He expected the same of Timothy, who was in absolutely zero danger of mistakenly believing that the ritual of circumcision might confer upon him some kind of saving grace.

A Visit to the Apostles

Titus, on the other hand, was fully Greek. When Paul brought him to Jerusalem, it was not for the purpose of missionary work (though he and his fellow travelers may well have engaged in some along the way), but to meet with the apostles that remained there (James, Cephas and John are named) in order to share with them his mission of carrying the gospel to the Gentiles. The apostles confirmed him in this, but even they, for all their Jewishness, showed no interest in ensuring that Paul’s Greek friend got himself circumcised. I suspect Paul would not have permitted it in any case (“to them [the false brothers] we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you”), since to have had Titus circumcised would given the impression he was a Jewish proselyte rather than a follower of Christ.

There is no suggestion that Titus went to the temple in Jerusalem or participated in any way in the rites of Judaism. His mission was to Gentiles, to whom the issue of circumcision should have been irrelevant (more on this shortly). When Paul wrote him, Titus was in Crete putting the churches in order and appointing elders.

Thus Titus wasn’t circumcised for two reasons: (1) the rite was absolutely unnecessary for his personal mission; and (2) submitting to it might serve to undermine the truth of the gospel.

No One Will Be Justified

In the final case, Paul is writing to the churches in Galatia to impress upon them the critical truth that “by works of the law no one will be justified”. Here he insists that a man who relies on circumcision to bring him into relationship with God places himself under a curse and obliges himself to keep the entire Law. He is placing his trust in the wrong thing. To turn back to the “weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” is to make yourself a slave. Those who wish to be justified by the law are “severed from Christ”, for “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”

In this instance, any fully-informed Galatian who submitted to the pressure to be circumcised was effectively denying Christ and demonstrating he preferred to try to stand before God in his own righteousness.

Bad plan.

Cognitive Dissonance

Three apparently similar situations. Three different responses from the apostle Paul, each one both logically and theologically sound when all the relevant background facts are considered.

This does not seem all that difficult, does it? And yet, cognitive dissonance seems to be the inevitable outcome online.

Dennis E. Smith and Joseph B. Tyson suggest that circumcising Timothy appears to be “a violation of Paul’s deepest principles”. Their way of resolving the apparent inconsistency is to declare Timothy a fake, a “narrative stand-in for the hybridity of the church in Luke’s story.”

Nina E. Livesey finds the account of Timothy’s circumcision so jarring that she declares Acts 16:1-5 is actually Luke creating his own “Jew-pleasing image of Paul to advance his own theological position.” That takes brass.

Still, it should be evident to the unbiased reader that circumcision in and of itself is not remotely the issue. As a follower of Christ, Paul doesn’t care about the rite one way or another. What matters is that the act of circumcision not be held out as a possible gateway to righteousness and acceptance by God.

THAT matters.

A Little Foolishness

Livesey’s position on Luke’s honesty as a reporter is so bizarre it scarcely deserves a reply. But if you’re going to get one … yeah, this would be the place.

Jew-pleasing? Really?

In the very next chapter of Acts, Paul and his companions offend the Jews of Thessalonica, causing a riot. Then in Berea, Paul is also sent packing by Jewish hostility, but is able to leave Timothy behind to help the locals in their understanding of the word of God (a move which seems to suggest that his circumcision strategy was actually successful, assuming the ‘scholars’ are paying attention to the narrative Luke has allegedly fabricated out of whole cloth). In chapter 18, Paul offends the Jews in Corinth and tells them, “Your blood be on your own heads.” In Ephesus in chapter 19, he is again rebuffed ... by Jews, leading to yet another riot. Then, in chapter 20, Paul declares to the Ephesian elders his determination to go up to Jerusalem, as a result of which he is convinced he will die. (But, you know, Paul’s all about the Jew-pleasing.) For the remainder of Luke’s narrative he continually provokes the Jews to greater heights of frenzied annoyance, sometimes intentionally.

Luke created a “Jew-pleasing image of Paul”, says Nina Livesey.

If that’s what Luke was selling — if he was portraying Paul as intent on pandering to the Judaizers, and if he was willing to rewrite his own personal experience to do it — he really ought to have done a more convincing job of it; those later chapters of Acts require some serious editing.

It should go without saying that anyone so spectacularly ignorant of the subject matter concerning which he or she claims expertise ought to do a better job as well.

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