The academics are still debating the circumcision question. Some provocative issues have been raised concerning the reasons why Saul was issued letters from the High Priest to persecute the followers of Jesus. It is agreed that they were violating the laws of Moses but it is not known which violation triggered the issuance of the letters. Could it have been circumcision?
There are several authors that present critical information about the circumcision question.
In 1 Maccabees, we read about some Jews who built a gymnasium in
The Jewish followers of Jesus attracted to their movements many Jews who had ceased to practice Judaism, some because they had been excluded by Jewish society and other because their occupation or their conduct had made them pariahs. The movement probably also attracted Jews who shared the Greek and Roman abhorrence of circumcision.
The Circumcision Party objected to the inclusions of these Jewish males as full members of Jewish society quoting Genesis: "Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised on the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." Perhaps these certain Jews viewed the actions of Paul as threatening cultural survival.
Consequently we should review some of the writings.
The Book of Jubilees, as confirmed by Christiansen, is an important example of Palestinian Jewish writing. Christiansen notes that the author of the Book of Jubilees introduces the angel of presence as the writer of the tablets received by Moses on Sinai. Stephen’s last sermon includes the idea that the laws were promulgated through angels. Secondly, “...
Luke is the only New Testament writer to tell us about the circumcision of the Messiah and the only New Testament writer to defend the covenant of circumcision.
According to Talbert, “The echoes are unmistakable. Sound, fire, and speech understood by all people were characteristic of the Sinai theophany. The same ingredients are found in the Pentecost events.” The Book of Jubilees connects Pentecost to the covenant of Noah. The Book of Jubilees also connects Pentecost in book 1:1 to the giving of the laws during the Sinai theophany. Therefore, it is clear that Luke is alluding to the Sinai theophany of the Book of Jubilees as well as paradise, the centrality of
In Matthew, Chapter 22, Jesus answers a question about the greatest commandment. Although the commentators uniformly conclude that Jesus with his answer has done away with the need for sacrifices, the addition Mark makes to this pericope is more pointed: "This is much more important than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." For the Lucan Jesus, it is not a question of the priority of love over law but of the priority of love within the law. Love is not the only commandment. As noted by Jacob Jervell, Luke can have no summary of the Law in one commandment because for Luke, the law is not altered and is permanently valid. God's laws continue in effect for Jews even when they become followers of the Christ. Luke's position accurately reflects the views of the Jewish Christians and the
During the first century, the debates were about scripture including the meaning thereof. That the New Testament contains a number of scriptural references to circumcision is an indication that the subject of circumcision was still hotly contested at the time of the publication of each of the passages in question. By the time Matthew and Mark were written, the issue was no longer debated.
Luke 1:59-60 Circumcision of John the Baptist.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zecheriah, but his mother spoke up and said, "No! He is to be called John."
Luke 2:21-39. Circumcision of Jesus.
On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.
John 7:21-24 Jesus teaches at the feast.
Jesus said to them, "I did one miracle, and you are all astonished. Yet because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses but from the patriarchs), you circumcise a child on the Sabbath. Now if a child can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing the whole man on the Sabbath? Stop judging by mere appearances and make a right judgment."
Acts 21:17-25 Paul's Arrival at
When we arrived at
Christiansen has something to say which provides some possible insight into the circumcision passages we read in the Acts of the Apostles, although admittedly she is discussing the Book of Jubilees. Christiansen states: “For a symbol to qualify as sign of belonging, visibility is vital, because a clear and visible sign of belonging, taking the form of an act of confession, or a rite of affirmation of belonging, is the obvious way to express what status one has within a group or society. In the context of Jubilees this visibility can be found particularly in circumcision, and to a certain degree in the celebration of festivals, either weekly Sabbath, or the yearly seasonal feasts.” Luke notes that Paul “was hastening to be at
The Galatians agitators also quoted scripture but we do not have the full report of the debate and thus need to reconstruct the theological argument advanced by them. Undoubtedly they relied heavily upon the Book of Jubilees. According to Jub. 15, circumcision is the eternal covenant showing the circumcised belong to the Lord. The Galatians agitators must have relied upon Genesis 17:9-14, Jub. 15:25-34 and the Maccabean tradition. If circumcision was an identity marker of the covenant people that the people must maintain so as to avoid being uprooted from the land, why then was James able to put forth a compromise solution that was acceptable. Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was conducted outside of the
The next author whose views should be considered is Josephus.
Josephus rewrote the traditional view of circumcision. In Judaism the rite of circumcision is the sign of covenant between God and Abraham. In Book One, God charged Abram “that they should be circumcised in the flesh of their foreskin.” However, according to Josephus, the purpose is “to keep his posterity unmixed with others.”
Josephus lived the later portion of his life in
Joshua 22 tells the story of the construction of an altar to the Lord beyond the river
Josephus rewrites Joshua 22. In the preamble, Josephus has Joshua remind the tribes departing for their territories beyond the Jordan that Abrahamic descent carries with it the responsibility to fulfill Mosaic religious duties, and that this responsibility is not negated by one’s place of residence. According to Josephus, observance of the Law will ensure God’s alliance, while turning away “to imitate other nations” will result in God turning away from them. When the people of
To whom is the rewriting of Joshua 22 directed? Apparently at the end of the first century when Josephus published Antiquities, there are Jews asserting that because they are living outside of the
According to Christiansen, covenant identity, election and associated laws and ordinances do not apply outside
Christine Hayes, Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud, viewed the inevitable break between Jews and Christians as aided by Ezran ideologies that denied Jewish identity to non-native Jews and converts:
"... for the first time, the Jewish community was confronted with persons who met none of the requirements of Jewish identity: neither the sufficient condition of genealogical filiation nor the condition of moral-religious conversion as signalled by circumcision and observance of Jewish law. By no definition, then, could such persons lay claim to Jewish identity -- certainly not by those espousing an Ezran concern for genealogy and not even by tannaitic rabbis, who required, at the very least, the adoption of Jewish religious practices. And so, a new religion was born."
Although the debate will still continue, it is important to recognize that even within Judaism, there were mixed views regarding the importance of circumcision.
This is a work in progress.