Slaves bought from foreigners needed to be circumcised in order to become part of the covenant people (Gen. 17:12-13), as did any foreigners in the land who wanted to join the Passover festival (Exod. 12:48). Thus Jewish practice normally treated circumcision as necessary for becoming part of the covenant people. A minority of Judeans treated it as necessary even for a place in the world to come, the radical Judean view articulated in Acts 15:1. Some were apparently prepared to impose it even by force on gentiles wishing to remain in the land promised to God’s people. Diaspora Jews, who constituted an easily identifiable minority in society and who often interacted with gentiles, were more circumspect, avoiding alienating gentile sympathizers who did not wish to become Jews fully. The range of views that surfaces in Acts 15 and the situation in Galatia probably mostly reflect the range of views in contemporary Judaism more widely.
Paul’s opponents may have resembled the Galilean named “Eleazar” in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.43-45. Josephus describes him as “precise” in Jewish learning, language that he elsewhere applies to Pharisees, though not exclusively to them. King Izates had become a Jewish sympathizer through the persuasion of one Ananias, a Jewish merchant, but Ananias tried to prevent him from being circumcised, fearing an anti-Jewish backlash. Eleazar, by contrast, insisted that failure to be circumcised made a mockery of the king’s profession of Jewish faith, and so he persuaded the king to act.
If Paul’s opponents were something like a Christian version of Eleazar, however, Paul was nevertheless much more radical than Ananias. Ananias opposed circumcision out of “necessity,” a recognized category of ethical argument that reduced culpability. Even some later rabbis recognized some exceptional cases in which circumcision was inappropriate, although they would likely have sided with Eleazar in Josephus’s account.
But Paul as a matter of principle prohibited imposing any external demand such as circumcision, since those who had received the eschatological Spirit already belonged to God’s people, making them already part of the eschatological new creation. If God granted that promised eschatological covenant blessing-God’s own Spirit (Gal. 3:14)-without the old sign of the covenant, the traditional sign was acceptable but not necessary (1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 5:6; 6:15). Outward signs were nothing compared to God himself, and a symbol of relationship with God was nothing compared to its eschatological fulfillment.
The early Christian consensus was that God accepted gentiles who committed their allegiance to Jesus; most Jewish followers of Jesus likely saw them as God-fearers who would share the world to come, but not as members of God’s people descended from Abraham. Where Paul was radical was in not requiring them to become proselytes by physical circumcision, or, to put it somewhat differently, in welcoming gentiles who received the Spirit as proselytes withou requiring circumcision. Paul did, however, preserve the less painful step of baptism, a common Jewish practice for gentile converts also used by John the Baptist and from the beginning of the Christian movement (cf. John 4: 1-2; Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:41). Paul also never discouraged Jews from observing their ancestral sign of the covenant (Acts 16:3; 21:21; Gal. 5:6; 6:15; esp. 1 Cor. 7: 18-19).
Circumcision posed a deterrent to conversion for many gentiles. As Martinus de Boer notes, it was “no small step for an adult man especially in antiquity (no anesthesia, the high risk of infection, social derision).” Gentiles often ridiculed circumcision, subjecting converts to shame, perhaps especially from family and other close associates.
This content is by Craig Keener, but edited and posted by Defenders Media.
For more on the book of Galatians, please check out Galatians: A Commentary.