Let’s start with *when* circumcision was given, in Genesis 17:9-14:
“And God said unto Abraham: ‘And as for thee, thou shalt keep My covenant, thou, and thy seed after thee throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised; and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken My covenant.'”
The command is given to Abraham. Abraham is the father of the Jewish people, but this covenant is made before the Israelites have been chosen. In fact, it is given before Isaac is even born. So, circumcision isn’t given just to the Jewish people but to all of Abraham’s descendants. Abraham obeyed G-d and all the males in his household were circumcised.
A common argument is that Gentile believers don’t need to be circumcised because they come into G-d’s covenant not through Torah or Jewishness, but through Abraham. Yet we’ve just seen circumcision was the *very sign* of the covenant G-d made with Abraham before Torah was even given. So this argument doesn’t excuse Gentile believers from being circumcised.
What Does Yeshua Teach About Circumcision?
Both Yeshua (Luke 2:21) and Yochanan (Luke 1:59) were circumcised. Yeshua only discussed circumcision once, in a comparison to healing, but He did uphold both the importance and priority of circumcision in His remarks:
“I have done one work and you are all surprised at it. Moses gave you circumcision–not that it comes from Moses, but from the fathers–and even on the Sabbath you give a child circumcision. If a child is given circumcision on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me because I made a man completely well on the Sabbath?” John 7:21-23
An indirect reference to circumcision is Yeshua’s command that believers partake of the Passover each year in remembrance of Him:
“And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.” Luke 22:19
“And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.” 1 Corinthians 11:24
The indirect reference to circumcision is that in order to obey Yeshua’s command one would have to be circumcised, because Torah forbids anyone uncircumcised to partake in the Passover:
“And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the passover to the YHVH, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land; but no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof. Exodus 12:48
From the TaNaKh and the gospels, there is no reason any Gentile should think circumcision isn’t for him. So let’s find where the confusion begins.
Timothy’s Circumcision In Acts
“Paul had a desire for him to go with him, and he gave him circumcision because of the Jews who were in those parts: for they all had knowledge that his father was a Greek.” Acts 16:3
Now knowing that Timothy’s father was Greek, the Jews would know that Timothy had not been circumcised as an infant, so Sha’ul had Timothy circumcised. The Christian argument is that since Timothy was Jewish (because his mother was Jewish) that Timothy’s circumcision doesn’t count. Afterall, Timothy was Jewish but Gentiles aren’t obligated to do the same. Are there two paths to G-d? Are there two sets of rules? A Jewish Way and a Non-Jewish Way? Of course not! In Galatians 3:28 Sha’ul explains “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Messiah Yeshua.” One. So either circumcision applies to all, or to none. If none, then Sha’ul should have simply explained to the people that believers didn’t have to undergo circumcision. He didn’t. When Sha’ul circumcised Timothy, he was showing that this new faith in Yeshua *also* upheld circumcision.
Sha’ul’s Teachings Regarding Circumcision
A common misconception about circumcision is that “circumcision of the heart” replaces physical circumcision. Yet the Brit Chadasha (New Testament) passage that mentions circumcision of the heart is directed *only* to the Jewish people, let’s look:
“But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” Romans 2:29
Yet in the preceding verse 17 it reads: “But if you bear the name ‘Jew'” and in the preceding verse 23 it reads: “You who boast in law.” The audience here has been clearly identified as a Jewish audience. Sha’ul is really just reiterating Torah to His Jewish brethren:
“Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.” Deuteronomy 10:16″And the LORD thy God will circumcise thy heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.” Deuteronomy 30:6
Sha’ul is *not* introducing a new concept so that Gentiles can circumcise their hearts instead of undergoing physical circumcision. He is reminding his Jewish brethren that physical circumcision *alone* is not enough.
Jeremiah repeats this need:
“Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest My fury go forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.” Jeremiah 4:4
Note, at no point in Jewish history did anyone *ever* interpret these texts to mean that circumcision of the heart replaced physical circumcision. *Both* are G-d’s commands, both circumcisions are important.
Sha’ul To The Romans
Let’s look at the Romans 2 passage:
Romans 2:23 Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God?
Romans 2:24 For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written.
The group being addressed are Jews.
Romans 2:25 For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision.
“Circumcision” here is Jewishness, those born into the covenant. A Jewish person who does not keep Torah is likened to a person outside the covenant (a Gentile).
Romans 2:26 Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision?
A Gentile who obeys Torah is likened to a Jew. To keep the righteousness of Torah includes being circumcised since circumcision is included in Torah. So this text contradicts itself if we make ‘uncircumcision” mean anything other than a “non-Jew” or “Gentile.” Stay close to the text here, Sha’ul is debunking His fellow Jews confidence — they boast *because* they are Jewish and were given Torah. The discussion here isn’t about circumcision but Jewishness.
Romans 2:27 And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law?
Better: ‘If a Gentile by birth (nature) obeys the law, couldn’t he judge you, who are Jewish through covenant (letter), if you break the law?’ It’s a logical point — which counts more? Righteousness without covenant and birthright, or unrighteousness having covenant and birthright? Sha’ul was an early evangelist to the Gentiles, he is seeing many more Gentiles come into faith in Yeshua than Jews. He is speaking this to his brethren out of shame.
Romans 2:28 For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh:
Romans 2:29 But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
Again, Sha’ul is addressing his Jewish brethren. Yes, they have outward circumcision in accord with the covenant; they were circumcised at 8 days of age by their parents, true. But a true Jew also has circumcision of the heart, in the spirit, outside of the covenant, which isn’t performed as a ritual of identification for others to see, but for G-d alone. Sha’ul isn’t criticising physical circumcision — it is a covenantal birthright and Torah command; but there is a deeper level one should be seeking. Resting solely on birthright and the covenant will never be enough.
Romans 3:1 What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision?
Romans 3:2 Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.
I included the above verses for continuity, to show this passage was directed *only* at Sha’ul’s Jewish brethren. (A related article on Romans 2 is: “Spiritual Jews”
What we’ve seen in the above passage is one of several cases where ‘circumcision’ and ‘uncircumsion’ mentioned are interchangeable for ‘Jewish’ and ‘Gentile’ and aren’t strictly reflecting the covenental command itself. As Sha’ul explains:”Wherefore remember, that in the past you were Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands.” Ephesians 2:11 “Uncircumcision” was used loosely to simply mean “Gentile.”
Romans 4:7-10 “Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision.”
Sha’ul is showing that Yeshua’s atonement and grace covers the Gentiles as well as the Jews. But how can Gentiles receive this blessing too, since Gentiles are outside the covenant that gives the blessings? Because Abraham himself received these blessings *before* he was circumcised and entered the covenant.
Romans 4:11-13 “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised.”
This is a marvelous picture of G-d’s larger plan. G-d selected Abraham *before* he entered the covenant and was circumcised. Gentiles are brought into the covenants of Israel in the same way. Faith precedes the covenant. Note Abraham *did* undergo circumcision, this passage does not abrogate the covenant of circumcision G-d made with Abraham. Sha’ul is showing that G-d made a provision for those who would later come into the faith, that the promise of righteousness could be bestowed on all through Abraham.
Romans 4:14-17 “For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect: Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression. Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all, (As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were.”
These promises were made to Abraham *before* law was given so that they extend to *all* Abraham’s seed and not just Israel. Grace is from G-d and our response of faith towards His grace *precede* law. Simply put, Torah was given later through only one line of Abraham’s seed (Isaac to Jacob). Torah set boundaries for the people but it did not provide grace nor was it ever intended to. As in chapter 2, Sha’ul is debunking the confidence of his brethren who felt grace/righteousness came only through Jewishness and Torah. Torah had been misused as a system for justification and as a way of limiting the promises of Abraham so that only the line of Jacob received them. Abraham is the father of Ishmael (the Arabs), the father of the Israel/Jews, and is the father of *all* through faith.
Sha’ul To The Galatians
Galatians chapter two is often misunderstood as being against circumcision.
Galatians 2:1-2 “Then fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also. And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain.”
Sha’ul has gone to Jerusalem, to check with the Beit Din and verify the gospel he was teaching met their approval (James, Kefa, and John, the leaders in Jerusalem). Note that the early believers had accountability — no man is an island, not even Sha’ul.
Galatians 2:3-5 But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised: And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Messiah Yeshua, that they might bring us into bondage: To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you.
Now, note in verse 4 *who* was pestering Titus to be circumcised. It wasn’t James, Kefa or John, it was *false* brethren who heard Sha’ul and Titus were in town. Who were these false brethren? Two hints help us, we know they are in Jerusalem, and we know they wanted Gentiles to convert (be circumcised). It is probably the same group as in Acts 15:5, that sect of the Pharisees who believed all Gentile believers should become proselytes and undergo the conversion rituals of Pharisaic Judaism. (recommended read “Acts 15” We already know from Acts 15 that Gentiles do *not* have to become proselytes. The issue of circumcision here, as in Acts, isn’t about a Torah command of circumcision; this is about ritual circumcision; to basically convert Gentiles into Jews. Had Titus been compelled by these false brethren, it would have given them more power to push others into conversion — they could then say “Even Sha’ul agrees Gentiles must become Jews in order to be saved.” Salvation was being offered to *all* people through faith alone; it was not limited to Jews (and Gentile proselytes). Yeshua wearied at such efforts to convert Gentiles: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.” Matthew 23:15 Sha’ul refused to submit to these false brethren, he submitted himself only to G-d and the Jerusalem Beit Din.
1 “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Messiah hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.
Bondage here is bondage of men — the traditions of men.
2 Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Messiah shall profit you nothing.
If you convert (become circumcised) it’s validating the teachings of the false brethren, you’d be agreeing that salvation is based on conversion and works, in which case you wouldn’t need Messiah.
3 For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.
Dependant on keeping “whole law” for salvation — written Torah *and* traditions — no room for error.
4 Messiah is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.
Incidently, there is no justification through works, it was a false belief system, it is *not* a scriptural teaching.
5 For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.
6 For in Yeshua Messiah neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.
As I quoted earlier, ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek’ — salvation is found in faith working by love, not through Jewishness or Non-Jewishness.
7 Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?
8 This persuasion cometh not of him that calleth you.
9 A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.
10 I have confidence in you through the Lord, that ye will be none otherwise minded: but he that troubleth you shall bear his judgment, whosoever he be.
11 And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased.
12 I would that those troubling you would mutilate themselves.
Now Sha’ul is angry. Sha’ul has been teaching the Galatians about the gospel of Yeshua, yet in came these false brethren trying to yoke the new believers into following conversion rituals and oral law/tradition. Theirs was *not* the gospel of Yeshua that Sha’ul had originally shared with them. It should have been obvious to the Galatians that these teachers opposed Sha’ul since they persecuted Sha’ul too. If Sha’ul had also taught such conversion was necessary (as these false brethren taught), then he wouldn’t be persecuted. The Galatians should have easily recognized they were false teachers instead of Sha’ul having to reteach them. But since the Galatians didn’t recognize the false doctrine, Sha’ul reshares his testimony at the beginning of his letter to the Galatians; and reminds them that gospel he teaches is in accordance with G-d *and* the Beit Din of Jerusalem (Kefa, James & John). In other words, Sha’ul’s gospel can be trusted, the ‘gospel’ of these false brethren cannot.
12 As many as desire to make a fair shew in the flesh, they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Messiah.
13 For neither they themselves who are circumcised keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh.
In other words, this Pharisaic group compelling these Galatians to be circumcised want to boast in their flesh, and prove to their peers that they maintained and taught Pharisaic Judaism and gained many new converts / proselytes. Yet for all this emphasis on making proselytes, they weren’t even obeying Torah themselves. If these Galatians refused to submit, then the Pharisaic believers would suffer persecution too for failing to make more proselytes.
14 But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Yeshua Messiah, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.
Sha’ul points out we glory in our L-rd Yeshua, not in making proselytes.
15 For in Messiah Yeshua neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.
16 And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
This is better rendered, “For in Messiah Yeshua, neither Jewishness is anything nor NonJewishness, but a new creature.” Referring back to the fact that Israel’s olive tree is like a new man, comprised of believing Jews *and* Gentiles — with no need for the Gentiles to undergo any conversion ritual to be included. This is the Israel of G-d.
Some of Sha’ul’s writings had been misunderstood as being against Torah, as Kefa says:
“And be certain that the long waiting of the Lord is for salvation; even as our brother Paul has said in his letters to you, from the wisdom which was given to him; And as he said in all his letters, which had to do with these things; in which are some hard sayings, so that, like the rest of the holy Writings, they are twisted by those who are uncertain and without knowledge, to the destruction of their souls.” 2 Kefa(Peter) 3:15-16
It’s nothing new that Sha’ul’s teachings are being twisted into saying something they don’t (like the church today saying that Sha’ul teaches us not to obey the Torah). Sha’ul has been misunderstood for two millennia.
So, Did Sha’ul teach against circumcision for believers?
Let’s look at two very easy to understand texts of Sha’ul:
“But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets.” Acts 24:14″And when he was come, the Jews which came down from Jerusalem stood round about, and laid many and grievous complaints against Paul, which they could not prove. While he answered for himself, Neither against the law of the Jews, neither against the temple, nor yet against Caesar, have I offended any thing at all.” Acts 25:7,8
Sha’ul was the apostle to the Gentiles. Sha’ul himself claims to uphold Torah and teach Torah. I will accept him at his word.