By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Paul, Paul


Why does Paul insist that Timothy be circumcised right after he argued at the Jerusalem Council that circumcision wasn't necessary? Is this just another example of his inconsistency?


Paul often seems inconsistent. People critical of Paul have considerable fodder for declaring him to be an apostle of expediency. His own words are oftentimes used to bolster that position:

"For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law: to the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel's sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you." (I Cor 9:19-23)

This incident with Timothy, then, becomes a favorite example of the above. But let's remember that this story about Timothy (Acts 16:1-3) was written by Luke about Paul. It is true that in Acts 15, Paul went to great lengths to argue before the Jewish elders that circumcision was not expected or required of Gentiles. We are told in the story that Timothy's mother was a Jew, but also a "believer" (quite possibly a Christian), and that his father was Greek. Scholars vehemently disagree on whether that made Timothy a Jew or a Gentile. Because there is no evidence that the matrilineal principle for determining Jewish identity was practiced in the first century, some scholars think he would have been thought of as a Gentile and Paul's insistence on circumcision was nothing less than shocking. Luke, however, deliberately mentioned that he was of a mixed heritage. There would have been no need to do so if his Jewish heritage counted for nothing. Indeed, Luke seems to indicate that his father somehow prevented him from being circumcised earlier, even though his mother was Jewish. (The father, of course, would have had that right.) Undertaking that step, then, as an adult, would indicate Timothy's renewed commitment to his Jewish heritage. This would have played out well in their missionary work since Paul usually began his preaching in the synagogues. Most of his early converts came from Judaism or from the God-fearers, people who attended the synagogues and embraced the ethical teachings of Judaism but did not participate in circumcision or the ritual demands.

If Timothy were considered Jewish, none of this would have been in conflict with Paul's arguing in Jerusalem that salvation of the Gentiles had nothing to do with circumcision. He never argued that Jews should not be circumcised, or that they should in any way abandon the traditions of their ancestral religion. (But had he gone farther, he probably would have said that circumcision for Jews does not guarantee their salvation either.) He was, no doubt, sensitive to safeguard Jewish sensibilities. Accusations that Christianity was anti-Jewish or that Paul was trying to lead the God-fearers into apostasy were to be taken seriously. Paul had already been stoned by angry Jews in Lystra; he was of no mind to provoke them further, especially since it was the "brothers" of Lystra and Iconium that had recommended Timothy for the job with Paul.

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