The Circumcision Controversy
By David M Rogers
Table of Contents
Then after fourteen years I again went up to Yerushalayim, with Barnabah, taking Titus along too. And I went up by revelation, and laid before them that Good News which I proclaim among the gentiles, but separately to those who were esteemed, lest somehow I run, or had run, in vain. But not even Titus who was with me, though a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. But as for the false brothers, sneakingly brought in, who sneaked in to spy out our freedom which we have in Messiah in order to enslave us, to these we did not yield in subjection, not even for an hour, so that the truth of the Good News remains with you. But from those who were esteemed to be whatever what they were, it makes no difference to me, Elohim shows no partiality for those who were esteemed contributed naught to me. But on the contrary, when they saw that the Good News to the uncircumcised had been entrusted to me, even as Kepha to the circumcised for He who worked in Kepha to make him an emissary to the circumcised also worked in me for the gentiles. So when Ya'acov, Kepha, and Yochanan, who seemed to be supports, came to know the favor that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabah the right hand of fellowship, in order that we go to the gentiles and they to the circumcised, only that we might remember the poor, which I myself was eager to do.
In the first part of Galatians 2, Paul is discussing the circumcision controversy among the believers in Messiah and its resolution by the elders in Jerusalem. By this and a few other statements Paul makes in his writings, Christians have established their doctrine that the commandment in the Torah of Mosheh of circumcision of all males is no longer valid in the Messianic assembly of believers. But such a teaching undermines the consistency of the teachings of Messiah and Paul elsewhere that the Torah of Mosheh is still valid. Let's take a deeper look into this section so that we might understand what Paul is really teaching us here.
Then after fourteen years I again went up to Yerushalayim, with Barnabah, taking Titus along too. And I went up by revelation, and laid before them that Good News which I proclaim among the gentiles, but separately to those who were esteemed, lest somehow I run, or had run, in vain. (Galatians 2:1-2)
Paul says here that "after 14 years" he went up to Jerusalem with Barnabah and Titus to explain his mission to the Gentiles and his teachings. In order to understand what Paul is saying here in Galatians 2, it is necessary to look at what happened at the Jerusalem Council as described in Acts 15. The record of those events places the whole situation in its proper context, and we can see more precisely the issues Paul was dealing with.
Luke records for us what happened at that time:
Now some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Mosheh, you cannot be saved." When Paul and Barnabas had a major argument and debate with them, the congregation appointed Paul and Barnabas and some others from among them to go up to meet with the apostles and elders in Yerushalayim about this point of disagreement. (Acts 15:1-2)
Note carefully that Paul informs us that some men came down from Judea. Who were these men? They were clearly the Jews with a false message who were trying to derail the faith of the Messianics. They were trying to convince the Gentile believers that they have to undergo the circumcision "according to the custom of Mosheh." This is a very significant detail of the text. On it hinges our understanding of what Paul is teaching us in Galatians.
By referring to a "custom of Mosheh," Paul is utilizing a technical phrase that has a very specific meaning that changes everything when it is properly understood in its first century context. The word minhag (plural is minhagim) comes from the Hebrew ghnm which means "custom." Customs, while not commanded by Scripture, are the common way of life and the accepted practice of people based on the repeating of a behavior induced by some circumstance. The historical record of Scripture references some customs.
She died a virgin. Her tragic death gave rise to a custom in Yisrael. Every year Yisraeli women commemorate the daughter of Yephthah the Gileadite for four days (Shoftim [Judges] 11:39,40).
Because of everything written in this letter and because of what they had seen and what had happened to them, the Jews took it upon themselves to establish the custom that they and their descendants and all who join them should without fail observe these two days every year, in the way prescribed and at the time appointed. These days should be remembered and observed in every generation by every family, and in every province and in every city. And these days of Purim should never cease to be celebrated by the Jews, nor should the memory of them die out among their descendants (Esther 9:26-28).
Even the pagans had their customs:
So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed (1 Melachim [Kings} 18:28).
Thus, customs were not always bad. Some were good and beneficial. But don't make the mistake of thinking that a custom carries the same weight as a commandment of Elohim.
But for the Pharisees, and after them the Rabbis, a "custom" was something that did carry the weight of authority of the law. To enhance their own authority to make law and control all Yisrael, the Pharisees and their successors the Rabbis concocted their own customs for all Yisrael and made them binding upon all. The requirement upon all Jewish males to wear a kippah (also called a yarmulke or skull cap) is an accepted minhag. Males not wearing the kippah are considered to be transgressing the law. This law for Jewish males also stipulates that one may not walk four cubits without covering his head, nor can one make a blessing without donning a kippah.
Another example of a minhag is the conflicting custom of eating beans and rice during the feast of Unleavened Bread. The Ashkenazi Jews forbid the eating, while the Sephardic Jews permit the eating during the Feast. Members of each sect of Judaism are required to obey the minhagim (customs) of the sect they belong to. Such customs gave rise to a common saying among the Rabbis in Israel - "minhag Yisrael torah hi," which translates as, "a custom of Israel is Torah". A minhag becomes law in Israel by the sheer fact that the community accepts it as a regular way of life, e.g. the yarmulke (kippah).
Even though the Tanach (Old Testament) presents the commandments and sayings of Elohim as "Torah," the Rabbis have added to "their torah" any of their own established customs. The absurdity of declaring this custom to be "Law in Israel" is self-evident.
Scripture is very clear about not adding to or taking away from Elohim's Torah. Thus, the Jewish practice of elevating customs to the status of Torah is clearly a contradiction of what Elohim has commanded.
Every word of Elohim is purified; he is like a shield for those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he reprove you, and prove you a liar. (Mishlei 30:5,6)
Now, Yisrael, pay attention to the rules and right-rulings I am about to teach you, so that you might live and go on to enter and take possession of the land that Yahuwah, the Elohim of your ancestors, is giving you. Do not add a thing to what I command you nor subtract from it, so that you may keep the commandments of Yahuwah your Elohim that I am delivering to you. (Devarim 4:1,2)
You must be careful to do everything I am commanding you. Do not add to it or subtract from it! (Devarim 12:32)
The Pharisees tendency to add their own laws to Elohim's laws is clearly a violation of the written Torah of Mosheh. Elohim forbids this act. Thus, to stay true to Elohim, we must reject the Pharisaic and Rabbinic customs when they conflict with and contradict the written Instructions of the Bible.
With that background of minhag in mind, let's further discuss what a "custom of Mosheh" is. The Rabbis teach that customs carried the weight of Law in Israel. But in order to give their customs even greater weight of authority, they attributed these customs to a famous Rabbi. The more famous and prestigious the Rabbi, the greater the custom was considered.
Thus, the custom of Mosheh was an expression which means, a minhag which came from (has been attributed to) Mosheh. And when the Pharisees attribute a custom to Mosheh himself, that custom is considered to have the greatest value. Such customs may not have been actually taught by Mosheh, but they are considered Mosheh's by virtue of the fact that the Pharisees so deem them.
The circumcision which the Pharisees practiced was one such "custom of Mosheh." So Paul reports that the unbelieving Jews were trying to convince the Messianic believers that
"Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Mosheh, you cannot be saved."
The issue, then, that Paul is addressing in Galatians 2 and which was also the issue at the Jerusalem council, was the practice of the Pharisaic circumcision. This debate is not about the biblical circumcision!
There is a huge difference between biblical circumcision and Pharisaic circumcision. The Pharisees back then, and the Rabbis even to this day, require a specific and orderly ritual to be performed in order for the cutting of the foreskin to be considered a valid and proper circumcision. Avi ben Mordecai summarizes the Pharisaic ritual of circumcision:
For circumcision, there was Hatafat Dam Brit (drawing of the blood of the covenant), Peri'ah (uncovering of the prepuce), Metzitzah (compressing and sucking the wound), and a recitation of specially-worded prayers. (Galatians, p.165)
This procedure had to be meticulously adhered to. Following this rite was an important step in being accepted by the Rabbinic authority into Israel. Any circumcision which did not precisely follow these instructions was not considered by the Pharisees to meet the legal requirement - such a one would still be considered as uncircumcised.
The Pharisees of Paul's day wanted the Gentile converts to Messiah to be under their authority. Thus, they taught that the Gentiles must be circumcised according to the "custom of Mosheh," which was really their own custom, so that they could claim these new converts as their own. Does the Bible teach that circumcision is a requirement for new converts? No, it doesn't.
Going back to the Jerusalem council, we read the conclusion of the elders:
Therefore I conclude that we should not cause extra difficulty for those among the Gentiles who are turning to Elohim, but that we should write them a letter telling them to abstain from things defiled by idols and from sexual immorality and from what has been strangled and from blood. For Mosheh has had those who proclaim him in every town from ancient times, because he is read aloud in the synagogues every Sabbath." (Acts 15:19-21)
Thus, the Messianics correctly decided that Gentiles did not need to undergo circumcision of any kind to be accepted as members of the faith community. In fact, only four items were required of Gentiles to join. They were to avoid connection with idolatry, they were to cease from acts of sexual immorality, and they were to cease from eating meat with blood in it (strangled animals still have blood in them).
Yet, this conclusion of the elders does not suggest that the Torah has been done away with and that the Gentiles don't have to live by it. The summary statement from the elders indicates the opposite. They said, "For Mosheh has had those who proclaim him in every town from ancient times, because he is read aloud in the synagogues every Sabbath." In other words, let the Gentiles learn the Torah as it is read every Sabbath and when they learn all the rest of the Instructions of the Torah, then they can begin to obey those commandments as well.
But the Gentiles need to be given time to hear and read and absorb the rest of the faith walk principles from the Torah. We cannot expect them to know them and do them before they have even heard them all. For this reason, the Gentiles have only a short list of requirements to join the Messianic community. They will have plenty of time and opportunity to learn the rest later.
So, as this pertains to circumcision, Gentiles don't need this to become part of the family. After all, not even Abraham was circumcised right away. It wasn't until he was ninety nine years old that he was circumcised, and that was many years after he came into personal relationship with Elohim and had received commendation for his faith and had received the promises from Yahuwah.
So Paul says to the Galatians,
But not even Titus who was with me, though a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. (Galatians 3:3)
Titus was a follower of Messiah and a companion of Paul. Yet, he was not required to be circumcised. Notice Paul writes that he "was (not) compelled to be circumcised." Titus himself made the decision not to be circumcised. Why? The next verse Paul explains what this means:
But as for the false brothers, sneakingly brought in, who sneaked in to spy out our freedom which we have in Messiah in order to enslave us, to these we did not yield in subjection, not even for an hour, so that the truth of the Good News remains with you. (Galatians 3:4-5)
It was the "false brothers" - the Pharisaic, unbelieving Jews - who were trying "to enslave us." What Paul is telling us is that the Pharisees were trying to get the Messianics, and Titus in this case, to undergo their circumcision to validate their faith. Yet, Pharisaic circumcision does not validate obedience to Elohim, it merely projects obedience to the Pharisees.
So this was the strategy of the Pharisees - to sneak in among the Messianics and compel them to undergo their circumcision so that they can claim them as their own. After all, if the new converts obey the customs of the Pharisees (which they call the "custom of Mosheh"), then clearly they must obey all that the Pharisees teach. And they therefore become a convert of the Pharisees.
Remember what Messiah Yahusha said about the Pharisees appetite for obtaining converts:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. (Matthew 23:15)
The "false brothers" - as Paul describes them - want nothing more than to grab these young Messianics and make them their own converts. They do this by insisting that they undergo their own circumcision. This is the trickery involved. They use a biblical principle (circumcision) and they twist it their own way and insist that everyone must submit to it ("after all, we want to obey Elohim's commands, don't we?"). Doing their circumcision would have subjected that one to Pharisaic authority. That one would then have to do all the oral law while submitting to their rule.
But Titus was not compelled to submit to the Pharisees. He could be circumcised the biblical way when he was ready, but not because the Pharisees were compelling him to it. It was up to Titus as it is for all converts to Yahusha to become convinced in their conscience about the need to be circumcised.
Now, what of circumcision? Should believers be circumcised? Let's look at the teaching of Scripture. Circumcision is clearly a commandment of the Torah. Fathers must circumcise their infant sons when they are eight days old. And all males must be circumcised to qualify for participation in the Pesach (Passover):
An alien living among you who wants to celebrate Yahuwah's Pesach must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat of it. The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you." (Shemot [Exodus] 12:48-49)
So, it seems, those who are in covenant relationship with Yahuwah are required to be circumcised.
But what about believers in Messiah? Do members of the Messianic community need to be circumcised? We have already seen that circumcision is not an entry requirement for new converts. And the newbies can learn the Torah as they sit from Sabbath to Sabbath and hear the Torah read and taught in the synagogues. So, since the Torah has not been done away with, then it's pretty clear that Messianics need to comply with the righteous laws Elohim has given, or else they won't be allowed to participate in Pesach.
How do we square this teaching with what Paul says in his letters? Later in Galatians Paul writes,
For in Messiah Yahusha neither circumcision nor uncircumcision carries any weight--the only thing that matters is faith working through love. (Galatians 5:6)
For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that matters is a new creation! (Galatians 6:15)
What does he mean that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision count? He is alluding to the fact that just because a person is circumcised doesn't indicate that he is walking in fellowship with Elohim. And an uncircumcised convert may very well be walking with the Master. But their physical circumcision or uncircumcision is not the deciding factor. The important part is what is in their hearts.
Yahuwah spoke through the prophet and indicated the same. It is circumcision of the heart that he is pleased with. Physical circumcision is supposed to indicate the state of your heart, but this is not always true.
Yahuwah your Elohim will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live. (Deuteronomy 30:6)
But even Israel was considered uncircumcised in their hearts:
For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Yisrael is uncircumcised in heart." (Jeremiah 9:26)
So, Paul is saying that physical circumcision is not what counts. What counts is what is in the heart.
And in another letter, Paul's reiterates,
Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Instead, keeping Elohim's commandments is what counts. (1 Corinthians 7:19)
Here, Paul is saying that keeping the commandments is what counts. But isn't circumcision one of those commandments? Yes, it is! Is he contradicting himself? No.
Paul is saying that obedience to Yahuwah is the important thing. Being circumcised or being uncircumcised does not necessarily indicate one's obedience to Elohim. One could be very much in rebellion against Elohim and still be circumcised. Or one could be very attached to Elohim and not yet be circumcised. So the important thing is being obedient to Elohim. Will someone who is obedient to Elohim get circumcised? Of course. Out of love for Elohim and to express his loyalty, men will be compelled to be circumcised, because they will want to participate in Pesach and in the life of the community.
One more issue and we will move on. What about Timothy and Titus. Titus was not compelled to be circumcised, yet Paul circumcised Timothy. What gives?
He also came to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple named Timothy was there, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but whose father was a Greek. The brothers in Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Yehudim who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was Greek. (Acts 16:1-3)
Is this hypocrisy for Paul that he allowed Titus to remain uncircumcised, but he himself circumcised Timothy.
The answer is pretty simple. Titus would not be drawn into the circumcision and therefore the authority of the Pharisees. Thus, he refused their circumcision. But with Timothy, the situation was different. Timothy had a Greek father but a Hebrew mother and grandmother. Timothy was already familiar with Torah and thus was compelled to be circumcised. This was a circumcision not done after the manner of the Pharisees. It was a biblical circumcision.
But from those who were esteemed to be whatever what they were, it makes no difference to me, Elohim shows no partiality for those who were esteemed contributed naught to me. (Galatians 3:6)
We learned in verse 4 and 5 that Paul did not allow himself to be subject to the oral traditions, customs and laws of the Pharisees, who counted the Oral Torah as greater than the Written Torah. Here in verse 6, he indicates that he allow himself to be subject to the apostles and teachers of Yahusha, either! He did not teach this gospel because they taught it. And they didn't correct his message or add anything to it.
So, Paul indicates that once he explained his actions to the Jerusalem council, they accepted and approved of his teaching:
But on the contrary, when they saw that the Good News to the uncircumcised had been entrusted to me, even as Kepha to the circumcised for He who worked in Kepha to make him an emissary to the circumcised also worked in me for the gentiles. So when Ya'aqob, Kepha, and Yochanan, who seemed to be supports, came to know the favour that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabah the right hand of fellowship, in order that we go to the gentiles and they to the circumcised, only that we might remember the poor, which I myself was eager to do. (Galatians 2:7-10)
Those "esteemed" ones of verse 6 are identified as the "supports" in verse 8. They were Ya'aqob, Kepha and Yochanan. They recognized that just as Peter was commissioned to bring the Gospel to the Jews (the circumcised), Paul had been sent to the Gentiles.
So, the apostles gave Paul and Barnabah "the right hand of fellowship," which is to say, they shook hands in agreement with them. They only added that Paul must remember to support the poor. But Paul was already eager to do this, as well, because the Torah commands the faithful ones to help the fatherless and the widow. This is an important element of the zedekah - the "righteous acts" - which all who love Yahuwah are compelled to do.