Torah in the Book of the ACTS of the Apostles: Chapter 16

Acts 16 – Timothy

Next is the interesting occurrence of Timothy’s circumcision.

map_first_JourneyPaul comes into town (probably Lystra) and meets Timothy, the godly son of a Jewish mother and a “Greek” father. It’s valuable to understand that for Paul and Jews of his day, the word “Greek” (“Hellene”) was often (but not exclusively) used to describe Jews who had abandoned or ‘adapted’ their Hebraic tradition in favor of the Hellenistic (Greco-Roman) culture of Rome, the world’s largest empire and the conqueror of Israel.  “Hellenistic Judaism was a form of Judaism in the ancient world that combined Jewish religious tradition with elements of Greek culture.”  (Wikipedia, Hellenistic Judaism)

Since Timothy’s mother and grandmother were godly Jewesses, it is unlikely that his mother would have married a genuine national Greek or Roman – it is far more likely that Timothy’s father was a Jew, but one who was not traditionally observant.

Even more telling is Acts 16:3Him would Paul have to go forth with him; and took and circumcised him because of the Jews which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek [Hellene]. This statement has meaning only if Timothy’s father was a Hellenized Jew. The Jews knew that Timothy’s father was a Jew by birth, making Timothy a full Jew; thus they would expect Timothy to be circumcised. (However, this issue can be debated ad infinitum and is ultimately of no real concern.)

Since Timothy had never been circumcised, Paul arranged to have the procedure done before he and his new young assistant left town on their missionary journey.

Why did Paul make sure that Timothy was circumcised?

Remember that Paul always went to the Jew first.  (Rom 1:16, Rom 2:10) Timothy was a Jew, and he, unlike Paul’s Gentile converts, would normally have access to other Jews, but would be ignored and ostracized if he were not circumcised.  For the sake of the spread of the Gospel, Paul arranged for Timothy to be circumcised so that he could effectively minister to his brother Jews.

Did Paul Contradict Himself?

As we progress through Acts, we will find that Paul consistently observes Torah himself, and now we find him circumcising Timothy because of his Jewish heritage.  At the same time, Paul just finished arguing that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised. How do we reconcile these apparently conflicting actions, since scripture teaches that there is ONE law for all men?

Pharisees2
Even Pharisees and Sadducees accepted uncircumcised Gentile converts to Judaism – they simply did not grant them full rights in the congregation: they could not marry Jewesses, they sat in their own section of the meeting, etc. However, the religious leaders severely objected to Paul’s contention that his converts were completely outside of Rabbinic control. They were effective at communicating their fear and distrust of Paul to their congregations, who began turning a deaf ear to Paul’s Good News and even rioting against him. He threatened their world.

Many have taught that Paul was of the same mind as many modern Messianic Jews: The Covenant, including Torah, is for the Jews only, and Gentiles are not invited to share in it.  They base this belief on the record of the Jerusalem meeting and letter just mentioned in Chapter 15, as well as on the circumcision of Timothy and a couple of other events yet to be discussed.

Although we find some evidence in Paul’s writings that could be taken to indicate such a belief, we must disagree with this understanding.  The vast bulk of Paul’s writing is pro-Torah-for-all, particularly Romans, which was indisputably written by Paul and is acknowledged to be his most profound and comprehensive statement of belief.

We also hesitate to accuse Paul of such an unscriptural belief, because he was a careful student of the scriptures and was fully aware of the many scriptures instructing that Gentiles who join the Covenant Community are to be treated no differently than any other member of the family: that they are to be absorbed into YHVH’s Household, and that they are to do as the rest of the family does (i.e., observe Torah).  (See Isa 56:1-8)

  • It was Paul who so carefully taught that Gentiles are grafted into [1] the Commonwealth of Israel and the covenants of promise, [2] and that Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints [the Jews], and of the household of God; (Eph 2:19)
  • It was Paul who taught that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, but one new man, sharing the Covenant obligations and blessings together, no longer separated by the dividing wall of hostility. (Eph 2, NIV)

How can we accuse this ‘preacher of equality’ of preaching two different ‘laws’ for the members of the same household?

Peter warned that Paul’s letters were difficult to understand.

He specifically warned new believers:

As also in all his [Paul’s] epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures [γραφή (graphē): writings], unto their own destruction. Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own steadfastness.  (2Peter 3:16-17)

That word translated as ‘wicked’ is the Greek word ‘athesmos’, meaning one who breaks through the restraint of law and gratifies his lusts.  In other words, the ‘wicked’ that Peter speaks of are those who are Lawless or Torahless!  He is warning believers not to be led away by the error of the Torahless, because that is not what Paul teaches!  (This also confirms that Peter agrees entirely with John, who says that “sin is the transgression of the Law [Torah].”  (1John 3:4)

Paul and Circumcision

It appears that Paul sincerely (though mistakenly) believed that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised in the flesh since the Holy Spirit had already recognized the circumcision of their hearts. We believe that he sponsored Timothy’s circumcision for the sole purpose of allowing Timothy to minister without restraint to his precious Jewish brethren, who would otherwise have ostracized him.

This action was taken out of LOVE, and was entirely without hypocrisy or any intent to deceive, since Timothy was a genuine Jew.  This is what Paul meant when he spoke of becoming ‘all things to all men.’  (1Corinthians 9:22)

Nevertheless, it certainly appears from other statements in other epistles that Paul put no genuine value on physical circumcision for Gentile Christians.

Apostolic Error?  Really?

Oops! Road Sign with Dramatic Blue Sky.If this was genuinely his stand, then we must find Paul to be in error, because such a stand does not agree with Tanakh.  For example, Y’shua taught us to remember His death and resurrection with the Cup of Redemption and matzoh at Passover (1Corinth 11:25-26), while YHVH specifically instructed:

And when a stranger [Gentile] shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the passover to 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: for no uncircumcised person shall eat thereofExodus 12:48

We could ‘spiritualize’ that statement by asserting that YHVH was ‘really’ talking about the circumcision of the heart, but that kind of rationalization disregards (1) the validity of  the terms of the Covenant and (2) the reliability of God’s Word.  We would prefer to be guilty of being too literal than guilty of ignoring YHVH’s direct instructions.  We would rather be guilty of disregarding Paul’s instructions than of disobeying YHVH’s instructions!

That Paul was in error is certainly not impossible.  He was a mortal man, subject to error just as all of us are.  We’ve already seen that Peter ministered in error for a number of years, believing that Gentiles could not even be saved!  YHVH had to give Peter a special revelation to help him break away from that error. (Acts 10:34) Had He not, Gentiles would have been forever shut out from hearing the Good News of the Kingdom!

The consequences of Paul’s mistaken understanding of fleshly circumcision would not be nearly so severe, so it is possible that he never received special revelation concerning his stand; or, if he did, his Gentile converts may have refused to hear it or retain a record of it, since they had already become accustomed to being ‘lawless.’

love covers a multitude of sinsPaul taught from an elevated view of scripture that at times became more mystical than realistic.  Thankfully, he is correct that YHVH really does look for the circumcision of the heart as His top priority, and one’s genuine love for YHVH ‘covers a multitude of sins.’  (1Pet 4:8 NIV)  If a brother has neglected circumcision only out of ignorance or because local law prohibits his obtaining circumcision (which is the case for many Americans), our loving and merciful YHVH will be looking at his heart motivation, not his extra skin…  (See Ezekiel 18)

Paul and Silas anger the slave girl’s owners

When the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” Acts 16:19-21, NIV

slavegirlWhen Paul and Silas exorcised the demon that allowed the slave girl to tell fortunes, it meant a tremendous loss of income to her owners. They were really ticked off and wanted restitution, so they hauled Paul and Silas into court.

Note their accusation: These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”

These Romans identified Paul’s teachings as “Jewish” – not Nazarene or Christian.  Paul himself and his disciples were perceived as Jewish. This gives us a strong indication that their appearance and message aligned in major ways with that of the larger Judaic community – they didn’t ‘stick out.’

Note that Paul and his people are accused of advocating customs that are “Jewish.” These are customs that Romans are not allowed to practice by Roman law.  What customs could these possibly be?

We hazard a guess that one of the teachings to which these Romans objected was that the throne of Israel belonged by rights to Messiah Y’shua and His Davidic family, and not to Herod or the Romans. Dangerous political stuff….! Not something you would record in a circular letter that will be going all over the country and which might be subject to Roman confiscation, so it is not surprising that the charge is not specified in the epistle.

Another ‘Jewish custom’ was to acknowledge YHVH alone as deity and to refuse to acknowledge the ‘deity’ of the Caesars.  This was also a dangerous political stance and not something you wanted to specify in a public letter that might end up in a Roman court.

Roman Persecution

acts16_25It should be no surprise for us to learn that as soon as the new sect of the Nazarenes began showing signs of growth, the Roman government went into offensive mode, arresting and harassing  leaders of The Way, and passing laws that made it unattractive, expensive, and even dangerous [3] to accept Nazarene teaching.

The Romans already despised the general populace of Jews because of their continual rebellion against what Romans perceived as very enlightened government. They saw the Nazarenes as a special political threat because the Nazarenes actively advocated the return of the Throne of Israel to the House of David, and they allowed only descendants of David (members of Y’shua’s extended family) to occupy top levels of leadership in their assemblies. (For example, James, Y’shua’s half-brother, was the acknowledged head of the sect – not Peter, who was not of Davidic descent.  That’s why we see James giving his personal, final and undisputed decision at the conference in Jerusalem in Chapter 15.)

At this point in time, the Romans were already becoming particularly irritated with Paul.  Paul seemed to cause a ‘Martin Luther King effect’: that is to say, although Paul was himself a peaceful man, it seemed that chaos erupted wherever he went.  For the Romans, it was easier to blame Paul and his disciples than it was to deal with the root of the problem, which was Jewish religious jealousy, Roman anti-Semitism and Roman political fears.

THE BOOK OF ACTSIntroduction, Chapters 1-5, Chapters 6-10, Chapters 11-12, Chapter 13 (Part 1), Chapter 13 (Part 2), Chapters 14-15, Chapter 16, Chapters 17-18, Chapters 19-20, Chapters 21-26, Chapters 27-28

By John and Sue Wyatt, lambs.servant@gmail.com


© John and Sue Wyatt and The Lamb’s Servant Blog, 2014.  Permission to use and/or duplicate original material on The Lamb’s Servant Blog is granted, provided that full and clear credit is given to John and Sue Wyatt and The Lamb’s Servant Blog, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


FOOTNOTES

[1]  Romans 11:17-20 NIV – When Paul speaks of believers being ‘grafted in’ to the nation of Israel, he demonstrates a solid knowledge of the ancient scriptures. Paul, like all Jews, was fully aware that the basic and most important promise that YHVH made to Abraham was that I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring, all nations on earth will be blessed (Gen 26:4) The word translated as ‘blessed’ is the Hebrew word בָּרַךְ (bä·rak’), a root word which conveys the image of kneeling, or bending the knee. Nehemia Gordon, a scholar of Biblical Hebrew, explains that this root word was also used when speaking about agriculturally grafting a plant, because one style of grafting creates a bend or a knee where the grafted branch meets the host plant. The sages (respected Jewish teachers) have been aware of this connotation all along and have written on it. They (and Paul) understood that part of what YHVH was promising Abraham was that the nations would be ‘grafted in’ to Abraham’s descendants and become part of the people of YHVH. Paul was using OT terminology!

[2]  Ephesians 2:11-20

[3]  The Romans instituted a tax, called the Fiscus Judaicus, which was levied against Jews and anyone who practiced ‘Jewish customs’, or who was of Jewish descent, whether they practiced the customs or not. Those who did not pay the tax could be sold into slavery. Romans who adopted the ‘Jewish customs’ (including Torah-observant Christianity) could be executed!

This tax had much to do with the Gentile abandonment of Torah.  The topic is well presented by Marius Heemstra in his doctoral thesis, The Fiscus Judaicus and the Parting of the Ways (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010). A review of the thesis may be accessed at http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/reviews/the-fiscus-judaicus-and-the-parting-of-the-ways/ (as of 9 July 2014). Another good resource on the topic is The Growing Split Between Synagogue and Church in the 1st Century: The Fiscus Judaicus, a PDF file by Christopher Quinn.

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