In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul declares, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but [what matters is] keeping the commandments of God” (1 Cor 7:19). Some readers understand this statement to signify that Paul had moved beyond the Jewish rite of circumcision, and that his faith in Jesus had relegated these kinds of legal rituals. Yet, this antinomian interpretation does not make sense of Paul’s words here, nor of his positive views of circumcision elsewhere. Instead of degrading the act of circumcision, Paul proposes that one’s external ethnic identity (whether Jewish or Gentile) is not the marker of fidelity to God; what really matters, regardless of ethnicity, is dedication to the divine will.

Paul calls both circumcision and uncircumcision “nothing” (οὐδείς; oudeís) to support his rule that one need not convert to an alternate people-group in order to follow Jesus: “Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but [what matters is] keeping the commandments of God” (1 Cor 7:18-19). On a surface reading, an obvious problem arises: Paul says that observing God’s commands is what matters, but the act of “circumcision” (מילה; milah) is one of the Torah commands (cf. Gen 17:10-12; Lev 12:3), so how can it be unimportant? More, in Romans, Paul asks rhetorically, “What is the value of circumcision?” (Rom 3:1) and answers, “Much in every way!” (3:2). So, how can Paul state in 1 Corinthians that circumcision is “nothing”?    

The answer is simple, but not obvious: when Paul mentions “circumcision” in 1 Corinthians 7:19, he does not mean the act of circumcision or the commandment for Jews to circumcise their sons. Instead, this particular use of “circumcision” refers to the state of “being a Jew.” The precise Greek language clarifies Paul’s ontological meaning; literally, he says, “Circumcision (περιτομή; peritomé) and foreskin (ἀκροβυστία; akrobustía) are nothing.” In other words, “Whether you don’t have foreskin or you do, it doesn’t matter.” For Paul, if a man had foreskin he was a Gentile; if not, he was a Jew. Thus, with his references to “circumcision” and “uncircumcision,” Paul means “Jew” or Gentile.” The apostle uses the terms to reflect ethnic status elsewhere, saying, “I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcision (or “foreskin”; ἀκροβυστία), just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcision (περιτομή)” (Gal 2:7). Paul uses these terms as alternatives to describe his mission to the “Gentiles” and Peter’s to the “Jews.”

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul says that Jews shouldn’t undo their circumcisions and non-Jews shouldn’t get circumcised, because being a Jew or being a Gentile is nothing; what matters is keeping the commandments of God. The apostle argues that Jesus-following Jews should keep the Torah commands that were given specifically to them (like circumcision), and that Gentiles should be content in “keeping the commandments of God” that pertain to them—i.e., any command that doesn’t transform them into Jews. Since statutes like circumcision, dietary regulations (Lev 11; Deut 14), and wardrobe stipulations (Lev 19:19; Num 15:38-39; Deut 22:11) were given exclusively to Israel as Jewish identity markers, Paul discourages Gentiles from them—though if Gentile infants are circumcised today for health reasons, medical standards, or societal conventions unrelated to Israel’s eighth-day Judeo-ritual practice, Paul would not object. Non-Jews are encouraged to keep whichever “commandments of God” have no impact on their ethnicity, such as refraining from murder and adultery (Exod 20:13-14) or actively loving one’s neighbor (Lev 19:18). Paul believes that the act of circumcision remains important as a Torah command for Jews, but ethnic status—being Jewish or Gentile—is “nothing” compared to “keeping the commandments of God.”

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53 COMMENTS

  1. This is deeper than we thought. I mean if the Commandments in the Torah doesn't really matter if you are not a Hebrew, then we should really have a look at all this epistles my the apostles. I mean it doesn't make sense at all.
    • I believe that we really should do all of Torah to our best, because, as Paul says, we are grated in into Israel. So doesn't make sense, because if we are grated, we are to follow the Instructions of Abba, since he still is the same.
  2. The first half of your article is remarkably well-put to explain difficult passages that do not take away from Christian Gentiles being blessed by all Scripture. However, your effort to extend it beyond to encourage Gentiles to eat what God calls “abomination” (Lev 11:11) does no service.
    • Thanks for your comments, David. The article is not an "effort" to encourage a particular Gentile posture to the foods in Leviticus 11 (only some of which are prohibited). God tells Moses and Aaron to tell the "children of Israel" (Lev 11:2) that these foods are "unclean for you" (cf. Lev 11:4-8, 26-31, 35, 28); thus, these prohibitions do not extend to other nations. The purpose of these restrictions was to keep Israel "holy" (Lev 19:1-2); that is, "set apart" from the other nations. If Gentiles were to follow the dietary restrictions, then these rules would no longer serve their holy purpose for Israel. In other words, Gentiles would be countering God's agenda.

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    • I agree. It's clear that we don't need to be circumcised, but to arbitrarily call something " specific to jews " is dangerous. It's too easy to deny God's commandments by saying it's " for jews ".

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  3. 1-Laws for Gentiles are listed in Lev 17,18,19. 2- Acts 15 put emphasis on them for those pagans who are TURNING to God. 3-Pagans are yet expected to embrace some Torah laws (laws that don’t make them Jews) as they continue to attend the synagogue services, e.g. 10 words etc. Kosher diet is for us Hebrews and Proselytes (those who have fully converted to our way of life). However, the Holy Spirit will convict the God-fearer and lead him/her to righteous living. Rom 14. It’s all about food choices among believing pagans. Your food choice must not offend your neighbour.
  4. Are you saying that some rules/laws apply to Jews and others to Gentiles? For example, the book of Hebrews was written to believing Jews. Are Gentiles, then, supposed to ignore the book of Hebrews since it was meant for the Jews? That is just one example.
    • The ascription of the letter "to the Hebrews" is a later church tradition that isn't found in the text. It's possible that "Hebrews" was written to Jews, but it might have been written to a mixed congregation or to no particular congregation at all. All believers in Jesus should read Hebrews, as with all other texts in the New Testament. Yes, some rules in the Torah apply only to Jews (e.g., Lev 11:1-47; 12:3; 19:19), while others apply to both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Matt 5:17-48; Acts 15:19-20; Romans 3:31; 13:8-10).
  5. Circumcision for the Jews is a covenant and national identity but Paul was trying to de-emphasis circumcision to avoid putting a stumbling block to Gentiles faith in Christ. Hence emphasis is made on the circumcision of the heart rather than going under the knife.
  6. Paul is saying we have something new, and all encompassing in Jesus. Jesus is the New Law, he is the focus. Circumcision was another task G-d required of Jews of yesteryear to bring them closer to G-d. It isn’t important since Jesus is on the scene. Fidelity to Jesus key
    • Paul himself says that circumcision remains important after Jesus (see Rom 3:1-2). More, circumcision is not a mechanism to "bring Jews closer to God." Abraham is given the command to circumcise in Genesis 17; God calls him in Genesis 12 and enters into everlasting covenantal relationship with him in Genesis 15; thus, he's already close to God prior to circumcision.

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    • Glenn, the above article does not argue that Old Testament laws do not apply to Gentile Christians. Some don't, but others do. Anything that doesn't make a Gentile into a Jew applies to a Gentile.
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