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 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 (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.”