Was Paul wrong to have Timothy circumcised?

Q.  In Acts it says that when Paul wanted to take Timothy along on his travels, “he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, because everyone knew his father was a Greek.”  That’s not a very detailed explanation. I’m interested in more details on what the reasoning might have been and whether we might consider this to have been a mistake on Paul’s part. Was he giving in too much to the circumcision group?

This is an excellent question and it’s fair game to ask whether Paul made a mistake here. I don’t actually discuss this question in my Luke-Acts study guide, so I’d like to share some thoughts about it here.

One of the basic principles of biblical interpretation is, “Narrative is not necessarily normative.”  Just because the Bible describes, without negative comment, how a leader like Paul did something, that doesn’t automatically mean it was the right thing to do.

In fact, elsewhere in the book of Acts Paul makes a mistake and then later admits it.  After his arrest in Jerusalem, during his preliminary trial before the Sanhedrin, Paul realized that the council was made up half of Pharisees and half of Sadducees (who denied the resurrection). In order to split the opposition, he called out, “I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection.”

The ploy worked, but Paul later regretted resorting to such devious means.  In his subsequent trial before Felix, he insisted that he’d done nothing wrong so far as the Sanhedrin was concerned, “unless it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.’”

So it is possible that Paul had Timothy circumcised out of fear of the Judaizers, who insisted that circumcision was necessary for good standing before God.  We can’t know for sure what Paul’s real motive was.  But we can at least ask, “Could he have done this for a good motive?  If so, what might that have been?”

The possible good motive is this:  Paul might have been encouraging Timothy to use his freedom to be circumcised.  Paul wasn’t opposed to people becoming circumcised in general, but only if they thought this was necessary to put them in better standing with God.  At the end of Galatians, Paul wrote, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.”  So it doesn’t matter if a person is circumcised.  They can do so for a good reason.

Timothy had a good reason.  His mother was Jewish, and now that he was a young adult who could make his own decisions about such things, he could be circumcised as a way of embracing and expressing that part of his heritage.  This would give him the added advantage of being able to work with Paul among Jews who wouldn’t have the obstacle of seeing him as an “unclean Gentile.”  In other words, this expression of freedom (freedom to rather than freedom from) would open doors of ministry for him.  In that sense, it would be legitimate and well-advised.

To offer a contemporary analogy, suppose you’re a female follower of Jesus who’s living in a Muslim country.  You want to get to know your neighbors so they can hopefully see from your life what a follower of Jesus is really like.  You could choose to wear a head scarf so that your uncovered hair wouldn’t be an obstacle to the people around you.  If you did, would you be giving in to legalism?  Or would you be using your freedom to wear a scarf to open potential doors of opportunity?

I personally believe that was the same choice Paul was helping Timothy make in Acts.

Paul lays hands on Timothy

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “Was Paul wrong to have Timothy circumcised?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s