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

Is it all right for Christians to get tattoos?

Q. In your guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, when you get to the end of Romans you ask about outward ways of identifying as a follower of Jesus. When we discussed this question in our group, the subject of tattoos came up.  Most of the group members didn’t have a problem with them.  But I thought Christians weren’t supposed to get tattoos.  Doesn’t the Bible say, “Do not put tattoo marks on yourselves”?

I personally don’t think this one verse can be used as a proof-text against tattoos.  The particular commandment you’re describing is found in Leviticus. It says in full, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.”  The concern is with cutting or marking oneself as a pagan worship practice designed to appease or cultivate the spirits of the dead. (A similar commandment is found in Deuteronomy, “Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead.”)  So this is not necessarily a prohibition of using these practices for other purposes, including identifying oneself as a follower of the true God.

However, we need to be careful here.  There are other things that are mentioned in the Bible only in the context of pagan worship, such as human sacrifice, that we shouldn’t conclude are acceptable in other contexts.  We really need some indication that a practice can be used positively to honor God before we decide that any prohibition against it is really aimed only at pagan worship practices.

In the case of marking the body, in one of his visions Ezekiel sees a man with a “writing kit” whom God tells, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”  This image is echoed in Revelation when God “seals” the 144,000; later in that book we learn that they had the Lamb’s name and his father’s name “written on their foreheads.” Jesus also says in Revelation, in his letter to the church of Philadelphia, about anyone who remains faithful, “I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God . . . and I will also write on them my new name.”  So Ezekiel and Revelation use the symbol of God marking or writing on his servants as a positive sign of protection and identification.

However, these passages really can’t be used as proof-texts in favor of tattooing, any more than the one in Leviticus can be used as a proof-text against it.  This isn’t just because Ezekiel and Revelation are highly symbolic books and it’s often difficult to know how literally to take their imagery. Rather, it’s because those two books, like Leviticus, are recording the warnings and encouragement that God gave his faithful people over the centuries as examples and instruction for us today.  We’re not supposed to turn any of this into rules, but rather use it to become familiar with the ways of God so that we can discern how to follow those ways in our own place and time.

On questions such as whether followers of Jesus can get tattoos, we do well to be guided by the counsel in the very part of the Scriptures that prompted your group’s discussion—the end of Romans.  Paul writes there, “I am convinced . . . that nothing is unclean in itself.  . . .  Let us . . . make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.  . . . Whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.”

In other words, a tattoo is really just ink on the skin, not something spiritually dangerous in itself.  But a person who’s deciding whether to get a tattoo should ask how this would build up other believers and how it would make for peace within the community of Jesus’ followers.  And whatever a person decides on a question like this, they should have a well-considered position that they keep mainly as a private conviction between themselves and God, and grant others freedom to follow their own convictions.