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I am here in San Francisco at the Society of Biblical Literature annual Sea of Tweed and Bowtie Geekfest. This is where biblical scholars from all over the world gather once a year to impress each other and buy books at half price.

Yes I am cynical. I am wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and my Birkenstocks with socks in protest to “stick it to the man.” I’m sure if Jesus were here he’d be doing the same thing–although, maybe he’d be getting Ben and Jerry’s at the corner of Haight and Ashbury (not kidding, see picture to the right).

I will finish up in a few days my current series on Adam. In the meantime, let me throw out there a question that spun out of a conference I took part in yesterday–a conversation with N.T. Wright on the Missional Church. This specific issue was not discussed, but we circled around it a bit.

In the Old Testament:

  • Circumcision was an eternal stipulation for Israel, and Gentiles could only take part in the covenant with Yahweh by being circumcised.

In the New Testament

  • Paul rendered the eternal stipulation of circumcision null and void for both Jews and Gentiles.

Discuss: Did Paul believe in the authority of the Bible?

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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  • JasonS says:

    Paul understood that circumcision was more than an external symbol.
    There were some of the circumcision whom Paul thought should be circumcised from within the church, unless you happen to go along with the idea that he meant that they should be “Bobbitized.”
    Because Paul understood that the fulness of circumcision is internal.

  • JasonS says:

    I should say that true circumcision is internal. Or, it is fulfilled by being circumcised by Christ who takes away the body of our sins from us.

  • Ken Buck says:

    Regarding the issue of circumcision and Paul, wouldn’t he have connected the Gentile’s need to obey “the circumcision in the flesh” with their inclusion in Jesus’ circumcision? Jesus, as a Jewish male, would have been physically circumcised and therefore would have been obedient to fulfill the full requirement of the Abrahamic covenant. Therefore, in Christ, the gentile too would find their circumcision requirement fulfilled, physically in Christ’s flesh. In Col. 2:11 we see that we are included in Christ’s circumcision – “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ”.

    If my reading is at all plausible, (excluding the fact that I’m citing a deutero-pauline text) then, at least on this issue, Paul would be credited as one who takes seriously the scripture as written in the OT.

    (I really hope this is good exegesis as I’m currently writing a paper on Gen 17 right now in which this is my argument for pedobaptism in the church today!)

    • eric kunkel says:

      Herr Doktor Prof. Enns hypothesizes:

      “Paul rendered the eternal stipulation of circumcision null and void for both Jews and Gentiles”

      But what about the “circumstances”?? Which are more than circumstantial if you are an adult guy.

      Circumcision was the solution for Timothy, because his mother was Jewish, so he was by tradition Jewish. If he were not he would be a stumbling block, vis a vis his credentials as a Jew.

      Whereas Titus was forbidden to be. Is this not consistent with the ad hoc compromises reached at the Council of Jerusalem?

      (Imagine if YOU were a friend and traveling companion of Paul, and he says that he will “become all things to all men” and then has this idea for You!!)

  • Alvin Grissom II says:

    Is it actually said that it is eternal?

    Concerning the broader point, as with anyone who actually learns things, I think that Paul’s views evolved over time, including with regard to his scriptures. He doesn’t have much affinity for absolutely deontological systems, including those in the Torah. In Romans 14, he articulates what might best be described as a mild form of moral relativism. That’s a loaded way of describing the freedom that he promptes from arbitrary precepts, new or ancient, in favor of faith. By the time he had written Galatians, he was supremely frustrated, even furious, with his church’s apparently pathological desire to either create new, /improved/ systems of rules, or to retreat back into the often clear-cut absolutism of the Torah.

    Of course, in the very same book, Paul quotes the Torah extensively to make his point, and he does so throughout his epistles, claiming that the Law came from “angels” through a mediator (Galatians 3:19). I suspect that Paul had a complicated, perhaps even conflicted, relationship with the Law. It was clear to him how the story of Jesus fit into the grand narrative, starting from the days of ancient Israel; simultaneously, though, he really just wants people to get over it and live by faith and love.

    • Geoff says:

      From what I have read, I understand that Paul identified circumcision with the NATION of Israel, and not as a salvic requirement.

      That is, it was something that identified the physical children of Abraham and not the spiritual. The spiritual children of Abraham are identified by faith.

      The work of E P Sanders and others show (ie, the New Perspective) us that entry into the covenant was always by faith (thus the great faith chapters in Hebrews). Therefore the purpose of circumcision was never for salvation, but to identify one as an Israelite. Being an Israelite does not mean one is saved.

  • Jeremy says:

    But is circumcision really an *eternal* stipulation? (I honestly don’t remember anything in the OT stating this and I’m not in a place where I can search for it…)

    • Debbie Schermerhorn says:

      Absolutely! Jesus* specifically said that He did not come to do away with the law (Torah) but to “fulfill” it. The act of fulfilling scripture from a Hebraic perspective is to properly teach or bring it to a greater understanding. Paul upheld this same view. Considering that his rabbi was Gamaliel the Elder (grandson of Hillel the Elder), Paul most certainly believed in the authority of the Torah. He was a rabbi and master of the Five Books of Moses and he taught from them, the writings and the prophets.

      What most Christians do not realize is that often Paul addressed two groups of people in his letters: believing Jews and believing gentiles. He switches back and forth between the group and seems to contradict himself. When Paul addressed the Judaizers who required that believing gentiles be circumcised in the flesh in order to have fellowship (my Rabbi calls them the “circumcision crew”), Paul argued that gentiles were not to be expected to be knowledgable of Hebraic practices. He offered that in order for gentiles to have “table” fellowship with the believing Jews, a gentile should be circumcised in heart, observe the Shabbat and abstain from food offered to idols. However, he was not creating a new view of the scriptures. Paul was taking his instructions straight out of the only scriptures he had available to him at the time—the Torah—the Five Books of Moses, the writings and the prophets. The New Testament (as we know it) had not been complied yet and wouldn’t be canonized until the 4th century.

      Another aspect that Christians overlook is that we only have Paul’s answers to questions that are unknown. We can only guess as to what the original question was that sparked his answer. But I can intelligently speculate that he was looking to the Five Books of Moses for his answers.

    • Stephen says:

      Look at Genesis 17, especially 17.9-13.

      As Steve Taylor pointed out to me in seminary, if you read through the Pentateuch and take notes on the laws designated as eternal, for your generations forever, etc., you’ll find that most of them are what Evangelical-Reformed tend to classify as “civil,” “ceremonial,” or other kinds of laws that we no longer consider binding. I guess this would add to Pete’s fun question.

  • Huol says:

    Well, I think context is important here. Circumcision meant something very important for Abraham and his early descendants. In its particular place and time, there was a point to circumcision. It is what separated the Jews from the Gentiles. It goes along with the notion at the time that one’s biological and historical lineage indicated one’s faith in God. Similarly, one’s physical traits, practices, and behavior were the outward act of the person’s faith.

    During Paul’s time however, things were and are to this day very different. Biological and historical lineage no longer matter. Now our faith stems from Jesus. Where as the Israelites of old got their faith from their ancestors, we get ours from God himself in the flesh.

    • Jason says:

      Is Paul not drawing from other OT texts and authors who had already been busy defining and redefining the ‘circumcision’ God desires and expects? Has it not always been one of the heart? Jer, Eze, Lev, Deut, etc… Even with Abraham it was the sign of the covenant he made before circumcision, so that means the important thing has already occurred and the physical act is merely the ‘sign’. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to ask (If we are to ask such questions) which texts he found more authoritative?

      However, I think the point made by Ken Buck is strongest (even without the deutero-pauline text). Since we are ‘in’ Christ we receive his circumcision through his fulfillment of the law and the covenants because of his faithfulness.

      (also, Ken, it’s not that he ‘would’ have been circumcised. He was. Lk 2:21)

  • Huol says:

    I realized that my comment makes Judaism sound inferior to Christianity in some ways. I wonder if there is a way to talk about Christianity without giving off the impression that it supersedes Judaism.

  • Norman says:

    I think what often eludes the literal debate concerning scripture is that this not only is a volatile subject today but it was occurring openly between the literal minded Jews (Pharisees ) and messianic Jews (Christians) in Christ and the Apostle’s time. Christ and the apostles including Paul all taught a typological explanation and revelation of OT scripture contrasted to the literal reading Jews that read it in a literalist manner. Christ and the apostles hermeneutic won the day with the original establishment of Christianity.

    Messianic reading Jews whom fostered Christianity explains the OT scripture as written in veiled typology presenting the time of the coming messiah. Paul and the Hebrew writers see messianic developments foreshadowed in the OT literature while others were looking for a physical literal development of Israel via the messiah. Christ explicitly had to teach His followers that He was not going to be that kind of literal worldly King. People today still have a tendency to follow the literal reading Jews that rejected Christ and want a physical kingdom set up on earth. They often continue to read the OT prophecies wrongly still thinking that Christ did not accomplish what He was supposed to complete.

    We can see this reliance on the understanding of prefiguring illustrated by the Hebrew author who explains to his readers how the OT foreshadowed Christ. He explains why the Law was a temporary purpose of God until the realities of the Spiritual Kingdom would come to exist under Christ the messiah.

    Heb 10:1 The law is only a SHADOW of the good things that are coming–not the realities themselves. …
    Heb 8:5 They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and SHADOW of what is in heaven… But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is FOUNDED ON BETTER PROMISES.

    This understanding of the OT scripture written typologically is an overarching theme of all the NT writers in their interpretation of the OT and its fulfillment. Paul did not invent this hermeneutic.

    Col 2:11 In him also you were circumcised with a CIRCUMCISION MADE WITHOUT HANDS, …
    Col 2:16-17 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. (17) These are a SHADOW of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

    I would venture to say that missing the implications of understanding the OT scriptures typologically was instrumental in misunderstanding Christ as the messiah. We continue with a literal hermeneutic at the expense of not catching OT themes embedded within and continue down mistaken paths. We continue to think Paul invented something new when he was simply following the intended purpose of the shadowy OT themes in regard to messiah. He first had to shed his Phariseeism to have eyes to see as Christ put it.


  • eric kunkel says:

    BTW, I think the Titus and Timothy comparison is an important distinction in several ways.

    Things needed to be worked out, like the Council of Jerusalem.

    And like I have said before, Paul generally wrote to solve problems like those porno-practicing Corinthianizers or foolish Galatians, or slave holder Philemon.

    So we need to look to ALL the writers of the New Testament, especially if there are real differences. Paul, Paul, Paul.

    The Tim/Titus distinction also militates against strong supercessionism.

    Two things would follow from that. First, we would need a revival of knowledge about the OT, and other materials as used by the Jews and then revise our Hymnals and Sunday School materials. You know — teach Aramaic in Sunday school, so the average believer can read the Marginalia in your nightly Talmud class.

    I am sure your Wisdom of Solomon class would be all that! Standing room only at First Presbyterian.

    And maybe the Jews for Jesus and Messianic Jewish believers DO NEED to follow whatever of the 613 commandments are practicable — obviously not all are anyway since AD 70 …. (no one tries that these hectic days).

    So, glad you have NT Wright. Rework Christianity, theory and praxis and then you can go home. Or, have a nice weekend.


    • eric kunkel says:

      Thank you for fixing prev. post. I think it was the one with the mistaken html tags. You must have had the grace to realize I was not intending to shout or SHOUT because you were afar. Kavannah (כונה) was well intentioned by all ….


  • eric kunkel says:

    Did Paul believe the Bible?

    Isn’t that complex? Sometimes he alludes. Sometimes he seems to argue from a point of grammar, which lends credence to a verbal, plenary, innerant apparent posture. Sometimes there are quotes– aren’t some Hebraic and some Septuagint. Like you have said, he uses the Oral Law, like that Movable Well. He feels pretty free.

    But after all he was an Apostle writing Epistles, so well, what how does that even apply to me. Cannon is closed. Too late 😉

    • eric kunkel says:

      Pete, how did Paul interpret that with Timothy and then Titus.

      If we disagree, we can be like 15 vs. 39 and go our separate ways on the matter 😉

      (Have been thinking about making that my “life verse.”


  • bondboy says:

    Eric, I agree. I think Paul thought the Hebrew scripture was of paramount importance, but he didn’t feel constrainted to a “plain-meaning” reading of the texts.

    So he could create his own hermeneutics and find meanings that nobody had considered before. I think that type of reading was common in his day, and it is common today (although not exactly in the same way).

    Evangelicals in general have little use for scholars who attempt to find a cultural context for the bible. (Example: comments here criticizing Dr. Enns’ rather mild critiques of fundamentalism.) Most bible studies are more concerned with “what does this mean to me” rather than any serious attempt to figure out what it meant to the author, although many might pretend that the two are the same.

    • David H. says:

      What an interesting conversation 🙂
      After perusing the comments etc.
      I must insert here the scripture in Acts 15:1-31 concerning the Jerusalem council’s
      In a nutshell it says,
      (Acts 15:19-20 [NET])
      “Therefore I conclude that we should not cause extra difficulty for those among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we should write them a letter telling them to abstain from things defiled by idols and from sexual immorality and from what has been strangled and from blood.

      • peteenns says:

        David, what would you conclude from Acts 15:1-31 vis-a-vis the OT command that Gentiles must be circumcised?

      • Stephen says:

        The part of Acts 15 you reference is the conclusion of what it represents as James’ take on the matter. Interestingly, his scriptural “proof” from Amos 9.11-12 draws from a Greek translation of that passage that significantly differs from the MT (e.g., Hebrew version of Amos translated in your English Bibles) of Amos 9.11-12.

        The Greek version “James” uses is basically a Gentile-inclusive iteration of the passage: “After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tend of David that has fallen…that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name…”

        Compare with the MT of Amos 9.11-12: “In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen…that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name…”

        You will note the Israel-centered and the imperialistic or subjugation nature of the MT version of Amos 9.11-12 for how Israel relates to Gentiles. This would not have served “James'” argument in Acts 15 as the Greek version of the passage does.

        Fun issue for how we think of Scripture’s authority and its practical dynamics among early Christians…

  • eric kunkel says:

    So why not for Jewish believers in Christ now? How do we know that Paul’s actions were not normative?


    • peteenns says:

      That’s what Romans, Galatians, and the Jerusalem Council are about.

      • eric kunkel says:

        Did Carl Henry et al. believe the Bible? At least I heard of no brouhaha like in Acts 15 at the close of the meeting 😉

        Wonder how many of the attendees at SBL would be signatories today? Not that we would expect it to be too high, given it is a learned society with all sorts of scholars. But it seems an apt counterpose to your question “Did Paul Believe the Bible?” (Chicago, in part below)

        We affirm that God in His Work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of
        the writers whom He had chosen and prepared.

        We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities.

        We affirm that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance
        on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write.

        We deny that the finitude or fallenness of these writers, by necessity or otherwise, introduced distortion
        or fa.lsehoodinto God’s Word.

        We affirm that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading
        us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.

        We deny that it is possible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions. Infallibility
        and inerrancy may be distinguished, but not separated

        • peteenns says:

          Some of the tensions between (1) the affirmations and denials in any given article and (2) between articles are a lot to ask people to assent to–one would have to be very committed to doing so. I began doing a series on CSBI before I left BioLogos, by the way.

          • Norman says:


            What do you mean “before I left Biologos”? I had no idea that you cut your affiliation with them. Do you have a philosophical difference with the climate of their theological direction?

            I felt that you were a needed influence theologically that should be heard and discussed. That’s even with some of my differences with you concerning “some” Pauline understandings.


          • peteenns says:

            My contract was not renewed in September. They are moving in a more conservative direction, i.e., keeping Southern Baptists and other literalists on board.

          • Norman says:


            That’s very disappointing news then. I realized Dr. Falk tended more conservatively which I also incline toward, but only as long as conservative principals can stand up under theological consistent scrutiny.

            These issues cannot be ironed out effectively unless the key questions are being discussed and explored from divergent viewpoints with openness.

            I hope Denis Lamoureux personal affronts online against Dr. Falk were not instrumental in this fallout.

            However they still list you as a “Team Member”?


  • eric kunkel says:

    So Did Paul believe the Bible …. you asked. OK. What about Acts 15, the end.

    And Paul and Barnie left and went their separate ways ….. after some significant disagreement.

    So you have said that the Westminster Divines were doing their best with their 1646 context.

    What about J.I. Packer, Carl Henry, etc in 1978 with the Chicago Statement, were they so far removed from modern science as to be led astray? If you look at the list of signatories, I see some bright lights.

  • eric kunkel says:

    Yes, and if you look at the signers 300, Dillard, Packer, but some made notations, exceptions, if you will.

    Just saying again, as you said with regards to the 17th Century confession, the WTS faculty said I&E was in the bounds of it, to Kathy you, to sum up said, well, those were the limits of the 17th century divines.

    Here you have a much more recent document. By subtle thinkers, that is all. All sinners, noetically and otherwise. Happy thanksgiving!

    Go find some sinners and eat with them, WWJD.


  • eric kunkel says:

    What could be more sociological, or socio-ecclesiological than A Time to Tear down and A Time to Build up?

    • peteenns says:

      What I mean is that CSBI was a boundary-protecting document. In a broader sense, all theology has a sociological (and psychological) dimension.

  • eric kunkel says:

    Right, we concur. And I respect you deeply for keeping the discussion going. Like I have said before, “Hard Science,” “Social Science,” and/or [it may be included supra] Theology — none of them have the right to be the Queen of Sciences (Regina Scientarium) pace Aquinas.

    In this way you are in keeping with A. Kuyper, maybe Dooyeweerd. And I think the Scottish Common Sense Realists (those Presybterians!!)

    But you cannot say, I believe that the signers, Dillard, Packer, etc., were unaware of modern cosmology, evolutionary biology, paleontology. Sure all the sciences above have advanced some since 1978. But these thinkers are still with us; some are not, sadly.

    I am still contending with your statement on I&E, about the zeitgeist of Reformation documents; I think the 1978 “Confession” is not so different today’s from scientific context. They watched Cosmos, they read Gould.

    I think they wrote it on an Apple II.

    eric kunkel

  • Stephen says:

    If I may venture an answer, it depends upon what you mean by “did Paul believe in the authority of the Bible?”

    He treated the sacred books of the Judeans as divine oracles, as repositories of cosmological, soteriological, and eschatological plans and wisdom. This, BTW, is not to say that Paul thinks there is some deep coded train schedule for the endtimes in these sacred writings — as some contemporary evangelicals treat them. For Paul they are authoritative in relation to Christ and the Judean God’s decisive rescue in Christ. They are divine oracles that witness beyond themselves to this cosmological, soteriological, and eschatological plan that culminates in Christ.

    Two passages in Romans capture this well:
    But not the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law, although the Law and the prophets bear witness to it — the righteousness of GOd through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ unto all the ones who are faithful (3.21-22).
    For Christ is the end/goal/purpose of the Law with the result of righteousness to everyone who is faithful (10.4).

    There are other facets to Paul’s “view of Scripture,” but the above captures a key way that Paul “believed in the authority of the Bible.” He “believed” in it insofar as it is seen to relate to Christ, the inclusion of Gentiles in Christ, the gift of the Spirit to Gentiles through Christ, and other aspects of his Christ-defined eschatological scheme.

    I would say that this differs somewhat from the classic ways that we as evangelicals conceive of how the Bible is authoritative.

  • j. johnson says:

    I believe that God replaced circumcision with baptism and confirmation. I would say yes Paul totally believed in the Bible. But he also understood that the need for circumcision was fulfilled and that Jesus replaced it with baptism and confirmation. He also was now teaching the new traditions of the Church which could include all people jew or gentile. – Acts 11:14-18
    baptism is found in the Gospels as well as Acts 16:15, 33; 18:8; 2:38 1cor 1:16
    Confirmation is found in Acts 1:8; 2:1-4, 16-21; 2:38; 8:17 Heb 6:1-3 2 Cor 1:21-22
    Both are spoke of in Acts 11:14-18

    • peteenns says:

      J., “replacing” circumcision with baptism and confirmation is precisely the problem. Circumcision is an abiding statue in the Old Testament.

      • J. Johnson says:

        Perhaps replacing is the wrong word. Jesus shed His blood for once and for all. In doing so we entered into a new covenant with Him. Under the new covenant baptism becomes the abiding statue as does recieving the eucharist. See The Gospel of John 6:53. Better yet read from verses 22 through 71. In this new covenant our relationship with God changed as did our requirements. God didn’t add to the old He radically gave us new.

  • Beth D says:

    What do you mean by ‘eternal’? The Abrahamic Covenant was eternal and unconditional. Circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant.

    Did ‘circumcision’ save? Just as any God-fearing/loving, Bible believing Christian will tell you the act of baptism does not ‘save’ and is not eternal in that sense, I think Paul would say neither did circumcision have the power to save – that it was not in fact ‘eternal’, although the Covenant with Abraham and his descendants was forever (eternal).

    That’s my layperson’s take on it

    • peteenns says:

      Beth, circumcision was a sign of the covenant inclusion given to Abraham in perpetuity. There is no inclusion into the family of God in the Old Testament without circumcision, which is why the Jew in Jesus’ day were so adamant about it.

  • Ed Babinski says:

    “Wagner argues that male circumcision was not widely practiced in Israel and did not possess any religious or specific cultic significance until after the Exile. A theologization and sacralization of the practice are only attested in very late texts of the OT, i.e., Gen 34:15-17; Lev 12:3; Josh 5:2-7; 9:24-25. Against this background, W. associates the practice of circumcision to the end of the monarchy and the need for greater cultic distinctiveness during the Exile in Babylon (whose population did not circumcise). This development led to a broad dissemination of the practice of circumcision in Judaism.” VOLKER WAGNER, “Profanitat und Sakralisierung. . .” VT 60 (2010).

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