Nanos-rites of the law

Paul depreciated circumcision.
Representatives of Judaism supported circumcision.
Therefore Paul does not represent Judaism.

According to Mark Nanos in an article, “The Question of Conceptualization: Qualifying Paul’s Position on Circumcision in Dialogue with Josephus’s Advisors to King Izates”, things are more complicated than the above sentences show.  This article is in Paul within Judaism.

In Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus there is a story from Paul’s own day about the Parthian King, Izates. He honored the Jewish God, but the question arose about whether he should become a Jew or remain a pious non-Jew.

Women at the Parthean court, especially Izates’ mother, were studying and taking up Judaism. For the women, of course, circumcision was not an issue. (Old joke: What do you call an uncircumcised Jew? Answer: Rachel.) Izates proposes to undergo circumcision. His mother does not think he should have to. According to Josephus, this leads to the court hearing two Jewish advisors who give differing opinions

First, Ananias, a Jewish merchant, opposes the king’s submission to this rite. It would be adopting a foreign practice that applied to ethnic Jews. Ethnic Parthians might have justification for blaming Jews–Ananias, in particular–for teaching their king “improper deeds”. Ananias says that God will forgive Izates’ uncircumcision because he is the king of a people who are not Jews.

But then comes Eleazar, a Jew from Galilee and probably a Pharisee. He urges the king to go ahead with the rite. Eleazar saw a contradiction between a Gentile reading the Torah and not doing what it commands. In the end Izates does get circumcised.

One of the reasons this applies to Paul’s views is that both Ananias and Eleazar use the words ergon (work) and erga (works) for circumcision. So Josephus uses works to mean “acts” or “rites”.

For Eleazar circumcision was a work or rite expressing trust in God. If Izates had not completed the work, there would have been something lacking in his trust of God. But Ananias also believes that Izates needs to demonstrate his trust in God. Only, from his point of view, a non-Jewish king would best do this by observing the Jewish way of life apart from circumcision. God would forgive his non-circumcision on the basis of this trust.

The difference between Paul and the Ananias of Josephus is that Ananias does not seem to require Izates to renounce the gods of the Parthians. Such a renunciation would threaten Gentile society–something Ananias was anxious not to do.

But the use of trust pisteuo for “acts of faith(fullness)” aligns with Paul and gives us a way to see that Paul is not pitting faith against action. This cuts against the traditional Protestant interpretation. But it also goes against the New Perspective’s notion that Paul is pitting faith against “boundary marking behavior per se”.

The boundary marking through circumcision is appropriate for Jews. The issue for Paul is that it is not now appropriate for Gentiles. This is because the coming of the Messiah means that now is the time for Gentiles to turn to the one God precisely as Gentiles. They need to keep their identity as other nations so that the glory of God as one who blesses all nations can be known.

Gentiles need to show their faith/faithfulness. They just do not need to do it by works/rites of the Law.

The difference between Paul and Ananias is that Paul does not appeal to expedience. To circumcise Gentiles would actually be more expedient for Paul. Gentile Christ-followers in Galatia want to be circumcised (Galatians 4:21). Paul opposes this and argues that what constitutes faithfulness for Jews is not the same as what constitutes faithfulness for non-Jews. In these Messianic days, God has reached out to call the nations away from their national gods to the true God of Israel. But, if they become Jews, that empties the Messianic claim of its meaning.

The Izates story helps give us four insights about Paul and other 2nd Temple authors in the subject of circumcision

First, whether arguing for or against Gentile circumcision, the motive is faithfulness

Second, non-Jews practicing Jewish piety is not the same thing as undergoing circumcision.

Third, discussing Torah observance for Jews includes having their eight-day old sons circumcised, but Torah observance for people who are not already Jews falls into a different category.

Fourth, circumcision was discussed in context. This included the person (a Gentile king in Izates’ case). It included place, as in Parthia or the various cities of Paul’s communities. And it included time, especially Paul’s apocalyptic sense of time.



About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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