Acts 16:1-3 We see Paul getting Timothy circumcised because of certain Jews:

[NIV] 1 Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek. 2 The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. 3 Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.

But in Galatians 5:6 the same apostle Paul says:

[NIV] For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

(See also the preceding verses.) Was Paul not vacillating?

  • See S.J.D. Cohen, "Was Timothy Jewish (Acts 16:1-3)?...", JBL 105 (1986): 251-268 (also available in a PDF; + one response) for some background to this question.
    – Dɑvïd
    Oct 4, 2016 at 20:59
  • Was Paul not vacillating ? - No. Paul's doctrine was that (non)circumcision is irrelevant to salvation, not that people should become “reverse Judaizers”, wrongly thinking that non-circumcision supposedly represents a sign of true faith, just as Judaizers thought that its opposite, circumcision, constituted one. If one is not to be forced to embrace Jewish customs, such as circumcision, in order to become a Christian, then one should also not be forced to embrace Gentile customs, such as non-circumcision, either, at least not as a “litmus test” for embracing Christianity.
    – Lucian
    May 19, 2018 at 20:45

2 Answers 2


Nina E. Livesey, in the Westar Forum series (Fall 2013: 'Rethinking the Book of Acts', page 156) argues against the historical reliability of Luke’s account in Acts of the Apostles, after having compared it with Paul’s views on circumcision in his extant letters. She says, in a following essay ('Circumcision as a Means of Testing the Historicity of Acts 16:1–5', page 217) that "Acts 16:1–5 reverses Paul’s position concerning circumcision. Rather than representing any of Paul’s various understandings of circumcision, Luke creates his own Jew-pleasing image of Paul to advance his own theological position."

Dennis E. Smith and Joseph B. Tyson say, in Acts and Christian Beginnings, page 182, the circumcision of Timothy "would appear to be a violation of Paul's deepest principles." They point out that in Galatians 2:3, Titus was not required to be circumcised, then go on to ask why Timothy was circumcised now if Paul had been so opposed to circumcision and Timothy had until then been an uncircumcised believer. Their answer is that Luke's Timothy is not the historical Timothy of the epistles, but was created to appear in this scene and serve a narrative role in Acts. They say, "The Timothy whom Luke creates is a hybrid, part Greek and part Jewish, making him in a sense a narrative stand-in for the hybridity of the church in Luke's story."

It is true that Paul was a proud Jew, but Acts of the Apostles consistently portrays him as seeking to please the Jews, even as, time and again, they rebuff his approaches. That Paul held strong views against circumcision is most clearly demonstrated by Galatians 5:12:

Galatians 5:12 (NIV): As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

  • Timothy had until then been an uncircumcised believer - An “uncircumcised believer” with a Jewish mother and grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5). Though technically true, you make it sound as if Timothy was completely Gentile.
    – Lucian
    May 19, 2018 at 20:35

There's no contradiction. Paul's insistence with the Galatians is in dealing with gentile believers.

Timothy was not gentile--his mother was Jewish. As such, Timothy's witness was impaired when working with potential Jewish converts: they were less likely to listen to his witness to them.

Additionally, when Paul notes to the Galatians that "neither circumcision nor uncircumcision availeth anything," he is speaking of salvation. In Paul's teachings, however, believing Jews are still required to obey the Law: that obedience does not provide salvation for them, but it is still a requirement.

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