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Most translations use quotes around "the circumcision", (NIV, NASB, NRSV, HCBS). i.e. NIV:

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)

However ESV (and KJV) does not place quotes around "the circumcision":

 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands

In the former, "the circumcision" is referring to people, aka, "those who call themselves..." but in the latter, its not people "by what is called...."

While there is no significant theological issue dependent upon this difference, there is a subtle historical difference between the two options. So the question is, what is the evidence that supports the choice between the two? Historically speaking, can we determine if Paul is referring to:

  1. a group of religious people called "the circumcision", used the term "the uncircumcision", or
  2. a act/law/practice of circumcision created the concept of "the uncircumcision".
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  • You meant 2:11. I corrected.
    – user33515
    Dec 28 '17 at 6:32
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In many cases in the NT, "the circumcision" is a reference to the Jews. "The uncircumcision" refers to Gentiles:

"And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost." (Acts 10:45)

"But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter;" (Galatians 2:7)

"For he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles:" (Galatians 2:8)

"And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision." (Galatians 2:9)

"For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision." (Galatians 2:12)

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The Greek text uses the words ἀκροβυστία (akrobystia) and περιτομή (peritomē) respectively, without any definite article.

Akrobystia is the Greek word for "foreskin", and thus a byword for "uncircumcision". In the Septuagint it represents the Hebrew word עָרְלָה (ʿār·lā(h)), as in:

Genesis 17:11

And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.

ακρον (akron) means "top" in Greek and the suffix bystia is of uncertain origin, although the Lidell-Scott-Jones Lexicon indicates that it is of semitic (possibly Babylonian) origin.

Peritomē simply means circumcision.

It doesn't seem that akrobystia was an idiom for someone who was uncircumcised in classical Greek. Perhaps Paul was the first to coin the usage.

As for translations vacillating between "uncircumcised" and "the uncircumcision", perhaps they were all struggling how to avoid putting the exact literal translation down on the paper.

I do think, though, that when it seems that the Greek text is referring to uncircumcised and circumcised men collectively, translators may try to convey this by adding the definite article even though it is lacking in the Greek text. When the text is contrasting the state of being circumcised or uncircumcised, then the definite article is always excluded. For example:

Ephesians 2:11 (ESV) - referring to groups

... you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision

but:

Romans 2:24 - referring to states

Will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?

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  • I was asking if there was evidence for translating the circumcision in this verse as "the circumcision" (a name for a people group), or just the circumcision (a name for the act of circumcision). What is your opinion on that. Im not sure if inclusion or lack of definite article helps answer the question does it?
    – Jay
    Jan 8 '18 at 9:08

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