Romans 2:29 NASB

29 But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from

It is clear circumcision was given to the patriarchs well before the letter was introduced

Genesis 17:10-12 NASB

10 This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your [j]descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. 12 And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, including a slave who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your [k]descendants.

Christ further reiterates the same position years later

John 7:19-22 NASB

“Did Moses not give you the Law, and yet none of you carries out the Law? Why are you seeking to kill Me?” 20 The crowd answered, “You have a demon! Who is seeking to kill You?” 21 Jesus answered them, “I did one [c]deed, and you all are astonished. 22 For this reason Moses has given you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and even on a Sabbath you circumcise a man.

Why then does Paul say circumcision is by the letter?

  • 2
    Paul is talking about the "letter [of the law]" Therefore, I do not understand the question. What is the problem?
    – Dottard
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 9:52
  • 1
    @Dottard,my query is that circumcision came from the patriarchs rather than from the letter given at sinai Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 12:57
  • Paul says, "NOT by the letter"... Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 13:50
  • @collenndhlovu, if your assumption is that every time Paul mentions "the letter" in Romans, he can only be referring to the covenant at Sinai, then please disclose this assumption in your question so we will know what to address in the answer, because as it stands, few people share this interpretation of "letter" in Romans and so most are confused as to the question.
    – Robert
    Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 18:30

6 Answers 6


Law has no meaning in the OT in the absence of a covenant - all laws were given as part of a divine covenant.

In the case of circumcision:

  • It was NOT part of the Edenic covenant (Gen 1:26, 28-30, 2:16, 17)
  • It was NOT part of the Noahide covenant (Gen 8:20 – 9:17)
  • It WAS part of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 15, 17, 18:9-15, 22:15-18)

Specifically, circumcision was given as the SIGN/token of the Abrahamic covenant (Heb: “oth”, Gen 17:10, 11, 13, Rom 4:11, Acts 7:8) and their inheritance of the Promised Land, Josh 5:7.

There is no indication that circumcision was a sign of the Israelite covenant, although it was used as metaphor of dedication, Deut 10:16, 30:6, Jer 4:4. Thus, when the circumcision was dispensed with in Acts 15, the Abrahamic covenant was seen by the Christian church as ended - the Jews had rejected God.

By contrast, the tokens/signs of the covenant (Heb: “oth”) appear to have been the law of the 10 Commandments themselves (Deut 6:8, 11:18, Ex 31:13, 16, 17, Isa 56:4, 6, Exe 20:12, 20); the blood of the covenant from the Passover Lamb is also used as a sign in Ex 12:13; the famous “Ark of the Covenant” containing the 10 Commandments on tablets of stone (Ex 16:34, 24:12, 25:16, 21, 31:18, 32:15, 19, 34:1, 4, 28, 40:20, Deut 4:13, 9-11, etc). [Note: This did not include circumcision as this was a sign of the Abrahamic covenant to which the Israelites fell heirs.]


Indeed, circumcision is from the patriarchs as described in Genesis 17:12

For the generations to come every male among you [Abraham] who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner--those who are not your offspring.

It is also codified in Leviticus 12:3

And on the eighth day the flesh of the boy's foreskin is to be circumcised.

Why does Paul say circumcision is by the letter rather than from the patriarchs in Romans 2:29?

Paul actually says that "circumcision is ... not by the letter". Let me make this question less confusing.

Why does Paul claim that circumcision is from the letter of the law rather than from the patriarchs?

Technically, Paul was not completely wrong in Romans 2:29, saying that circumcision is from the letter of the Law. Paul didn't say that it is not from the fathers.

Why then does Paul say circumcision is by the letter?

This is the more important question. What does Paul mean when he says that circumcision is by the letter of the Law? What is his point here?

Let's see the context:

Romans 2:28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 29But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from people, but from God.

The letter is connected to the outward flesh. Paul is making a contrast:

outwardly    flesh    by the letter    praise from people
inwardly     heart    by the Spirit    praise from God

Consistently, Paul emphasizes the spiritual realities over the fleshly realities in his writings.

Romans 7:6 But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

2 Corinthians 3:6 who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.


Jesus did not preach any new laws / convents - this is another example of Paul making his own law / gospel and goes against what Jesus preached.

Jesus taught same as before;

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practic-es and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." [Matthew 5:17-20]

And the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that (for this purpose) He might preserve us alive, as it is this day. Then it will be righteousness or us, if we are careful to observe all these commandments before the Lord our God, as He has commanded us. [Deuteronomy 6:24-25]

Deuteronomy 30:15-16 - 15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

James teaches the same as Jesus

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. [James 2:8-11]


Already rumours that Paul was not preaching the laws – but does what he is told (clearly not a leader):

You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.”

The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them. [Acts 21:20-26]

Starts spreading his own Gospel

1 Corinthians 9:22 ‘….I have become all things to all men …..’

“In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.” – Romans 2:16

“Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began…” – Romans 16:25

“According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon.” – 1 Corinthians 3:10

“Remember that Jesus Christ of the seed of David was raised from the dead according to my gospel:” – 2 Timothy 2:8

“I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole Law” (Gal5:2).

But now we are released from the Law.. we serve not under the old written code but under the new life of the Spirit” (Romans7:6).

2 Timothy 1:11 And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher.


“Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law!” (Romans 3:31).

Which way is it?


Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him.” (Acts16:3)

only 1 teacher - Matthew 23:8–12 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Matthew 23:15 - 15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.


Paul seems to be categorizing circumcision under Moses in the same was as Jesus did, in that it is recorded in the Genesis and thus "Mosaic" to some degree:

[John 7:22 NASB20] (22) "For this reason Moses has given you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and [even] on a Sabbath you circumcise a man.

In other words, it is in the writings of Moses that one learns of and adopted circumcision.

Paul's argument against all of the commands and practices of Moses and the prophets is that they are fulfilled "spiritually" in the New Covenant.

[Romans 2:25-29 NIV] (25) Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. (26) So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law's requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? (27) The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. (28) A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. (29) No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person's praise is not from other people, but from God.

[1 Corinthians 7:19 ASV] (19) Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but the keeping of the commandments of God.

[Galatians 5:6 ASV] (6) For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith working through love.

[Galatians 6:13-17 ASV] (13) For not even they who receive circumcision do themselves keep the law; but they desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh. (14) But far be it from me to glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world hath been crucified unto me, and I unto the world. (15) For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. (16) And as many as shall walk by this rule, peace [be] upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. (17) Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear branded on my body the marks of Jesus.

[Ephesians 2:11 ASV] (11) Wherefore remember, that once ye, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision, in the flesh, made by hands;

[Philippians 3:2-7 ASV] (2) Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the concision: (3) for we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God, and glory in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh: (4) though I myself might have confidence even in the flesh: if any other man thinketh to have confidence in the flesh, I yet more: (5) circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; (6) as touching zeal, persecuting the church; as touching the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless. (7) Howbeit what things were gain to me, these have I counted loss for Christ.

[Colossians 2:11 ASV] (11) in whom ye were also circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands, in the putting off of the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ; [Colossians 3:11 ASV] (11) where there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondman, freeman; but Christ is all, and in all.

This idea was not absent from Moses or the prophets:

[Deuteronomy 10:16 NIV] (16) Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.

[Deuteronomy 30:6 NASB20] (6) "Moreover, the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul, so that you may live.

[Jeremiah 4:4 NASB20] (4) "Circumcise yourselves to the LORD And remove the foreskins of your hearts, Men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, Or else My wrath will spread like fire And burn with no one to quench it, Because of the evil of your deeds."


Let's look at the verse in a literal translation to see what Paul is saying:

Romans 2.28-29 (LEB):

For the Jew is not ⌊one outwardly⌋, nor is circumcision ⌊outwardly⌋, in the flesh.

But the Jew ⌊is one inwardly⌋, and circumcision is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter, whose praise is not from people but from God.

Paul did not say circumcision was not of the letter of the law of Moses. The "of the law of Moses" is added by the questioner's mind but is not in the text. Paul merely says "letter", which means "rule" or "formula". It could be any rule, whether a rule given to Adam or Noah or Abraham or Job or Moses or anyone else.

Paul is making a contrast between:

  • inward versus outward/flesh (where flesh is taken to mean human senses)
  • heart moved by the Spirit versus the letter
  • praise from God versus praise from people

This passage does specify which commandment resulted in circumcision (hint, it was not even first given to Abraham, as circumcision goes back to the stone age and was practiced throughout the world, even in Africa. Abraham knew about circumcision as did everyone in Mesopotamia long before Abraham was born). Rather, Paul is making a distinction between the outside and the inside, between following an external formula or ritual -- versus having the Spirit change your heart.

There are parallel verses in the gospels:

Matt 23.35-38:

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

Again, the same distinction between the outside and the inside, between the spirit working in the heart and the letter, between the praise of God and the praise of men.


The letter (*grammati) or Law/Torah consists of the writings of Patriarchs too (Pentateuch), not just Moses. Jesus' verse contrasted Moses with Patriarchs in a parenthetical statement. Paul is using the law as the Moses law of commandments. It makes no difference to say, we circumcise according to the law, because the law prescribes and includes it. It doesn't mean it originated with Moses. Following the law doesn't mean not following Abraham. The law is only the extension from the patriarchs.

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