One of the central questions facing early Christ followers as the movement spread to non-Jews was whether gentiles needed to undergo circumcision and observe the Jewish law. Yet this question was already debated amongst some Jews prior to the birth of the Jesus movement, so early Christ followers were not the first to wonder if and how the Jewish law applied to non-Jews. But the question of whether and to what degree gentiles needed to Judaize became central to Christ followers precisely because of the common belief that Israel’s God was now saving gentiles.
Paul’s letters provide indirect evidence that some early Christ followers believed that gentile believers needed to undergo circumcision and adopt the Jewish law in its entirety. For instance, certain people in Galatia encouraged gentiles there to undergo circumcision (Gal 6:12-13). At least some of the Galatians found this message appealing, desiring to come under the Jewish law (Gal 4:21) in order to become Jews and thus sons of Abraham. In fact, Paul himself used to preach circumcision to gentiles, although scholars debate whether this occurred before the Christ event or after (Gal 5:11). Paul’s letters to Christ followers in Rome and Philippi provide additional evidence that gentile Christ followers were tempted to undergo circumcision (e.g., Rom 2:25-29; Phil 3:2-6).
Why did Paul write against gentile circumcision?
Paul, though, repeatedly wrote to dissuade gentiles from being circumcised. He did not do this simply because he thought that circumcision was unnecessary; rather, he argued that circumcision was positively detrimental, separating gentile Christ followers from Christ and from grace (Gal 5:3-4). In contrast, he argued that the reception of Christ’s Spirit through faith forged a connection to Abraham that rebirths gentiles as sons and seed of Abraham (Gal 3:7, Gal 3:29; cf. Rom 4). Paul elsewhere claimed that he taught in all Christ communities that those who were uncircumcised (gentiles) ought to remain in that state, while those who were circumcised (Jews) ought to remain in that state (1Cor 7:19). This rule suggests that while Paul thought Jewish Christ followers ought to remain law observant, gentile Christ followers should not seek to become Jews or keep the Jewish law.
Although scholars debate the historical value of the Acts of the Apostles, it too addressed the question of gentile circumcision. In it, certain people, including some Christ-believing Pharisees, claimed that gentile Christ followers needed to undergo circumcision and keep the Jewish law (Acts 15:1, Acts 15:5). Nonetheless, the early leaders of the movement determined that gentiles only needed to keep those parts of the Jewish law that specifically pertained to non-Jews (Acts 15:19-20). Again, the author of Acts made clear that Jewish Christ followers ought to circumcise their newborn sons, while gentiles should not practice circumcision (Acts 21:17-26).
Did later generations of Christians still debate gentile circumcision?
The question of whether gentile Christ followers ought to undergo circumcision continued long after the first century CE. In the fourth century, for instance, Epiphanius averred that the Ebionites and Cerinthians argued, on the basis of Matt 10:25 and Luke 2:21, that all Christ followers should imitate Jesus in undergoing circumcision (Haer. 30.26.2). Nonetheless, most later Christian writers rejected the need for gentile Christians to undergo circumcision, at times dismissing physical circumcision entirely (e.g., Gosp. Thom. 53; Barn. 9.4), at other times noting that the commandment to circumcise (Gen 17:12-14; Lev 12:3) pertained only to Israelites, not to gentiles (e.g., Origen, Comm. Rom. 2.13.11–12).