In Galatians, Paul challenges some Christ-followers who are not circumcised but interested in undertaking this “rite” (ἔργον) from the premise they have failed to recognize that, according to Torah, they cannot do so because the commandment of circumcision applies to Jews and to non-Jew slaves acquired by Jews, and they are neither. Non-Jews who have already heard (faithfully obeyed) the gospel, such as themselves, cannot undertake to become proselyte Jews, even if others may seek to influence them that they should or must do so to justify the gospel-based claim to have become sons of Abraham. 

This essay challenges the received views of Paul’s phrase ἔργα νόμου (usually “works of the law”), which is understood to indicate Paul’s opposition to Torah, or certain elements thereof. Instead, I propose that Paul’s phrase denotes “rites of a custom,” specifically the customary rites involved in proselyte religio-ethnic initiation, which are completed by the signifying rite (synecdoche) of “circumcision.” 

What Paul opposed was circumcision and the related initiation rites, not Torah, which he puts into tension with πίστις (faith[fulness]), in their case. Paul argues from Torah that the custom at issue, that these non-Jews undertake proselyte transformation and thus adult male circumcision, is not enjoined in Torah. 

In the allegory of ch. 4, he identifies the custom of proselyte conversion instead with the model for incorporating slaves by adult circumcision. This custom of promoting proselyte conversion therefore disobeys Torah, which, he argues in ch. 3, invokes a curse instead of the blessing supposed. 

The implications for reading Paul and extrapolating biblically based warrants for or against circumcision are many, with more than a few challenges to the prevailing Pauline discourses about this topic. Finally, in keeping with the interests of the conference on the topic of circumcision more broadly, I offer a hermeneutical reflection on circumcision for later “Christian” males apart from that qualification.

This issue (8: 2021) of the journal JJMJS contains other essays on the topic of circumcision that I expect you will find useful. Most of these began as papers at a conference on the topic of “circumcision” held in May, 2019, in Oslo, Norway, entitled “Ancient Attitudes in Light of Contemporary Questions,” organized by Karin Neutal, who also edited this special issue. The essay by Thomas R. Blanton IV examines some elements in my earlier work on erga nomou and circumcision on which the essay in this issue builds, published in “The Question of Conceptualization: Qualifying Paul’s Position on Circumcision in Dialogue with Josephus’s Advisors to King Izates,” pages 105-52 in Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, ed. Mark D. Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015).



  1. I am very blessed to read and look at this from a whole new perspective, much clearer lens I must add. I was always always curious, and at times thought, why on earth would an intelligent apostle (and student of the law) like Paul discredit the Torah? But now it all makes sense. I am very excited to re-read Galatians (as a start) all over again. Shalom!

  2. What motivated Paul to write that the Torah is not of faith in Galatians 3:12 when from the very first chapters of Genesis the promise of the Messiah (making restitution for the sin of mankind) is first given? Even if Paul had one thing in mind (circumcision) his use of Leviticus 18:5 to prove his point seems to be odd since it speaks of the Torah as a unified whole and uses the plural them. Furthermore this verse is quoted both in Nehemiah and Ezekiel in a very positive light. At best this statement seems very confusing when he writes in Romans that it is the doers of the law (Torah) who will be justified.

    1. Gary, Just discovered your comment, sorry about the delay that caused. The problem is the translation of 3:12 and other elements of the argument there (and elsewhere often too), which leads you to understand Paul to be saying “Torah” is “not of faith.” Your sense of what would be expected and just for Paul to argue is right on, in my view; there is a problem, but it is not Paul, it is Paul’s interpreters making him say the opposite of what he meant, in my view. Paul’s point is that the nomos (“custom” would be better than “law” here) of circumcision to make proselytes from non-Jews is not “faithful” to Torah. Circumcision of Jews is enjoined in Torah, but not any rites by which non-Jew become Jews (that is part of my article’s argument). So Paul cites texts from Torah that curse anyone who adds to Torah, and Paul sees the rite for non-Jews as adding to Torah in this case. Those who advocate and the non-Jews who undertake these rites are thus cursed, but Paul argues also that they can escape that in Messiah’s curse on their behalf. In other words, Paul argues that he is the one upholding faithfulness to Torah and not those advocating circumcision of non-Jews. Whether Paul’s interpretation of Torah is the only one or the best one can be debated on this or any other topic, of course, and would have been, but that is how I read him, which is very different than the translations and commentary interpretations read him. Hope that makes sense.

  3. I am not certain that I understand what you are thinking about Paul’s position on the making of non-Jews to be Jews. What do you think he would have said about the case of Ruth?

    1. Not sure what you mean to suggest. Circumcision did not apply for a woman, nor is any other rite like baptism/mikva presented to change her ethnicity. Do you find a rite of passage/conversion ritual attested in that story or elsewhere in Torah/Tanakh? She joins an Israelite household, but her identification is left ambiguous. No? Sometimes exceptions take place without a generalized rule, because, well, life/community is complicated, or because people/communities (from different places/times/etc.) don’t always have the same concerns, ask the same questions, seek the same answers, etc., that might concern others/us. Care to engage the actual arguments made in the essay in the case of non-Jew males and what Paul permits, and why or why not?

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