The Gospel of Paul – Grace, the Law, and Circumcision

THE GOSPEL OF PAUL

When examining Paul’s letters for his true teachings, we must keep in mind that Paul’s gospel was different than anything that went before. Paul stated:

I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. (Gal. 1:11-12) (Emphasis mine)

This should be shocking to most present day Christians, who assume that Jesus taught the gospel to his disciples (the Twelve) and they then taught it to the world. According to Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus said: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” This great commission was given to the Eleven (per the Gospels, Judas had committed suicide). How can it be that Paul’s gospel was a direct revelation from Jesus? Why was Paul’s gospel different than the one preached by Cephas and James? After all, Cephas and James had contact with the earthly Jesus and the resurrected Jesus. Was Jesus just a poor communicator or were Cephas and James a bit too slow to understand the real message of Jesus?

GRACE, THE LAW, AND CIRCUMCISION

The best way to approach this matter is by outlining Paul’s gospel, by using Paul’s letters to the Romans, Corinthians and Galatians. A wealth of information comes from these documents, making it unnecessary to entertain the disputed letters attributed to Paul. By far the most important aspect of Paul’s gospel was his application of the concept of Grace upon his Gentile converts.

It is important to keep in mind that Paul was a Jew and that his Christ Jesus figure also lived as a Jew. He could not get around those facts. This Jewish history had to be accounted for in his message. The question for Paul boiled down to this: How could he bring his Gentile flock within the Jewish Christian movement? He had to make them Jews as well, not through circumcision but through the concept of Grace. His Gentiles would become the true Israel, through faith in the blood of Christ.

But now a righteousness from God, apart from Law, has been made known, to which the law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. (Romans 3:21-25) (Emphasis mine)

This short statement summed up Paul’s Gospel to the Gentiles. The Gentiles could now attain righteousness apart from the Law. This righteousness was available to all, Gentiles and Jews alike, for all need the atoning sacrifice of Christ Jesus. And, the only way to attain this atonement was through faith in Christ’s blood. So in one fell swoop, Paul lumped his Gentiles with all Jews. He then separated the two groups by declaring that only those with faith in the blood could be the true followers of God. Since the Jews followed their own covenant with God through the law and circumcision, Paul effectively replaced the Jews with the Gentiles as the chosen people of God. This is why James so fiercely opposed Paul, once this message became known.

As for the Law, Paul stated: “No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” (Rom. 3:20) It is ironic that the followers of James were known as the “Way of Righteousness” or the “Way”. These zealous Jews were fanatical in their attention to the Law. According to Paul, this misplaced emphasis on the law could never earn righteousness for the Jews. They needed to have faith in the blood, not faith in the word of God.

Circumcision is perhaps the central issue concerning the law. This is what Paul told his Gentile readers:

Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 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. A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. (Rom. 2:25-29) (Emphasis mine)

Paul did not invent anything when he wrote that a Jew had to have a circumcision of the heart. Many Christians today believe that this was a new concept. However, the Jews knew about the circumcision of the heart. In Deut. 10:16, God told the Jews to “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and not be stiff-necked any longer.” The Jews of New Testament times knew full well of the inward and outward circumcision. Paul, on the other hand, rejected the concept of physical circumcision, claiming that only the circumcision of the heart was necessary. But again, the Jews believed in both the circumcision of the body and the circumcision of the heart.

The denigration of the physical circumcision was necessary for Paul’s gospel to the Gentiles. Paul claimed that the spiritual circumcision made them as though they were circumcised. Once again, Paul was transforming his physically uncircumcised Gentiles into the true Israel. Through faith in the blood, the Gentiles would be as though they were circumcised.

This circumcision argument can date the letter to the Romans as before 44 CE. In the King Izates episode as related by Josephus, Ananias said this to King Izates concerning circumcision:

[King Izates] might worship God without being circumcised, even though he did resolve to follow the Jewish law entirely; which worship of God was of a superior nature to circumcision. (Ant. 20.41)

This is the exact argument that Paul used in the letter to the Romans. Both Paul and Ananias stated that the Gentiles could follow the law entirely without being circumcised, and that this mode of worship was superior to physical circumcision. Neither Paul nor Ananias explained how one could follow the law without obeying the law of circumcision. A rational mind would see a major flaw in logic in this argument. Regardless, it is very important that we understand that this gospel of Paul’s was being preached by others. The question is this: Was this new gospel the invention of Paul’s or was someone else behind it? Paul wrote in Galatians 1:12 that his gospel to the Gentiles came directly from the Risen Christ Jesus. It is very likely that Paul did invent his gospel to the Gentiles, but there still may have been another factor in its spread. That factor may have been Agrippa I, king of Israel from 37-44 CE. This will be detailed in Chapter 10.

Paul’s gospel of Grace, based upon faith, was based upon Paul’s interpretation of the life of Abraham. In Romans 4:1-12, Paul wrote that Abraham was justified by faith before his circumcision. Therefore, Abraham was the father of both the circumcised and of those who believe but were not circumcised. Thus, his Gentiles were sons of Abraham through faith in the blood of Christ. This theology was based upon the passage in Genesis 15:6, where the Scriptures state: “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” To Paul, this belief brought righteousness.

If Paul had analyzed the Genesis passage in context, he would have had trouble preaching his new gospel. Concerning circumcision, Genesis was very clear.

As for you, you must keep my covenant. …Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. …Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cast off from his people; he has broken my covenant. (Gen. 17:3-14)

Paul never commented upon how his new gospel would impact the Jews. He either did not care about their sensibilities or assumed that some would eventually see the light. I believe that Paul was centered strictly upon his Gentile converts and was content upon them becoming the new Israel. The end of old Israel, the everlasting covenant between God and the Jews, was just a by-product of his new and improved covenant between God and the Gentiles.

Paul’s emphasized faith using the example of Abraham. He quoted the passage in Genesis where God told Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. In Paul’s reasoning, that included all Gentiles. And his promise was made to Abraham before Abraham’s circumcision. Therefore, in Paul’s interpretation, faith, not circumcision, was necessary. If Paul had read a little farther, he would have encountered the passage where God told Abraham: “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” (Gen. 21:12) This promise to Abraham was after circumcision and related to the father of the Jewish nation, Isaac. If Paul had been honest in his interpretation of Genesis, he could not have switched the everlasting covenant from the Jews (offspring of Isaac) to the Gentiles (offspring of Ishmael). Incredibly, Paul did use the passage from Gen. 21:12, but his interpretation of the offspring of Isaac was not the Jews, but rather, the children of the promise. (Rom. 9:7-9) These children of the promise were his Gentile followers. Paul magically changed a passage, which, without a doubt, referred to the Jews, into a proof text for his Gospel to the Gentiles. How bizarre is that reasoning?

View my new book, Judas of Nazareth, at www.danielunterbrink.com

Daniel T. Unterbrink
Author of Judas of Nazareth, available from these booksellers:

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About danielunterbrink

Dan Unterbrink has dual degrees from Ohio State. THE THREE MESSIAHS is his third book on Christian origins, underscoring his passion for the subject.
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