Who were ‘those of The Circumcision’?
In Acts 10, Acts 11, and Galatians 2, it is clear that both Peter and Paul had problems with ‘those of The Circumcision’:
Acts 10:45 Those of The Circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.
Acts 11:2 When Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of The Circumcision contended with him,
Galatians 2:12 Before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of The Circumcision.
Who were ‘those of The Circumcision’?….and What was the problem?
‘Those of The Circumcision’ were the inheritors of the Rabbinic doctrine of Circumcision that had been promulgated by the famous Rabbis Hillel and Shammai in about 50BCE, almost 100 years before the disputes in Acts and Galatians.
The specific ruling that Hillel and Shammai made is noted in the Talmud in Shabbat 133a concerning Hatafat Dam Brit, Drawing the blood of the Covenant:
I have copied and pasted the ruling from the Mishnah as follows:
WE PERFORM ALL THE REQUIREMENTS OF CIRCUMCISION ON THE SABBATH.
1. WE CIRCUMCISE,
2. UNCOVER THE CORONA - Per’iah - splitting the membrane and pulling it down
3. SUCK THE WOUND - Mezizah, AND
4. PLACE A COMPRESS AND CUMMIN UPON IT.
IF ONE DID NOT CRUSH THE CUMMIN ON THE EVE OF THE SABBATH, HE MUST CHEW IT WITH HIS TEETH AND APPLY IT TO THE WOUND; IF HE DID NOT BEAT UP WINE AND OIL ON THE EVE OF THE SABBATH, EACH MUST BE APPLIED SEPARATELY. WE MAY NOT MAKE A HALUK FOR IT IN THE FIRST PLACE, BUT MUST WRAP A RAG ABOUT IT.
Note: HALUK - A kind of shirt-shaped bandage placed over the membrane and tied at the corona, in order to prevent the flesh from growing back and recovering the membrane.
In the quotation from the Talmud there are 4 separate steps of which only step 1 is Biblically commanded. Steps 2, 3, and 4 were added by Hillel and Shammai.
One of the reasons for the extra requirements was Greek athletes competed naked. Jews who wanted to compete tried to cover their circumcision by drawing the membrane back over the corona and thereby disguising their Jewish identity. The Rabbis decreed the additional steps 2,3, & 4 in order to prevent this practice.
However, the prevention of Jewish athletes obscuring their nationality was not the cause of the disputes in Acts and Galatians between Peter and Paul on one side and ‘those of The Circumcision’ on the other.
The dispute was about salvation, and the dispute came to a head in the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.1:
Certain men (of those of The Circumcision) came down from Judea and taught the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.
The phrase according to the custom of Moses is a common Hebrew idiom that means ‘as the Rabbis have ruled’.
The certain men (of those of The Circumcision) had been taught by their Rabbis, and they fervently and obediently believed that a person could not be saved unless they were circumcised in accordance with the 4 steps of circumcision as proscribed in the Mishnah, Shabbat 133a.
The certain men (of those of The Circumcision) of Acts 15.1 were supported in Acts 15.5 by some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed who rose up, saying, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the Torah of Moses
So we have certain men of those of The Circumcision together with some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed on one side, and we have Peter and Paul together with their supporters on the other side. The only sensible solution was to bring the dispute to the apostles and elders about this question.
When there had been much dispute, Peter spoke to them in Acts 15.7-11.
Peter’s speech carried the day, and resolved the dispute. He made 4 telling, persuasive points:
1. God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them (the Gentiles) by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and
2. made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
3. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?
4. But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.’
Point 1 refers to Acts 2 and the dramatic events of the Day of Pentecost when suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Point 2 refers to the visit of Peter to Cornelius in Acts 10 when Cornelius said, ‘Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God. Send therefore to Joppa and call Simon here, whose surname is Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea. When he comes, he will speak to you.’ So I sent to you immediately, and you have done well to come. Now therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God.’ Then Peter opened his mouth and said: ‘In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.’
Point 3 refers to the yoke (of all the Rabbi’s extra laws) which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear…..including the extra laws introduced by Hillel and Shammai concerning circumcision.
Point 4 refers to the salvation available through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ which required a new believer simply to:
1. Accept the God of Israel and trust in the finished work of Jesus at His Crucifixion and Resurrection
2. Reject all pagan practices and beliefs.
3. Accept God’s instructions in how to live and behave as set out in the Torah of Moses
4. Be baptized as a public affirmation of 1,2, and 3.
These 4 points resolved the dispute once and for all….or so everybody thought. Unfortunately, as a result of centuries of misunderstanding of Acts 15 by the Gentile Church, much of the dispute ligers on. How sad!