Acts 16:1-5 – The Circumcision of Timothy


Acts 16:1-5


The circumcision of Timothy is an immediate test of the consensus reached by the apostolic council in Jerusalem that Gentiles need not undergo circumcision as a precondition of belonging to the early Christ community. Timothy symbolizes that the gospel mission would increasingly bring together Jews and Greeks who believe in Jesus.


A Consensus?

Acts 15 is a climactic moment wherein a potentially destructive division in the early days of the church is seemingly averted. A consensus arises that Gentiles need not be circumcised. Immediately following this vital moment are five short verses that seem curiously at odds with the consensus of Acts 15.

Acts 16 introduces us to Timothy, the son of a Greek father and a Jewish mother who had become a believer in Jesus. However, Luke here provides very few details about this relationship. Were his parents still living? Why was Timothy not circumcised as a child? Was Timothy a Greek or a Jew? Luke does not deem it necessary to answer these questions. All we know is that Timothy was not circumcised when he came to faith in Christ and first met Paul.

A Jew? A Greek?

Jewish traditions developed well after the writing of Acts would clarify that the children of ethnically mixed marriages would be considered Jewish if their mother was Jewish. These later developments cannot be used to understand this passage. What is clear is that Luke never limits Timothy’s ethnicity to one aspect of his heritage. We know the ethnicities of his parents, and we only know that Timothy was not circumcised until he met Paul. This suggests that Timothy’s identity remains mixed; thanks to his parents, he is both Jewish and Greek, and thus a powerful partner in proclaiming the good news among both populations.

Which Paul?

One of the challenges posed by this event is making sense of Paul’s actions here and what he writes in his letters (for example, Romans 2:25–3:11 Corinthians 7:18–19Galatians 5:6). The same Paul who consistently teaches that Gentiles need not be circumcised in order to be authentic followers of Jesus now willingly circumcises Timothy. This is one of several places where the Paul of Acts seems to diverge from the Paul of the epistles. Of course, here the Paul of Acts also appears to compromise his normal mission policy within Acts, as Acts 15 has just confirmed. How do we make sense of these differences?

Some interpreters do not regard these differences as significant. Paul may not advocate the circumcision of Gentile followers of Jesus, but this does not apply to Timothy because is a Jew, not a Gentile. Some other scholars contend that the Paul depicted in Acts is at odds with the Paul of the letters. That is, Luke, the author of Acts, did not know Paul and may have had inaccurate sources. In between these two alternatives are a number of nuanced approaches.

My own suggestion is that before we compare the Paul of Acts and the Paul of the letters, we comprehend the narrative of Acts in its own integrity. Why would the Paul of Acts circumcise Timothy? What function does it play in Acts?

Who is Timothy?

In this case, Timothy is a powerful symbol of the movement of the Spirit in the last chapters of Acts. Both Greek and Jewish, Timothy represents the coming together of the whole world under the unifying confession that “Jesus is Lord.” For Luke, these ethnic labels are important but not a determining factor in the composition of God’s people.