Cohen on Converts’ Status and Timothy’s Circumcision

I finished Shaye Cohen’s The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties.  In this post, I will talk about Chapter 10, “Israelite Mothers, Israelite Fathers: Matrilineal Descent and the Inequality of the Convert”, and Appendix D, “Was Timothy Jewish?”

1.  Chapter 10 discusses a difference of opinion between the Mishnah and the Jerusalem Talmud concerning the status of Gentile converts to Judaism, which was significant in a debate during the medieval period.  On page 338, Cohen summarizes a Mishnaic position:

“Like all other Jews (‘Israel’), converts are obligated to observe the commandments.  They are obligated to bring first fruits to the temple and to pray; as Jews of good standing they may marry other members of the community.  But converts are not the same as natives.  Because they do not have Israelite fathers, in some contexts they suffer legal impairment and rank below natives.  They are obligated to bring first fruits, but they may not recite the declaration proscribed by Deuteronomy, because they cannot truthfully declare that the fruits came from the land which God has sworn to our fathers to give us: God swore nothing to their fathers!  Similarly, they are obligated to pray but they may not use the common phrase ‘God of our Fathers,’ because our God was not the god of their fathers.  Converts may marry into the native Israelite community, but because of their blemished pedigree, the daughter of converts may not be married to a priest.”

In essence, this particular Mishnaic position appears to treat converts as second-class citizens because they are not Jewish by blood, and thus they cannot keep certain commandments (i.e., the ones in which Israelites acknowledge their ancestry).

Rabbi Judah in the Jerusalem Talmud, by contrast, affirms that Gentiles who have converted to Judaism have become descendants of Abraham.  According to Cohen, the debate in the high Middle Ages between advocates of the Mishnaic position and advocates of the position in the Jerusalem Talmud was resolved in favor of the Jerusalem Talmud position—that converts become children of Abraham.

2.  Acts 16:1-3 states the following (in the translation that Cohen is using): “And he [Paul] came also to Derbe and to Lystra.  A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek.  He was well spoken of by the brethren of Lystra and Iconium.  Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews that were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.”

Why did Paul have Timothy circumcised, whereas he did not circumcise the Greek Titus, according to Galatians 2:3?  New Testament scholars influenced by the Tubingen School have maintained that the Book of Acts presents a Paul who is not as opposed to the Torah as the Paul who wrote Galatians.  But there are other scholars who have gone on a more harmonizing route, as some say that Acts was influenced by Paul’s declaration in I Corinthians 9:20 that he became like a Jew to the Jews, in order to win the Jews, and others affirm that Paul in Galatians 5:11 (“If I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted?”) is refuting those who believe that Paul thinks that works of the Law are necessary for salvation, since, after all, Paul circumcised Timothy.

Did Paul have Timothy circumcised because Timothy was Jewish through his mother, and thus Paul wanted to show that he was not against Jewish Christians keeping the Law?  What is odd is that (according to Cohen) St. Augustine thought that Timothy was a Gentile and not a Jew, even though he believed that Jewish Christians could keep the Law.  According to Augustine, Paul had Timothy circumcised in order to show the Jews and Timothy’s relatives on his mother’s side that Christians were not opposed to circumcision, whereas Paul refused to circumcise Titus because he did not want to support the claim that Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved.  But Augustine did not say that Timothy was a Jew, even though that would have helped him to explain Timothy’s circumcision.  And, according to Cohen, Timothy in the Book of Acts was a Gentile and not a Jew, for the notion of matrilineal descent had not yet appeared in Judaism.  But a contemporary of Augustine, Pseudo-Ambrose, held that Timothy was Jewish through his mother, perhaps because he drew from Roman or rabbinic law.

I’d like to mention an interesting detail in this Appendix: Jerome believed that Peter and Paul were just pretending to argue in Galatians 2!  Peter was trying to appeal to the Jewish Christians, and Paul to the Gentile Christians.  But Augustine did not agree that the apostles told white lies.

This is a book that I may revisit in the future, whether I blog about it or not, for I am interested in such issues as Gentile observance of the Torah, Deuteronomy 23’s ban of certain people-groups from the congregation of the Lord, and the question of whether the patriarchs observed the Torah.  (As I have read and heard, and as Cohen demonstrates, pieces of rabbinic literature present the patriarchs observing it, while other parts maintain that God’s requirements were different before Sinai than they were after it.)

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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