This week we’ve been talking about Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the issue of circumcision (= “works of law” in Paul’s letter) as a symbol of belonging in the people of God. Paul was addressing a situation where other leaders of the Jesus movement had come to Galatia and were requiring, naturally, that Gentiles be circumcized and follow the Torah in order to belong to a Jewish movement. It seems that Paul (a trained Pharisee) is somewhat of an oddball (so to speak) within second temple Judaism and the early Jesus movement, not in his notion of including Gentiles but rather in his not requiring that such Gentiles be circumcized in order to express their belonging within this Jewish Jesus movement.
Paul presents a somewhat complicated argument (in Galatians 3) using the sequence of Abraham’s (Abram’s) relations with Yahweh in order to show that the primary covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15) was established before the introduction of circumcision (Genesis 17), and that uncircumcized Gentiles can become “sons of Abraham” by doing what the uncircumcized Abraham did in Genesis 15: believing that what God says he will do will indeed happen (in Abraham’s case the promise was for innumerable heirs or offspring despite his childlessness to that point). Circumcision was not required of a Gentile in order to be a son of Abraham, argues Paul, since Abraham’s circumcision was only subsequent to the primary promise and covenant. The methods of biblical interpretation that Paul employs are very much Jewish midrash, but the conclusions he comes to regarding Abraham and the covenant are very different than what most other Jews engaging in midrash of Genesis would have concluded (Jews who would more likely focus more attention on Genesis 17, the circumcision of Abraham).
Coincidentally Mark Goodacre has a post today that addresses some related issues and also points to an online article by Paula Fredriksen that is definitely worth a read: “Judaism, the Circumcision of Gentiles, and Apocalyptic Hope: Another Look at Galatians 1 and 2,” Journal of Theological Studies 42 (1991): 532-64. The views expressed in that article, particularly the notion that Paul’s position (Gentiles not required to be circumcized in order fully to join the group) is the normative one in the Jesus movement generally, differ from my own expressed above, however.