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 any of these questions save to specify that Timothy was not circumcised.
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 identifies Timothy's ethnicity. We know the ethnicities of his parents, but 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.
One of the challenges posed by this event is making sense of Paul's actions here and what he himself writes in his letters (for example, Romans 2:25--3:1; 1 Corinthians 7:18--19; Galatians 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. How do we make sense of these differences?
For some, the differences are not that great. Paul may not advocate the circumcision of Gentile followers of Jesus, but Timothy is not a Gentile but a Jew. For some, the Paul depicted in Acts is not 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.
16Paul* went on also to Derbe and to Lystra, where there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek. 2He was well spoken of by the believers* in Lystra and Iconium. 3Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4As they went from town to town, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. 5So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
10 February 2011