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Romans 2:29 is not saying that all Christians are “spiritually circumcised”

In my book, I argue that Romans 2:28-29 should be understood as the conclusion of a coherent argument, set in the mainstream Jewish synagogue, which seeks to make a definite statement about Jewish (rather than simply Christian) identity.

Paul and the Vocation of Israel: How Paul's Jewish Identity Informs his Apostolic Ministry, with Special Reference to Romans

This is in opposition to the claim by many commentators that Paul in Rom 2:29 applies the designations “Jew” (Ἰουδαῖος) and “circumcision” (περιτομή) indiscriminately to all Christ-believers. There are multiple problems with this common “univeral Christian” interpretation of Romans 2:28-29.

  1. Such a thorough redefinition of the terms “Jew” (Ἰουδαῖος) and “circumcision” (περιτομή) would be entirely novel and unique in first century Jewish thought.
  2. This interpretation of Rom 2:29 creates an awkward break in the flow of Paul’s argument into the next two verses, where he reaffirms the value of being a “Jew” and of “circumcision”.
  3. Paul never uses the term “Jew” (Ἰουδαῖος) to refer to Gentile Christ-believers anywhere else in his extant letters. A similar claim may be made of “circumcision” (περιτομή): “We are the circumcision” (Philippians 3:3) is a reference to Jewish preachers (i.e. Paul and Timothy), not to all Christians; and Colossians 2:11 may be explained by contextual factors which do not apply to Rom 2:29 (see page 53 note 33).
  4. The interpretation is usually based on a reading that regards the Law-observant ἀκροβυστία in Rom 2:26–27 as a Gentile Christ-believer. I argue, however, that this uncircumcised Law-keeper is best understood as a Gentile synagogue adherent, not a Gentile Christ-believer.
  5. If the “heart circumcision” (περιτομὴ καρδίας) of Rom 2:29 is understood to apply to physically uncircumcised Christ-believers, then this would be a radical and unconventional reading of the various passages in the Old Testament which mention the idea of circumcision or Law-obedience according to the “heart” (Deut 10:16, 30:6; Jer 4:4, 9:26 [LXX 9:25], 31:33 [LXX 38:33]; Isa 51:7; cf. Jub. 1.23). In these passages, the Scriptures are not speaking of Gentiles, but of Israel.

Romans 2:28-29, rather, must be understood in light of the purpose of Romans 2:17-29 as a whole:

[O]ur own interpretation of Rom 2:17–27 as a contest over Jewish identity has opened the way for us to understand Rom 2:28–29 in an entirely different light. … Paul’s aim here is not to dispense with the distinct nature of Jewish identity, but rather to redefine Jewish identity so that the distinct privilege and vocation of Jews are realized outside the mainstream synagogue. As we have seen, the uncircumcised Law-keeper of Rom 2:26–27 is not a Christ-believer, but a Gentile synagogue adherent whose presence plays a limited, deconstructive role in Paul’s overall argument about Jewish identity and Jewish vocation. Paul’s conclusion in Rom 2:28–29, therefore, is not that uncircumcised Christ-believers are “really” circumcised Jews, but rather that Jewish identity itself finds a distinct and special place apart from the mainstream Jewish community, within the Christ-believing community. This is an important, albeit preliminary, result for Paul’s overall argument in Romans. (pp. 183-184)

The full details of the argument and further references may be found in chapter 5 of the book (pp. 181-191). The chapter is available from the publisher in electronic format:

Windsor, Lionel J. Paul and the Vocation of Israel: How Paul’s Jewish Identity Informs his Apostolic Ministry, with Special Reference to Romans. BZNW 205. Berlin / Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2014.

 

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