Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Pauline Paradox as it Relates to Paul's Rule in 1 Corinthians 7

So you've all heard about the "Pauline Paradox"(see Gager at the very bottom), how Paul seems to say contradictory things about the Law and Israel.  A subset of this apparent Pauline paradox, and the issue which is of great interest to non-Jewish Believers, is how Paul "rules" on non-Jewish circumcision in 1 Corinthians 7.  For an articulation of this latter issue, here's Thielman:

"In the course of his admonition that no one should change his status with respect to circumcision, Paul explains that the rite is unimportant:  'Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but keeping the commandments of God [teresis entolon theou]' (7:19).
The phrase 'the commandments of God' is frequently used in the Jewish and Jewish Christian literature of Paul's time to refer to keeping the law of Moses....Matthew translates Jesus' reply to the rich young man's question about how to obtain eternal life as 'Keep the commandments' (tereson tas entolas), a clear reference to the law of Moses, as Jesus' list of commandments and summary of the first table of the law from Leviticus 19:18 demonstrate (Mt 19:17-19).  Moreover, the Septuagint's translation of Ezra 9:4 uses the phrase 'commandments of God' as a synonym for the law of Moses.  The phrase Paul has chosen to refer to God's commandments, therefore, is one that in his cultural context clearly referred to the Mosaic law.
If this is so, how can Paul contrast the irrelevance of circumcision with the importance of God's commands?  Circumcision, is, after all, a prominent requirement within the law of Moses (Lev 12:3; compare Gen 17:10-27).  Although Paul offers no explanation for his startling statement, it significantly preserves the same paradox we have seen in Paul's allusive references to the law..." pg. 101 of Paul and the Law by Thielman

Footnote 3 on pg. 264 "Peter J. Tomson believes 1 Corinthians 7:19 supplies evidence that Paul believed the Jews should keep the Mosaic law and Gentiles the Noachian code....The only principle clearly articulated in 1 Corinthians 7:19, however, is that circumcision is ultimately irrelevant to obedience to God."


What are your thoughts about Thielman's conclusion that 1 Cor. 7:19 is evidence that Paul viewed circumcision as "irrelevant to obedience to God"?  Does he adequately resolve the apparent contradiction?

NOTE:  Here's a quote from Gager which summarizes the so-called Pauline Paradox:

"...Paul's letters offer up totally contradictory evidence.  To illustrate these contradictions, I put forward two sets of texts, drawn from his letters.  I will label one set anti-Israel ["or antilaw]...the other, I will label pro-Israel ["or prolaw"].

The Anti-Israel Set

"For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse" (Gal. 3.10).

"Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law" (Gal. 3.11).

"For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation" (Gal. 6.15).

"For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3.20).

"Israel who pursued righteousness which is based on the law did not succeed in fulfilling that law" (Rom. 9.31).

"As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God, for your sake" (Rom. 11.28).

"But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away.  Yes, to this day, whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their mind; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed" (2 Cor. 3.14f).

The Pro-Israel Set

"What is the advantage of the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?  Much in every way" (Rom. 3.1).

"Do we overthrow the law through faith?  By no means.  On the contrary, we uphold the law" (Rom. 3.31).

"What shall we say?  That the law is sin?  By no means" (Rom. 7.7).

"Thus the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good" (Rom. 7.12).

"To the Israelites belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the Temple, and the promises.  To them belong the patriarchs and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ" (Rom. 9.4).

"Has [God] rejected [His] people?  By no means" (Rom. 11.1).

"All Israel will be saved" (Rom. 11.26).

"Is the law then against the promises of God.  Certainly not!" (Gal. 3.21).

Now suddenly the problem emerges.  Point by point, the two sets appear to contradict each other:  Circumcision is of great value; it counts for nothing.  The law is holy; it places its followers under a curse and cannot justify them before God.  All Israel will be saved; they are the enemies of God and have failed to fulfill their own law."  (pg. 5, Reinventing Paul by Gager)


  1. I don't know what is wrong with your blog. I posted a comment, used my WordPress account and after posting it claimed I did not own that account and deleted my post and I could not get my post back. I'll try another account.

    1. The way it appears to me, is that whenever scripture appears to conflict with scripture, you have one of two problems: 1. The verses are mistranslated or misinterpreted. 2. It is a problem of vantage point, whether from heaven or on earth.

      For example, the moon appears to change from full, to new, to crescent, etc., but we know that the moon isn't changing its shape. That is just the way it appears to us on earth. It is the moon that is orbiting the earth and the earth is turning on its axis while also in an orbit.

      I believe this explains many issues, such as the free will vs. sovereignty one. The sages argued about whether messiah would come in the likeness of Yosef or David. We also need to understand who the letters were written to and what issues they were addressing.

    2. J.P.,

      Thanks for being patient with the comment system! : )

      Yes, I agree with your point that Paul is being misinterpreted. And the analogy of our perspective of the "changing" moon is perfect. Paul seems inconsistent until we have a full understanding of the historical (and literal) context of his writings.

      Thanks again for being patient with the lousy comment system!



  2. I personally do not agree with either one. As you quoted, Thielman says, "If this is so, how can Paul contrast the irrelevance of circumcision with the importance of God's commands?"

    The fact that circumcision is one of God's commands, should tell us that Paul is referring to something else, when he states this, meaning, his use of circumcision in the context is different than the command. In the case of Acts 15:1, the use of circumcision is invalid, both according to the Torah and thus in opposition to the Gospel. If we say this was a valid way of using circumcision, then we have to conclude that the Torah is in opposition to the Gospel, but Paul is not the only one against the view of the circumcision party, the Apostles at the Jerusalem council were as well. What they opposed was not the commandment of circumcision or we create a worse dilemma, instead they opposed the message that covenant identity/salvation/justification could be found in the ritual of the proselyte, and they even state that this is not only true for gentiles, but also for Jews. Rendering the view of the circumcision party to be invalid for both Jews and Gentiles concerning true covenant identity.

    It is similar to the issue we see in Galatians 5. If Paul were simply referring to the command found in the Torah, and not the custom of the circumcision party, then we have to conclude that the Gospel is in opposition to the Torah.

    Of course, most of Christianity has taught his message this way, saying that the Law is bondage, that we are set free from the Law, the Gospel and the Law are enemies.

    Thus the argument has to concern "customs", not actual commands, if the argument is over commands, then clearly the Gospel is in opposition to the Torah, some try to skirt around this issue as some would say, "Paul is only opposing these customs for gentiles..." But from Acts 15, we see an opposition that concludes this to be true for both Jew and Gentile, not just gentile.

    The only legitimate argument I see, is summed up in: "custom/tradition" vs "commandment". I am not saying all tradition invalidates commandments, however we clearly see that there is an issue concerning tradition vs commandment in the Gospels and all through Paul's writings, he continuously fights against man made traditions (Isaiah 29:13, Col 2:22, Titus 1:14), people like to think traditions of men were not that serious of an issue, but looking at these scriptures, clearly they were.

    Yeshua said in Mark 7: He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.

    Some times man made traditions and God's commandments do not jive, however in Yeshua's time, these traditions were regarded as commandments, as if by keeping these traditions, you were keeping the commandments of God.

    1. Zion,

      Great references! When we look at the "big picture" of Paul's writings and we see what he was up against (e.g. the "circumcision group") then it becomes more clear that Paul was only against those traditions which sought to negate Divine commands. This is one reason why Paul is so difficult to understand.

  3. I find Tim Hegg's understanding that Paul was using "circumcision" as a shorthand for "ritual conversion" to make the most sense out of any explanation and it prevents any contradictions within Paul's writings or the corpus of scripture.

    1. Yes, that is a very concise way of putting it! Paul believed that non-Jews were converted through non-ritual means---thus, Paul was against the idea of "ritual conversion".