Whenever anyone suggests the possibility of rejecting Paul, instantly the “orthodox” will defend him with an assertion something like:
Without Paul we’d believe that Gentiles have to be circumcised to be saved.
Now, that’s an absurd claim considering that it is Paul’s doctrine that undoubtedly resulted in anyone believing that circumcision was necessary for the Gentiles to be saved, as I will now show.
If we had no Paul, if we only had the gospels, nobody would dare imagine that circumcision is necessary for Gentiles to be saved. What does Jesus himself say?
18 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations [or, all the Gentiles], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” Amen. (Matthew 28:18-20)
Jesus gave a command to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them. Not circumcising them. And as I point out in brackets above, the phrase “all the nations” could also be translated “all the Gentiles.” Nobody would get the idea that Gentiles have to be circumcised to be saved from this.
Again, Mark’s version, in Mark 16:15-16:
And He said to them: Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.
Every “creature” emphasizes that the Gentiles are included, not just the Jews. And what does he say? He who believes and is baptized shall be saved. He mentions nothing about circumcising them. So, again, nobody would get the idea that Gentiles must be circumcised to be saved from this.
Now we come to the first non-proselyte Gentile to be saved. That is, of course, in Acts 2 many Gentiles were baptized, but these were all Gentiles who had become proselytes to Judaism first. The first non-proselyte Gentile to be saved was Cornelius, in Acts 10. He was only a “god-fearer,” that is, one who attended synagogue with the Jews but had not gone through with circumcision. When it was arranged by an angel and the Spirit that Peter would preach to this man and his household, the Holy Spirit fell on them, and Peter’s response to that event was (Acts 10:47-48):
47 “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then prayed they him to tarry certain days.
Again, baptism. But nothing about circumcision!
We also find that those who fled Jerusalem to get away from Paul’s (i.e. Saul’s) persecution went out as far as Antioch, preaching to Jews only. But once they settled in Antioch, they began to preach to Gentiles as well. (Acts 11:19-20)
These preachers were men trained by the real apostles, yet they don’t require the Gentiles to be circumcised. Its not until Acts 15 that anyone starts trying to do that, and that’s only after Paul’s arrival. Does Paul have something to do with the doctrine that circumcision is required?
On two counts. First, it is the result of Paul’s mistaken notion of salvation. To Paul, being a child of Abraham equals salvation. So for Gentiles to be saved requires that they be adopted into, or grafted into, Abraham’s family. Jesus didn’t teach this. We find none of the real apostles teaching this. But Paul teaches it in various places, including his olive tree analogy: The family of Abraham is a cultivated olive tree. The Gentile world is a wild olive tree. The unbelieving Jews are cast out of the Abrahamic olive tree, and the believing Gentiles are graft in. Be careful, because if you stop believing, you can be cast out too.
Now, what’s wrong with the olive tree analogy? It, together with Paul’s teaching in other places, makes the New Covenant out to be nothing but a rehash of the covenant with Abraham. Indeed, Paul’s theology creates a dichotomy between the promise (to Abraham) and the law. His opponents clearly see that in Paul’s mind the law is opposed to the promise. Paul denies that he believes this, but its obvious that he actually does. His theology is that the law opposes the promise to Abraham, so Christ took the law out, thus removing an obstacle to the covenant with Abraham, so that we all, both Jew and Gentile, can be part of the Abrahamic Covenant.
Well, what’s wrong with that? The Abraham Covenant is the circumcision covenant. When God made that covenant, he said any male who is not circumcised has broken that covenant, and is cut off from his people (i.e. from everyone else in that covenant).
So, if Gentile salvation is all about being graft into the Abrahamic Covenant (and Paul thinks it is) then circumcision is required!
You see then that Paul’s errant theology and strange way of viewing the New Covenant as simply removing the Law to go back to the Abrahamic Covenant, is the root of the belief that circumcision is required for Gentiles!
Now, for the second count. I think we can go further, and say that Paul originally taught explicitly that Gentiles must be circumcised. This is because as soon as he was “converted” Paul does not begin to teach Gentiles, but only Jews. He argues with Jews in Damascus showing that Jesus “is indeed the Christ” and again in Arabia. Then he comes to Jerusalem and Judea, where something very interesting happens!
After Barnabas vouched for Paul and he was “coming in and going out at Jerusalem” he gets into a big argument with “the Grecians” or “the Hellenists.” This same phrase can also translated “the Gentiles” (which is how it has to be understood in Acts 11:20, mentioned earlier).
28 And he was with them [i.e. the churches of Judea] coming in and going out at Jerusalem. 29 And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him. 30 Which when the brethren knew, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus.
Although Paul has been accepted by the churches in Jerusalem/Judea, thanks to Barnabas, there is one group among them that he just can’t get along with: the Grecians. The Grecians here can mean a few things (1) Gentiles, (2) Gentile proselytes to Judaism, (3) Hellenistic Jews or Jews who have accepted a lot of Greek culture and are kind of liberal, like Jews who don’t think too highly of circumcision, (4) any of the above who have converted to Christianity.
Now, what type of Grecians are these? Christian Grecians or unbelieving Grecians? Luke leaves it deliberately vague, I think.
In any case, no matter what kind of Grecians we imagine it to be, the biggest thing they and Saul/Paul the Pharisee can disagree on is CIRCUMCISION. That is because the Grecians (of any sort) will not value it, while Paul the Pharisee will. So Paul undoubtedly gets into trouble with the Grecians by pushing circumcision on them in accordance with his Olive Tree Theology.
The result? They run him out of town! And his disciples sneak him away to safety and send him for a timeout in his hometown of Tarsus.
A few years later, when the church at Jerusalem hear how the Gentiles are accepting the gospel in Antioch (as taught by those who fled from Saul’s persecution, Paul is still in timeout at Tarsus and nowhere near Antioch) they send Barnabas to check it out (Acts 11:22) and Barnabas picks up Paul from his timeout on the way there.
But why? Because Paul is now a changed man. Obviously Barnabas has been keeping in touch and knows that Paul has sliced the circumcision requirement off the top of his Olive Tree.
Nonetheless, in Acts 15, “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, saying: Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Who are these “certain men” and why does Luke not name them? They are obviously ex-disciples of Paul, disciples of Paul’s older doctrine, men who believe the full-blown Olive Tree Theology that Paul was teaching prior to his timeout in Tarsus.