Beliefnet
This morning I was reading the letters of Paul. The one to the Romans is about circumcision, about faith and works, Jews and gentiles, sin and the law. No wonder he seems to go in circles a bit.

More on Circumcision

News: Reform Rabbis Confront Doubts

Which faiths perform the ritual? See our circumcision chart.

A Jewish Mother Questions Tradition by Lisa Braver Moss

The Cut That Almost Wasn't by Nancy Cahners

"Why I Perform Circumcisions" by mohelet Dorothy F. Greenbaum

He's telling the Romans that they don't have to become Jews to become Christians. The earliest Christians were Jews, of course, including, it is worth repeating, Jesus Himself, or himself--depending on your particulars. And in keeping with his people's custom, he was circumcised--a thing that Paul is telling the Romans they needn't be. This is good news on any given day, at least to the men of the congregation. It is a concept they can get behind. (Then, as now, women were left out of important portions of the conversation.) For early Christians, the old laws about diet and fashions and the keeping of feasts were easy enough and all in line with the rules of good living. But circumcision--the deal that was cut between Abraham and God--required a commitment, and for the non-Jew, Paul knew, it was likely a deal breaker.

So he's trying to tell the Romans it's not all that important after all. He's floating this option of "spiritual circumcision." It's a talking point, and the numbers look good. It's not what you do, he's telling them, but that you believe that makes the difference. It's not what happens to your body. It's what happens to your soul. It is not "works" but "faith."

Then too, he doesn't want to offend the brethren back in the Promised Land, who are his kinsmen and the Chosen People and, by the way, all circumcised, to the man. If he devalues the old covenant of blood made between God and Abraham--the Old Testament--and their attention to "the law," he's going to lose the very ones who have made the leap of faith about the Nazarene--the part about Him being the Son of God--and who form the Jewish core of the movement. Try telling some co-religionist who just had his foreskin removed that it really wasn't necessary--that what they did had no special meaning, that a good Jew's foreskin isn't worth a gentile's faith. These are the issues that breed wars and Reformations. And 15 centuries later, Martin Luther, tired of the hoops the church had its people jumping through, quotes Paul to the effect that "faith alone" will save us.

Are we saved by what we do--circumcision? By what we don't do--drink, dance, eat meat on Fridays? Or by what we have faith in--Christ's divinity?

It is a kind of chicken and egg riddle that Paul works out by deconstructing that section of Genesis where God and Abraham made their deal. He fashions Abraham's obedience to God, that first covenant, that odd little bit of bloodletting, an act of faith. Thus Paul labors to coax gentile and Jew alike that they are both "right." He wants both those with foreskins and those without to feel good about themselves. The wordsmithing is inspired and infuriating. It's a bit like watching a game of Twister, or listening to politicos, but it is a deft little exercise in the use of language.

More on Circumcision

News: Reform Rabbis Confront Doubts

Which faiths perform the ritual? See our circumcision chart.

A Jewish Mother Questions Tradition by Lisa Braver Moss

The Cut That Almost Wasn't by Nancy Cahners

"Why I Perform Circumcisions" by mohelet Dorothy F. Greenbaum

Language, some right thinker said, is a dialect with a navy. Much the same can be said for religions--whatever the word is, they need a navy or an army to spread it. Paul is Christianity's first-century navy. Without his travels and treatises, the little group of Jews who followed Jesus would have eased into oblivion. But Paul took the good word of the "new covenant" to the Greeks and Romans. And if he has some impressive character flaws--he's pompous, opinionated, opportunistic, misogynistic, vexed by sexuality in general, and like any true believer, a dangerous man--he knows his way around the use of words. He can claim without duplicity to be a Jew to the Jews, a Roman to the Romans, and a Christian to the Christians.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus