Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Circumcision of the Messiah

Here's my translation of Col. 2.11-13: "In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision done without human hands, in the putting off of the body of flesh in the circumcision of the Messiah. Having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the operation of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in the trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with him, having forgiven us all of our trespasses".

What is the 'circumcision of the Messiah?

A number of commentators see circumcision of the Messiah as refering to Jesus’ death. This makes sense given that Paul refers to union with Messiah in circumcision, burial, and resurrection in vv. 11-12, whereas in Romans 6 Paul there refers to sharing in Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Yet I would maintain that (1) circumcision of the Messiah is coordinate to putting off of the body of flesh and is the opposite of the uncircumcision of your flesh in v. 13. The content of v. 11 then does stand not for the indicative (death of Jesus) and imperative (putting off evil deeds) elements, but underscores the transformative power of being in-Messiah. Paul is giving a messianic rewording to ‘circumcision of the heart’. (2) The actual indicative aspect of Paul’s exhortation is provided in vv. 12-15, while v. 11 states the reality that is created by Jesus’ triumphant death. (3) Any attempt to find an identical linear sequence to Romans 6 fails because baptism in v. 12 encompasses death and resurrection with Jesus and in v. 13 it is their individual spiritual death and spiritual quickening that is in view. (4) There seems to be a two stage scheme of participation based on baptism/burial (= death) and resurrection in vv. 12-13 and there is no wooden imitation of the pattern in Romans 6.


Bob MacDonald said...

Mike - I remember first seeing the impact of this verse maybe 6 years ago when I was laboring to write a story. What I thought then about the sign of circumcision was that it is a type of death - particularly the death to self that is required of the male to destroy the violence of desire. Circumcision of course does not do this - it is, like the Law, unable to bring anyone to perfection. But as a prefiguring of the death of the Firstborn, it has considerable symbolic power. The Gentiles are circumcised in Christ. The notes in the Jerusalem Bible identify this 'circumcision according to Christ' as baptism - thereby allowing the link to Romans 6, but quite apart from this, the death of Christ fulfills for the Gentiles the requirements of the covenant with Abraham. I.e. that they would not be cut off from the people.

Here is a section I wrote in the story of the circumcision of John the Baptist: "The child is named. How difficult it is to name a child when you do not yet know what character that child will take on. So they asked: What then will this child be? Would it not be more sensible to name the child when it has died - and you know what that life contained. So it is in this Hebrew culture that the death is enacted in a sign. Thus the whole life of the child is summed up in a name."

The Pook said...

Michael - I agree. The circumcision Paul speaks of is clearly, in the parallelism of verses and 13, the New Birth. It is God "making us alive" in Christ when we were "dead in...the uncircumcision of your sinful nature."

True spiritual circumcision was always this, as the Old Testament also makes plain (Deut 10:16, 30:6; Jer 4:4). But now the fulfillment of it, and the mechanism by which it is achieved in the death and resurrection of Christ, are revealed. The 'circumcision of Christ' links together this circumcision of the heart with elements of the New Covenant, washing, and new heart of Jeremiah; and the resurrected new life of Ezekiel's dry bones.

- Greg

PS - see my new blog review of Andrew's book at http://spirit-word.blogspot.com/ over coming days.

Geoff Hudson said...

So were the Gentile Colossians supposed to know all about the significance of Jewish circumcision? But if the letter was originally to Jews, they would already have been circumcised, and the text would not have mentioned circumcision at all. Thus I suggest that the original issue was cleansing in the Spirit versus cleansing done by the 'hands of men' (priests), namely sacrifice. What was 'put off' or thrown aside (cleansed) was the spirit of deceit.

The Pook said...

"So were the Gentile Colossians supposed to know all about the significance of Jewish circumcision?"
Why not? They were taught the gospel by Epaphras and the church had been established for some time. They were almost certainly taught how Christ fulfilled the Old Testament and in particular the promises to Abraham. Perhaps some of them had even been God-fearers before they were converted, but even if they were not, most Gentiles who had any contact with Jews would have known the significance of circumcision. It's not about cleansing or sacrifice, but circumcision of the heart. The whole point is that the Gentiles ought not to listen to those who want them to get physically circumcised, because they have already received the real circumcision by faith in Christ and become equal inheritors with the Jews of the Promise.

Geoff Hudson said...

Shucks! As a Jew living in Colosse (may be), I already know that I have to circumcise my heart (Deut.10.16), and that God has promised that he will do it for me (Deut.30:6) if I obey him (30:10). So why should I be interested in complicated Pauline theological ways of doing so?

The Pook said...

GH - There is nothing in the text that I can see that would make me think that circumcision is used as a metaphor for spiritual cleansing versus literal sacrfice by an earthly priest. There is no mention of priests or temples or sacrifices. The metaphorical framework employed here is largely that of the Abrahamic Covenant, rather than the Mosaic Covenant, because the main issue is the incorporation of the Gentiles into the inheritance of the descendants of Abraham, being made "fellow citizens" with them by faith and new birth. The "putting off" and "putting on" of chapter 3 is referring to the unconverted way of life and the new life in Christ. What was "put off" (an indirect, metephorical reference to the removal of the foreskin in physical circumcision) was the whole old way of life, not just the 'spirit of deceit.'

I'm not sure I understand the exact nature of the problem you're raising. It doesn't seem all that complicated to me.

Are you saying the letter is written to Jewish Christians? That's what you seem to be inferring, but it isn't at all clear to me exactly what you're trying to say, or why you have a problem with seeing .

Geoff Hudson said...

Pook, it is certainly my view that most of the extant New Testament documents are edited and expanded versions of earlier documents written to prophetic Jews in Judea by exiled prophets in Rome. The earlier epistles and Acts were adapted later to give the impression of a mission to Gentiles in various locations pre the Roman intervention in Judea of 66 CE. The originals were entirely in a Jewish context. Circumcision was not an issue then. It is the remanent prophetic language that gives the game away.