Paul & Circumcision of the Heart


Text below is from an email from Hebrew and Jesus Defender of Israel.

He is not a Jew who is…

One of the most important texts supporting Christian supersessionism (popularly known as replacement theology) is found in Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. Most translations read similar to one of the following two examples:

28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Rom 2:28-29, ESV)

28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 29 But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from people, but from God. (Rom 2:28-29, NASB)

Even the far less mainstream Complete Jewish Bible, in my opinion, misses the point of the Greek entirely. Basically, it translates this crucial verses as most Christian translations do – to show that Paul is juxtaposing here the outward and inward, instead of something else altogether different.  

28 For the real Jew is not merely Jewish outwardly: true circumcision is not only external and physical. 29 On the contrary, the real Jew is one inwardly; and true circumcision is of the heart, spiritual not literal; so that his praise comes not from other people but from God. (Rom 2:28-29, CJB)

In what follows I will argue that for a translation to be faithful to the original Greek text of this crucial letter, it will need to relate in English something that is very clear in Greek. Namely, that Paul does not juxtapose “outward with inward”, but rather “visible with secret”. 

In Greek we have:

οὐ γὰρ ὁ ἐν τῷ φανερῷ Ἰουδαῖός (visible Jew) ἐστιν οὐδὲ ἡ ἐν τῷ φανερῷ ἐν σαρκὶ περιτομή. ἀλλ᾽ ὁ ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ Ἰουδαῖος (secret Jew) καὶ περιτομὴ καρδίας ἐν πνεύματι οὐ γράμματι οὗ ὁ ἔπαινος οὐκ ἐξ ἀνθρώπων ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ. (Rom 2:28-29)

The first phrase of interest (τῷ φανερῷ Ἰουδαῖός, pronounced tu phanero iudaios) which is normally translated something similar to “outward Jew” or “Jew outwardly” could indeed be translated this way, even though much closer to the direct translation would be “visible Jew” or “Jew visibly”. However, the second phrase of interest (τῷ κρυπτῷ Ἰουδαῖος, pronounced tu krupto iudaios) cannot possibly be translated as a “Jew inwardly”, if the translation is faithfully reflecting the original juxtaposition that Apostle Paul sets forth.

The word κρυπτός (pronounced as kruptos) should be familiar to everyone in the 21st century. This is where we get our English phrase cryptocurrency. The basic idea of cryptocurrency is that it is hidden/secret from the watchful eyes of others in some way.

The basic meaning of kruptos is, therefore, secret or hidden. Certainly, secret or hidden includes the concept of inward, but it is not its central meaning. Not being seen by human eye is at the very center of this concept especially in this context. Notice that when Paul summarizes the big takeaway of his argument he writes “his praise is not from men, but from God”. (Rom 2:29) This ending sentence proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the meaning behind Paul’s criticism is very similar to the teaching of Christ in Mathew 6:1-6, where we read:

1 Take care not to practice your righteousness in the sight of people, to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, so that they will be praised by people. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your charitable giving will be in secret (ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ); and your Father who sees what is done in secret (ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ) will reward you. And when you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they will be seen by people. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But as for you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret (ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ); and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matt 6:1-6)

Paul, the Jew, like Jesus the Jew, engages in sharp criticism not of Jewish practice as a whole involving many external rituals, but of those specific Jews who behave hypocritically violating the Torah’s teachings! Incidentally Jesus and Paul are not alone in this sharp criticism towards the visibly religious yet disobedient to the Torah, and therefore Israel’s God, Jews. Rabbinic Jewish writings join the chorus of faith:

The Talmud condemns hypocrisy in a variety of places. For example, in tractate Pesachim 113b, the Talmud lists three types of people that God hates: the first of these is a person who says one thing with his mouth while thinking a different thing in his heart. Similarly, tractate Yoma 72b tells us that if a Torah scholar’s insides don’t match his outsides, then he’s no Torah scholar at all. References like these abound in Jewish writings.

The above cited cases are not critique of Judaism or practicing Jews, but a critique of hypocrisy among some Jews. Why Paul is criticizing this hypothetical religious Jew who happens to be a hypocrite is simple. In talking to a hypothetical person, Paul is writing within the literary conventions of his time, in the style of diatribe as many others before and after him did. Although you should remember prior to this he criticizes a hypothetical gentile in Rom 1:18-32, but especially in Rom 2:1-16.

Paul’s point to the Gentile Christians is while the Jew has all the visible markings is good, it is not enough. The Jew must also be faithful to the rest of the Torah both in faith and in deeds, not only in the markings by which others can see that he is a Jew. The fact that he is circumcised doesn’t do any good if he will live a hypocritical life of disobedience to Israel’s God and His Torah.  

But what about the circumcision of the heart?

Remember the whole idea of the circumcision of the heart is not new at all and comes to New Testament directly from the Law of Moses:

12 And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul…  16 So circumcise your heart, and do not stiffen your neck any longer. (Deut 10:12-16)

Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, so that you may live… (Deut 30:6-10)

We also see this concept in the prophets. For example, Jeremiah writes:

Circumcise yourselves to the Lord
And remove the foreskins of your hearts,

Men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,
Or else My wrath will spread like fire
And burn with no one to quench it,
Because of the evil of your deeds. (Jer. 4:4)

Christians that forget this, are mistakenly led to think that Apostle Paul here criticizes Judaism as a religious practice. The point that Paul makes is dramatically different. God calls both Jews and the Nations to a hypocrisy free life in good conscience before Him and all others. (Click HERE)