This note will examine Romans 2:25-29 as related to Paul’s view of the Law in Romans (see the article on Rom 1:18-3:20). Throughout chapter 2, Paul has been laying the groundwork for the teaching that all human beings (Jew and Gentile alike) face the judgment of God equally, on the the basis of deeds done according to the Law. This egalitarian doctrine would have faced objections on two fronts:
- Jews ought not to be considered on the same grounds as Gentiles (“sinners”)—a religious-ethical objection
- Gentiles are, in fact, not under the Law (that is, the Torah)—a question of definition and cultural-religious identity
Both points are dealt with in this chapter—the first, by way of the polemic of vv. 1-5, 17-24; the second, by way of the argument in vv. 6-10, 11-16. Then, Paul brilliantly sums up both under the idea of circumcision, which, of course, is the main marker of Jewish religious and cultural identity. The question of circumcision (whether Gentile Christians ought to be circumcised) was central to Paul’s entire line of argument in Galatians; indeed, circumcision functioned rhetorically as a kind of shorthand for observance of the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah)—the wider question being whether believers in Christ are required to observe the Torah commands. Paul returns to this same issue here in Romans; it is framed rather differently, but many of the points made in Galatians still apply. One may outline these verses as follows:
- Vv. 25-26: The proper meaning of circumcision as a mark of religious identity—its relationship to the Torah
- V. 27: Deeds matter more than having circumcision in the time of judgment
- Vv. 28-29: The unimportance of (physical) circumcision—the true meaning of circumcision is spiritual
Paul explains the proper meaning of circumcision, as a mark of religious identity, with a pair of statements, the second of which takes the form of a rhetorical question:
V. 25: “For (on the one hand) circumcision profits (you) if you should practice the Law; but (on the other hand) if you should be (one) stepping-over the Law, (then) your circumcision has become (a) foreskin”
V. 26: “Then if the (one having a) foreskin guards the just things [dikaiw/mata] of the Law, will not his foreskin be counted unto circumcision?”
The first statement (v. 25) makes the point that the religious identity (covenant) associated with the ritual of circumcision is invalidated and rendered false or meaningless if the terms of the covenant (observing the Torah commands) are not followed. Elsewhere, Paul refers to Torah observance with the expression “works of (the) Law”; here, he describes it as habitual performance (pra/ssw, “to practice”). In other words, the covenant (indicated by circumcision) requires that the Torah commands and regulations be observed (in their entirety, cf. Gal 5:3). The ritual of circumcision itself is not enough (a point which contrasts somewhat with traditional Jewish belief, as expressed in Rabbinic writings).
The question in verse 26 makes the opposite point: an uncircumcised non-Jew (Gentile), otherwise unfamiliar with the Torah, who observes all the just/right things in it, is counted as if he were circumcised. This doubtless would have been a controversial, even offensive, idea to many Jews; not because they denied the possible existence of devout and upright Gentiles, but because of the overall religious implications. Consider the two points Paul is making:
- Right behavior (i.e. the Torah, esp. in its moral/ethical aspects) is more important than the religious-cultural identity associated with circumcision itself
- The specific (physical) rite of circumcision is relatively unimportant
The second of these points would have been especially problematic, and Paul has already stated it more definitely in Galatians 5:6; 6:15; and 1 Cor 7:19. The last of these references is particularly close to the claim he makes here:
“Circumcision is nothing and (having) a foreskin (also) is nothing, but watching the commands of God (is something)”
As I have discussed previously, the expression “commands [e)ntolw=n] of God” probably should be understood in terms of the “Law of God” (Rom 7:22, 25; 1 Cor 9:21) and the “Law of Christ” (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21), rather than precisely synonymous with the Torah. The same would be true, I think, of the expression “just things [dikaiw/mata] of the Law” in Rom 2:26 (cf. Rom 1:32; 5:16, 18; 8:4)—the Law (or justice/righteousness) of God, as expressed in the Torah. Paul explained more clearly in vv. 12-16 in what sense Gentiles are “under Law” and may be said to keep the Law.
The hypothetical reversal of roles—transgressing Jew vs. righteous/observant Gentile—is extended to the time of judgment before God. The basic message is similar to that proclaimed by Jesus in Luke 11:32 par. The transgressing Jew is characterized by the significant expression “through the written (word/letter) [dia\ gra/mmato$]”—i.e., one who has been circumcised according to the letter of the Law, but who violates the true meaning and spirit of the Law. Though it might seem that Paul is giving moral, devout Gentiles the advantage over Jews, this is not the case; rather, by way of paradoxical illustration, he is making a two-fold claim:
- Ultimately there is no significance to the “natural” (ethnic-cultural) status of Israelites or Jews (as indicated by circumcision)
- All human beings—Jew and Gentile alike, in their own way—are equally “under the Law” and will be judged accordingly
Paul here establishes an even more important juxtaposition between the true and false meaning of circumcision, using dualistic language and imagery:
Vv. 28-29a: “For the (one) in the (outward) appearance is not a Jew, and circumcision (also is) not in the (outward) appearance in (the) flesh; but (rather) the (one) in the hidden (reality) is a Jew, and circumcision (is) of the heart—in (the) Spirit, not in (the) written (word)…”
The comparison true vs. false is indicated by similar formulations—one negative, the other positive:
- V. 28 (negative): not e)n tw=| fanerw=|—”in the open, in the (outward) appearance (lit. shining-forth)”
- V. 29 (positive): e)n tw=| kruptw=|—”in the hidden/secret (reality)”
For a similar use of the expression e)n tw=| kruptw=|, see Matthew 6:2, 4, 18. Note the words which further qualify and define this dualistic contrast:
e)n tw=| fanerw=|
e)n tw=| kruptw=|
There is some question, perhaps, whether pneu=ma in v. 29 is “spirit” generally or the (Holy) “Spirit” specifically; the context, as well as similar passages elsewhere in Paul’s writings, strongly suggest the latter. For the contrast between the visible (letter, i.e. written word) and the hidden (Spirit), see also Rom 7:6, and especially 2 Cor 3:6.
The idea of true circumcision being “of the heart” was inherited by Paul as an already familiar Old Testament and Jewish theme—Lev 26:41; Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4; 9:24-25; Ezek 44:7-9; cf. also Jubilees 1:23; 1QpHab 11:13; Philo, On the Special Laws I.305, On the Migration of Abraham §92; and note, especially, the important Prophetic passages in Jer 31:31-34 and Ezek 36:27. Paul connects this traditional motif with the Spirit (of God and Christ)—i.e. believers effectively fulfill the Law (of God and Christ) through the Spirit, not by observing the commands and rites of the Torah.
A final, significant emphasis is made in verse 29b, that judgment (and acceptance, “justification”) comes from God, and is not realized by human (religious and ethical) standards. This is very much the same point made by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:1-18).