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“Real” Circumcision (Rom 2:28–19) - Mondays with Mounce

Categories Biblical Studies Greek

From time to time, I find myself wondering why translators wouldn’t simply translate the Greek and let the chips lie where they fall. I know we have to be careful not to miscommunicate, and there is often meaning in the nuances of the grammar, but other times I just wish we would translate what the Greek says and means.

Let’s start with the RSV translation of Rom 2:28–29.

“For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God.”

There is no Greek word behind “real” or “true,” neither as an actual word or one implied by the grammar. It just isn’t there. I’m not sure why the RSV inserted them into their translation. Perhaps it was out of deference to Jewish readers. Perhaps they felt a conflict between what Paul was saying and the reality that there are physical descendants of Abraham called “Jews” and there is a physical act called “circumcision.” But Paul didn’t feel the conflict; he was radically re-defining what “Jew” and “circumcision” mean.

In the NRSV update, they change their verbiage a little, but still import words foreign to the text.

“For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.”

They keep the words “true” circumcision and “real” circumcision, and properly drop the idea of a “real Jew.”

The ESV is also an update of the RSV, and even in a translation claiming to be “essentially literal” (as does the NRSV), they import the word “merely.”

“For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 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.”

Perhaps this is just sour grapes on my part since I remember losing the vote to not use “merely.” But if you translate the second part as “a Jew is one inwardly,” you’ve already allowed Paul’s redefining of “Jew.” Why be inconsistent and say “a Jew who is merely one outwardly”?

The same mistranslation (I would call it) is seen in other translations.

“A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God” (NIV).
“For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision.” No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people” (NLT).

Congratulations to the NASB (following the KJV, and the NET) for not adding in words:

“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (NASB).

Paul is radically redefining what circumcision is, and most of the translations, most of the time, soften what he says. Paul knows there are physical descendants of Abraham, and he knows there is a physical act called “circumcision,” but he is not concerned with that. He wants to make the point as clearly as possible that being a “Jew” and being “circumcised” are issues of faith.

As Paul clearly states elsewhere, I (Bill Mounce, a Gentile) am as much a child of Abraham and an inheritor of God’s promises as is anyone, regardless of their ethnic heritage. As Paul told the Galatians, “Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham.... So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” (Gal 3:7, 9).

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