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What is a “Real” Jew” (Rom 2:28–29) - Mondays with Mounce

Every once in a while I see a translation where there is no Greek in any form behind the English. I know at times this is necessary for convey meaning, but every once in a while I suspect something else is in play.

The RSV of Rom 2:28–29 is a good example. “For he is not a real Jew (Ἰουδαῖός) who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision (περιτομή) something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision (περιτομὴ) is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God?” There is absolutely no textual basis for the insertion of “real ... true ... real.”

While I can’t know motives, the only motivation I can imagine is that the translation committee could not bring themselves to acknowledge Paul’s radical redefining of what “Jew” and “circumcision” mean. The inclusion of these three words allows for “Jew” to still be defined ethnically, although this does not make the person a “real” Jew, and it allows physical circumcision to still be some sort of reality. And yet that clearly is not what Paul is saying. These two verses, in this context, do not allow for “Jew” and “circumcision” to be defined anyway other than spiritually.

In the ESV update of the RSV, we changed some of the text, but the committee apparently could not bring itself to drop the “merely.” “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.” Again, there is no textual basis for “merely,” and the proper removal of “true” and the second “real” from the RSV makes the “merely” a contradiction. If a Jew is one who is inwardly a Jew, then the “merely” is contradictory.

The NIV also adds words. “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.” If being a Jew is only inward, if circumcision is only a matter of the heart, then the inclusion of “only” and “merely” is contradictory. The CSB unfortunately inserts “true” before “circumcision.” The NRSV has ‘true circumcision” and “real circumcision.” The NLT speaks of the “true Jew” and “true circumcision.”

The NASB got it right. “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” (also the NET).

You see the same issue in Phil 3:3. The RSV has, “we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh,” without any textual basis for “true." ESV corrects to “we are the circumcision” (also NASB, NIV, CSB, NRSV, NET). The NLT consistently says, “truly circumcised.” The NASB inexplicably has “we are the true circumcision,” with the confusing footnote before “circumcision” that says, “Gr peritome.” περιτομή doesn’t mean “true circumcision”; it means “circumcision.” At least the NASB italicizes “true.”

Regardless of your theology about Judaism, Israel, and it’s relation to the church, the insertion of these words without textual support changes what Paul is saying by allowing for the reality of an “outward Jew” and “physical circumcision.” This clearly is not what Paul says here, and I believe it is not what he means.

Can Paul refer to an ethnic descendant of Abraham as a “Jew,” and the physical act of circumcision as “circumcision”? Of course he can, but that’s not the point he is making here. As he says in Gal 6:15, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.” Moo quotes Ridderbos that here we have “a radicalizing of the concept Jew, and thereby of the definition of the essence of the people of God.”

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