On October 7, 2023, one of the darkest days in Jewish history unfolded as Hamas brutally murdered over 1,200 Jewish people and abducted more than 240 men, women, and children, using them as human shields. Following this massacre, antisemitism has dramatically increased worldwide. While many Christians stand with Israel and oppose antisemitism, some withhold their support due to their embrace of replacement theology––a theological system that teaches that the Church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people.1

Specifically, many cite Romans 2:28–29 to argue that Christians are the true Jews:2

“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.”

However, this interpretation is implausible for three reasons:

  1. Paul differentiates between Jews and gentiles (non-Jews) in the context of Romans 2:28–29, referring to Jewish people who do not follow Jesus as “the circumcised.”
  2. Paul affirms the continued value of ethnic Jewish identity, including their physical circumcision.
  3. Paul’s universal rule for all congregations is for Jews and Gentiles to remain in their respective callings, maintaining their ethnic identifies.

Distinction between Jews and Gentiles

For instance, Paul began his letter to the Romans by identifying his readers as Gentiles (Romans 1:13). He went on to distinguish between Jews and Gentiles, stating, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). In harmony with Genesis 12:2–3 and Isaiah 52:1–7, the good news of Jesus the Messiah, Israel’s risen king, is prioritized first to Jews, and then to Gentiles. According to Paul, this distinction continues once Jews and Gentiles accept the gospel of salvation. Paul further addressed his audience in Romans 11:13–14, when he stated, “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.”  For Paul, the world was divided between Jews and Gentiles, and coming to faith in Jesus did not change that reality.

If Paul were arguing that Jewish identity and circumcision were irrelevant in every regard, he would not continue to refer to Jewish people who do not follow Jesus as “the circumcised.” And yet, in Romans 15:8–9, Paul wrote, “For I declare that Messiah has become a servant to the circumcised for the sake of God’s truth, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs and for the Gentiles to glorify God for His mercy.” In Galatians 2, Paul wrote that Peter’s mission was to “the circumcised” (Galatians 2:7, 8–9) and his mission was to the “Gentiles” (Galatians 2:7, 8–9). By identifying Peter’s mission as to “the circumcised,” Paul upheld the Jewish identity of Jewish people who do not follow Jesus.

Physical circumcision has value

Paul also explicitly affirmed the value of circumcision in Romans 3:1–2: “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way.” Here, Paul spoke in the present tense, affirming the value of circumcision for Jewish people (brit milah) –– a key physical marker of Jewish identity regardless of their belief in Jesus.

Paul did not transfer Jewish identity to Christians. If that were the case, God would only be the God of the Jews and not the God of the Gentiles, a position that Paul explicitly denied in Romans 3:29–31:

Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

Here, Paul affirmed that the identities of Jews (the circumcised) and Gentiles (the uncircumcised) remain. Gentiles do not become Jews when they put their faith in Jesus. They remain Gentiles. Likewise, Jewish followers of Jesus remain Jews.

Paul’s rule for all congregations

Paul’s universal rule for all congregations, as expressed in 1 Corinthians 7:17–20, also affirms the enduring Jewish identity of Jewish people. Paul wrote,

Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, let him walk in this way. I give this rule in all of Messiah’s communities. Was anyone called when he already had been circumcised? Let him not make himself uncircumcised. Has anyone been called while uncircumcised? Let him not allow himself to be circumcised. . . . Let each one remain in the calling in which he was called.

In Second Temple Judaism, “circumcision” was not simply the fulfillment of a single commandment; it was synonymous with living a Jewish way of life.3 For Jews, circumcision was entrance into and the sign of their covenant with God (Genesis 17:10–14); for a Jew to remove his circumcision, it necessarily meant to give up his life of faithfulness to Torah. As Jewish New Testament scholar, David Rudolph, explains, “During [Hanukkah], the story of 1 Maccabees was recounted and Jews were reminded to follow the example of the Maccabees, who remained faithful to God’s Torah, in contrast to the apostate Jews who removed the marks of circumcision.”4 Paul spoke against such actions and taught that the Jewish people being circumcised (Jewish) was a calling given to them by God, a calling which is “irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). Jews who follow Jesus should remain Jewish, and Gentiles who follow Jesus should remain Gentile.

If one interprets Romans 2:28–29 as Paul redefining Jewish identity, asserting that Christians, rather than ethnic Jews, are truly Jewish, then that interpretation would contradict Paul’s universal rule––Jews should remain Jewish, and Gentiles should remain Gentile. As Jewish New Testament scholar, Mark Nanos stated, “Paul’s point is not that Gentiles are the true Jews, or that the foreskinned are the true circumcision; quite the opposite: Jew and circumcision are reserved for Israelites.”5

A more plausible interpretation

What did Paul mean, then? New Testament scholar, Matthew Novenson offers a more plausible interpretation of Romans 2:28–29 by first presenting a better translation of the text:6

“For it is not the Jew on display, nor circumcision on display in the flesh, but the Jew in secret, and the circumcision of the heart in pneuma [spirit], not in letter, whose praise [is] not from people but from God.”7

Novenson then underscores that Paul is addressing the question, “Who receives praise from God?”8 While being a “Jew on display” (physical circumcision) may lead one to receive praise from people, it does not bring praise from God. Paul teaches that “praise from God (not ‘true Jewishness’) comes to Jews who are what they are in secret” –– they have a circumcised heart (cf. Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4).9

Novenson’s interpretation of Romans 2:28–29 is more plausible than the interpretation that removes Jewish identity from Jewish people and transfers that identity to Christians because Paul (1) differentiates between Jews and Gentiles within the body of Messiah, (2) affirms that Jewish identity, including physical circumcision, has value, (3) and teaches that his universal rule for all congregations is for Jews and Gentiles to remain in their calling––Jews should remain circumcised and non-Jews should remain uncircumcised after placing their trust in Messiah.


  1. For the New Testament’s imperative for followers of Jesus to support Israel, see https://aboutmessiah.com/what-does-the-new-testament-say-about-supporting-israel/
  2. Evidence of this interpretation is widespread. Thorsetinsson, Thiessen, and Rodríguez write, “…[Origen and Chrysostom]–along with virtually every interpreter since their day—conclude that Paul redefines who is a Jew: not a person who is genealogically descended from Jews, but someone who believes in Jesus. Interpreters since Origen have almost universally assumed that Paul identifies Christians with the ‘true Jews.’” – Runar M. Thorsetinsson, Matthew Thiessen, and Rafael Rodríguez, “Paul’s Interlocutor in Romans: The Problem of Identification,” in The So-Called Jew in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, eds. Matthew Thiessen and Rafael Rodríguez (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), 25.
  3. See 1 Maccabees 1:11–15; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 12.240–241; 13.257; Acts  15:5; 21:20–21; Galatians 5:3. For further discussion of circumcision and its significance for interpreting 1 Corinthians 7:18–20, see David Rudolph, Paul’s “Rule in All the Churches” (1 Cor 7:17–24) and Torah-Defined Ecclesiological Variegation,” Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations 5 (2010): 1–23). Article available here.
  4. David Rudolph, “Was Paul Championing a New Freedom from — or End to — Jewish Law?,” in Understanding the Jewish Roots of Christianity: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Essays on the Relationship between Christianity and Judaism, ed. Gerald R. McDermott (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2021), 37. Article available here.
  5. Mark Nanos, ”The Letter of Paul to the Romans,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2nd ed., eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler; (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 292.
  6. For Novenson’s full argument, see Matthew Novenson, Paul, Then and Now (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022, 91–109. For another reading of Rom 2:28–29 that challenges the traditional interpretation, see Matthew Thiessen, “Paul’s Argument against Gentile Circumcision in Romans 2:17–29,” Novum Testamentum 56, no. 4 (2014): 385–91.
  7. Ibid., 96.
  8. Ibid., 106.
  9. Ibid., 106.