Acts 16: Timothy Was Biracial...Sort Of

Acts 16 discusses Timothy's identity, the imprisonment of Paul, a woman named Lydia, and an unnamed soothsayer.


Acts 16 tells us that Timothy was born to a Jewish mother and a Greek father. The Bible doesn't concern it self with "race" because the concept of race that we have today didn't exist; however, we are often told of tribal or national affilliations. These affilitions, like race, came with assumptions and prejudices that have parallels with the racial issues we see today.

Many of the stories I've heard from biracial friends have been about reconciling identities and getting others to accept both parts of their heritage. Although, Timothy's story is not about this specifically, I see a similar pattern. The begining of Acts 16 alludes to the pushback Timothy received (or was expected to receive) from the Jews because he had a Jewish father. The "need" to prove oneself to one side (or both sides) of one's heritage is still felt by people today, unfortunately.

Israel is a patriarchal society, so tribal identity is passed by the father.[1] We see this throughout the Bible and from the formation of Israel. Arguably, it is possible that a non-Jew could convert to Judaism, marry a Jewish woman and their children would still be considered Jewish, but that does not seem to be the case for Timothy.

We know that Timothy's father didn't convert or adopt Jewish customs because Timothy is an adult and uncircumcised. This is where we see the struggle in his lineage come to fruition. Despite having just concluded that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised, Paul circumcises Timothy. We're going to talk about this act separately, but for now I want to talk about how it relates to Timothy's identity

Timothy's Struggle

The Jews would not accept Timothy as a Greek but they couldn't accept him as a Jew either. While there isn't anything that suggests he should deny his Greek father, there is a strong suggestion that he has to fully embrace his maternal roots to be part of that world. In some cases it may be possible to fully embrace two difference cultrues, but in many cases today there is contention, especially concerning nationality. I've heard many immigrants expressing strife with reconciling their "American-ness" with their heritage. I believe Timothy could relate.

What Can We Learn From Timothy?

Unfortunately, because the purpose of Timothy's story is not to inform us on the dynamics of nativigating multicultural identities, there is no real statement on how to handle such a thing, only interpretations. The act of Timothy's circumcision seems to be an act of him choosing his Jewish identity over his Greek identity, but we have to remember that this was really a statement about worship. Race, as we define it today, is not about religion or values, but in Timothy's case, it was about identifying who he worshipped. Greeks worshiped pagan gods and goddess but Jews worshipped YHWH, who had required all male children descended from Abraham be circumcised.

Notice, we get no information on how Timothy spoke. It is likely that he spoke both Hebrew and Greek, but did he speek like a Greek or like a Hebrew? In our society people judge "outsiders" based on dialects and accents, taste in entertainment, and many other trivial matters. You may be told you don't embody a particular culture for many insignificant reasons. These are not things we should trouble ourselves with; I believe God would have you to be confident in being yourself. What I took away from Timothy's identity struggle is that our identity in Christ should trump all things, as cliché as that might sound. Our actions should testify of our faith and that's all that really matters.

Why Did Paul Circumcise Timothy?

Now, let's come back to this act of circumcision. The last chapter we read (Acts 15) was literally an agruement about circumcision. During the arguement Paul advocated that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised, and the council eventually agreed. So why is it that all of a sudden Paul is circumcising Timothy? I don't know the exact answer but I do have a few thoughts (and questions).

Did Circumcision Stop Being a Requirement for Jewish Men?

Christ Himself says He didn't come to change the law, which makes me wonder about the old covenant and the new covenant... There are multiple covenants in the Bible: the rainbow (Genesis 9:12-14), circumcision (Genesis 17:10), the laws of Israel (Exodus 24:7-8), Christ's resurrection (Hebrews 8:8), etc. The covenant God made with Abraham did not nullify the covenant God made with Noah. So why do should the covenant God made through Christ nullify the covenant He made with Abraham? In most of the discussions about circumcision, the New Testament is addressing whether or not Gentiles need to be circumcised. There's never a debate about the Jews. Customarily the Jews would have already been circumcised so there was no need for this discussion in reference to adults, but we also don't see parents opting to forego circumcision.

Unlike the average Gentile, Timothy had Israelite blood, thanks to his mother. The covenant of circumcision applied to Abraham and his descendants (including Ishmael), which technically still could be applied to Timothy. Conversely, God had never required the Gentiles to be circumcised physically, so circumcision of the heart was the only thing they needed to worry about. Perhaps those born Jewish by blood were still bound by the covenant with Abraham (which was not the same as the covenant made with Moses)?

It Was Not a Salvation Issue

One thing is certain, in Acts 16, Paul does not make Timothy's circumcision about salvation. It is evident that this has to do with his identity as both Jewish and Greek. In previous discussions, the argument was that Gentiles could not be saved if they were not circumcised, which Paul rejects. In Acts 16, Paul isn't the least concerned with Timothy's salvation; the issue is how the Jews will receive him. Paul circumcising Timothy in this case is like wearing a cardigan to church—I'm not saved because I covered my arms and shoulders, but because some people have a problem with seeing skin,[2] it is easier to focus their attention on the message if I eliminate the distraction.

The Israelites were very legalistic and had been taught that uncricumcision was unclean, but more importantly, a Jew who was not circumcised was an anathema to them. The knowledge that he was uncircumcised would have distracted them from his message. (Yes, this is a lot more painful than simply putting on a jacket and yes, to the modern mind it is befuddling that the Jewish men and women would be so caught up on the state of someone's private body parts—that is why it is important to focus our mind on the time period so that we can understand the context.)

Increasing in Number

Acts 16:5 says the church increased in number daily. Does your church get new members weekly? Can you imagine new people joining your church daily? To have new members daily, you have to spread the Word daily!

Forbidden to Preach in Asia

Can you imagine the Holy Spirit telling you not to preach somewhere or not to tell someone about God? That's counterintuitive. However, in Acts 16:6-10, the Holy Spirit blocks the apostles from preaching in certain places. Perhaps it wasn't the right time, or maybe they just weren't the right people. Nonetheless, God directed them to where they were supposed to preach. Many Christians today are discribed as pushy—trying to force God on people. Yet, there are multiple passages where we see God tell His people to move on. The Holy Spirit is to direct us when to speak and when to be silent.
Now when they had gone through Phrygia and the region of Galatia, they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia. Acts 16:6


Acts 16:11-15 tells us of the conversion of a woman named Lydia. She was from Thyatira (one of the 7 churches of Asia Minor mentioned in Revelation). Outside of being a refuge for Paul and Silas after they escape jail, the importance of Lydia is not really given. One thing I did notice is that she was already a believer in God; it seems that this is a conversion from Judaism to Christianity. Also, her entire household is converted, but neither her husband nor her father is never mentioned or named. This implies that she took the most active role in the conversion and subsequent interactions.


One of the more interesting things I found in the chapter is the events which led to Paul and Silas being thrown in jail. A woman who was possessed by "a spirit of divination" begins following them around. We know that this is a demonic spirit because Paul and Silas cast out the demon, however, the woman is both aware that they have information about salvation and announcing it. When we think of possession and demonic spirits, usually we think of people trying to hinder God's Kingdom. We would expect this person to be getting in the way their preaching or harassing those who stop to listen. There is no mentioning of this type of behavior though.

I find this interesting for a few reasons. I see it as an example of how to treat "lost" people. One might argue that the woman is lost because she is participating in soothsaying and possessed by an ungodly spirit, however she seems to be reaching out in spite of her demons. In response, Paul does not scold her or make her feel like an outsider, but instead rids her of the demon. When people come to us seeking Christ, it is very possible that they have a demon or multiple demons that are being exploited by others. It is important for us to help them instead of judging.

I have two major questions about the situation, however. First, was the woman seeking help or was she causing a distraction? There are many who claim truths (usually mixed with partial truths and lies) that appear godly to the spiritually untrained eye. These people then lure away God's people under the pretense that are of God. I have met many who buzz around the Church, proclaiming The Most High as king of the universe, but are actually there to stir dissention. Second, why did Paul wait so long to cast out the spirit?

Regardless, once the woman is free of the spirit, she is no longer of value to the men exploiting her. In anger, they have Paul and Silas arrested. While in prison they continue to worship God, and just as He did for Peter, God delivers them from prison. Its interesting that despite being set free, they do not try to escape. As a result of this, they end up saving the life of the guard and converting him. How many times are we so concerned for ourselves that we flee a situation without concern for those around us? Only a connection to the Holy Spirit would convince you to stay in jail when you have been given a way to escape—most of us would have made a bee-line for freedom!

One final point on this section concerns the baptism of the guard. He was baptized the very hour he chose to be saved. Many churches make their members go through training and classes before allowing their baptism, but there is plenty of evidence in the Bible that people were baptised as soon as they confessed, not later.

What is Started in Public is Resolved in Public

Those who put Paul and Silas in jail agreed to let them go, but wanted them to leave in secret. Paul is angered by this and refuses to do so. He argues that they were publically mistreated so they should be officially pardoned. This is still an issue today. The media is quick to publish sensational news, but rarely do they print as large of an article to pardon someone wrongfully accused.

References & Footnotes

  1. Jews today claim lineage through their mothers but that is not Biblical. If lineage was passed through the mother, the entire lineage falls apart as Jacob, the father of Israel is the one descended from Abraham and at least two of his sons (Joseph and Judah) marry Hamitic women. Most Jews today descend from Judah (some may be the tribe of Benjamin or Levi). Within the lineage of David are 3 non-Israelite women: Tamar (the Canaanite who bore Judah children), Rahab (the Canaanite who bore Boaz), and Ruth (the Moabite who married Boaz). If identity was passed through the mother, David would have been an illegitimate king.
  2. I really don't understand this, but I have encountered several people (always men) who lose their minds over seeing a shoulder. That conversation however, is probably better suited for a post on misogny and modesty.

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