This is an original online publication by the Circumcision Information and Resource Pages.

Answers from the Bible
Questions about Circumcision

Circumcision is as controversial today as it was in New Testament times. Then, as now, it could tear marriages and families apart. Fortunately, insights we can gain from the Bible about circumcision can guide us today.

What is circumcision?

Circumcision cuts off the foreskin, the sexually sensitive sleeve of tissue that normally covers and protects the head of the penis.

Is circumcision today the same as circumcision in the Bible?

No. The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion traces the origin of per'iah (the baring of the glans) to the time of Hadrian (A.D.132-135):

Many Hellenistic Jews, particularly those who participated in athletics at the gymnasium, had an operation performed to conceal the fact of their circumcision (1 Maccabees 1.15). Similar action was taken during the Hadrianic persecution, in which period a prohibition against circumcision was issued. It was probably in order to prevent the possibility of obliterating the traces of circumcision that the rabbis added to the requirement of cutting the foreskin that of peri'ah (laying bare the glans).
(The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, ed. R.J. Zwi Werblowsky and G. Wigoder. Oxford University Press, 1997, page 161.)

The New Testament predates this development (see 1 Corinthians 7:18). Medical circumcisions developed from the later, more radical rite, so today's infant circumcisions are more severe than circumcisions in the Bible.

Is the foreskin a mistake of nature?

No. The Bible says that God pronounced creation 'very good' (Genesis 1:31) and that humans were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). The Apostle Paul also said that God made every part of the body as he wanted it. (1 Corinthians 12:18).

How did circumcision start in the Bible?

According to Genesis, God told Abraham to circumcise himself, his household and his slaves as an everlasting covenant in their flesh. Those who were not circumcised were to be 'cut off' from their people (Genesis 17:10-14). Note the connection between circumcision and slavery. It is alluded to in the New Testament.

Who was to be circumcised?

Abraham, his descendants and those who were bought with their money (Genesis 17:12-13). Also, all the males of a household were to be circumcised if one of them wanted to join in the Passover celebrations (Exodus 12:43-49).

However, there is a puzzle. Laws commanding circumcision are said to come through Moses (e.g. Leviticus 12), but the Children of Israel abandoned circumcision during Moses' leadership (Joshua 5: 4-7). Exodus 4: 24-26 tells us that Moses had not circumcised his own son.

This suggests several scribal traditions. In the first, Moses did not practise circumcision, and the custom was abandoned under his leadership (Joshua 5: 4-7). In the second his wife is made to conform to the practice (Exodus 4: 24-26). Finally, in the third tradition, he is given the command to circumcise from the LORD himself.

Did circumcision apply to anyone else?

Circumcision applied to the slaves of Jews. Apart from that, circumcision never applied to people outside the Jewish faith. The first covenant was not with other nations. All other people were described as uncircumcised, even those who practised circumcision (Jeremiah 9:25-26). Circumcision never applied to Christians (Acts 15:5-11). The Apostle Peter, who was circumcised, said:

... we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.
(Acts 15:11, New RSV)

Should Christians follow the Law of Moses?

No. Christians were freed from the Law, including circumcision (Acts 15:1-20). It was described as an almost unbearable yoke on the neck (Acts 15: 10). The yoke, of course, was a sign of slavery and Christians were told not to become entangled with 'a yoke of bondage' (Galatians 5:1-2).

The Law as we read it contains things that appall us, such as forcing a rapist to marry his victim (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) or rejecting people born out of wedlock and their descendants (Deuteronomy 23:2). However, almost all of us read the Law in translation, which inevitably changes and distorts the text. Even fewer read it with a background of the checks, balances and insights of the Jewish oral and legal tradition. This has contributed to atrocities such as when Christians used Exodus 22:18 to justify the slaughter of 'witches' or other verses to justify slavery and the slave trade (e.g., Exodus 21:2-11, 20-21, Leviticus 25:44-46 and Deuteronomy 20:10-15).

What does this mean for Christians?

Christians must be wary. Many of these laws, including the food laws, were repudiated in the New Testament (Acts 10:1-33). Jesus himself criticized the scribes and their traditions. (e.g., Matthew 15: 1-9, also Isaiah 29 :13). Jeremiah's assessment of the Law must also be pondered.

How can you say, "We are wise,
and the law of the LORD is with us,"
when in fact, the false pen of the scribes
has made it into a lie?
(Jeremiah 8: 8, New RSV)

Why are Bible stories about circumcision so vicious?

There has always been a nasty underside to circumcision. Whether it was Greek authorities killing Jews for circumcising their infant boys (1 Maccabees 1: 60-62), Jewish zealots forcibly circumcising uncircumcised Jewish boys (1 Maccabees 2: 46) or Muslim zealots forcibly circumcising Christian men, women and children in Ambon, Indonesia (Sydney Morning Herald January 27, 2001, page 25), there has always been a powerful undercurrent of violence and sexual abuse associated with circumcision.

The Bible tells us about circumcision as it is. Stories such as the circumcision and slaughter of the Shechemites (Genesis 34) or the 100 foreskin dowry (1 Samuel 18: 25-27) carry an implicit warning that was made explicit by the Apostle Paul when he said:

It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that would compel you to be circumcised...
...they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh.
(Galatians 6:11, 13, Revised Standard Version)

Jesus was circumcised. Does this make it right?

Jesus was also wrapped in swaddling clothes and put in a manger (Luke 2: 7). This doesn't mean we have to wrap babies tightly in cloth and put them in animal feeding troughs or circumcise them. Jesus also had a crown of thorns forced onto his head and was crucified. (John 19). We don't do that to our children, either.

It is better to take to heart what Jesus taught about circumcision and circumcisers.

What did Jesus teach about circumcision and circumcisers?

Jesus spoke about circumcision in the Temple in Jerusalem (John 7:14).

Moses therefore gave unto you circumcision; (not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers;) and ye on the sabbath day circumcise a man. If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day? Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.
(John 7:22-24, King James Version)

Or, from a modern version:

...why are you angry with me for making a man whole and complete on a sabbath? (Jerusalem Bible, John 7:23.)

Jesus contrasted circumcision (cutting off foreskins) with his own healing, which made a man 'whole and complete.' Jesus' conclusion, not to judge by appearances, also hit the mark, for his critics rejected those who were not circumcised.

But didn't Jesus just mean that he made the man completely well?

That is what you will read in most modern English translations. However, the Greek expression for making a man completely well could also be translated as making him completely whole. This meaning, with its powerful contrast with circumcision, came over easily in the King James Version. The Jerusalem Bible got this meaning across with 'making a man whole and complete'. Moffatt did it slightly differently:

...are you enraged at me for curing, not cutting, the entire body of a man upon the sabbath?
(from John 6:23, Moffatt's translation, 1935)

A note in the Jerusalem and New Jerusalem Bibles claims that the Rabbis argued that circumcision 'heals' the penis so they were doing a little healing while Jesus was doing a big healing. The great Jewish sage, Moses Maimondes, rejected this line of argument:

The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable. For if at birth this member has been made to bleed and has had its covering taken away from it, it must indubitably be weakened. (from Moses Maimonides, "The Guide of the Perplexed", Part III, ch. 49)

Moses Maimondes would have seen and understood the contrast that Jesus made between circumcising a man and making a man completely whole.

What did the early church decide about circumcision?

Some were saying that Christians must follow the Law of Moses and be circumcised. Peter replied:

Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?
(Acts 15:10, New RSV)

The early church followed Peter, and all were welcome, circumcised or not. The early church rejected the ideas that Christians had to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses.

What did Paul teach about circumcision?

Genesis 17:14 says that an uncircumcised man shall be 'cut off from his people' but Paul taught that those who accept circumcision are obliged to keep the whole law, and those who want to be justified by the law have cut themselves off from Christ (Galatians 5: 2-4).

Paul confirmed that circumcision was nothing (Galatians 6:15) and Christ was all and in all (Colossians 3:11). Jeremiah had already taught that circumcision in other nations was uncircumcision (Jeremiah 9: 25-26).

Paul advised people to accept their lot in life and not seek circumcision or uncircumcision, or slavery or freedom (1 Corinthians 7:17-24).

Paul condemned people he described as false believers (Galatians 2:4). These people were pressuring Christians to become circumcised. Paul was so incensed by this that he said:

I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!
(Galatians 5: 12, New RSV)

Paul taught that Jesus accepts people as they are and does not ask them to become circumcised or uncircumcised to become Christian (Galatians 5: 6). Paul said, 'Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved...' (Acts 16: 31).

If Paul was against circumcision, why did he say that circumcision was of much advantage in every way?

That is how most translations read Romans 3: 1-2. However, it is not the only reading. Young's Literal Translation (1898) says:

What, then, is the superiority of the Jew? or what the profit of the circumcision? much in every way; for first, indeed, that they were intrusted with the oracles of God.

At that time, the Jews were called 'the circumcision'. It could simply have been another way of referring to Jews. Paul's words explain themselves best in context. In the verse immediately before the one quoted above, Paul said that true circumcision was spiritual, not literal (Romans 2: 29). As for the profit or advantage of 'the circumcision', this came from the oracles of God that Jews were entrusted with.

Paul circumcised a man, but later he called circumcisers mutilators. Why?

Paul turned against circumcision. At first he gave in to pressure to circumcise Timothy (Acts 16: 1-4). (Timothy's mother was Jewish, so Timothy was Jewish by Jewish law.) However, Paul absolutely refused to circumcise Titus (Galatians 2:3) and opposed those false believers with fury. He wished they would castrate themselves, accusing them of wanting to make 'a good showing in the flesh' and 'glorying in the flesh' (Galatians 6: 12-15, RSV). In Philippians he warned believers to beware those who mutilate the flesh (Philippians 3: 2). Finally, in Titus he says that 'those of the circumcision' (from Crete) were 'upsetting' or 'ruining' whole families and were in it for the money (Titus 1: 10-12). What he had found out about circumcisers changed his mind.

Was circumcision ever a Christian tradition?

Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches never adopted circumcision. Circumcision was condemned in The Ecumenical Council of Florence on 4 February 1442. One exception was the Coptic Church in Egypt, and the Council condemned this practice amongst them. Routine infant circumcision never took off in Europe but circumcision enthusiasts promoted it in English-speaking countries from the late Victorian era. As a result, some Christians have been misled into believing that Christianity recommends circumcision. This is simply not true.

Does the Bible ever say that circumcision has health benefits?

No. The Bible never makes such a claim. Jewish authorities hesitate to circumcise a baby if two previous sons had died from circumcision. Even today, circumcisions lead to haemorrhages, infections and sometimes even death.

The Apostle Peter said that circumcision and the Jewish law were an unbearable burden. He was a married man and he lived before aseptic surgery, blood transfusions and antibiotics. Did he or someone close to him lose a child to circumcision? We don't know. What we know is that the first church council supported Peter, and not the circumcision enthusiasts. (Acts 15: 10)

What does the Bible say to parents who are in conflict over circumcision?

In 2001, a young Kansas woman was convinced that God wanted her to have her son circumcised. Her husband was adamant that his son would remain intact and took legal action to protect the baby. The marriage fell apart in a blaze of publicity. (Wichita Eagle, 13 & 25 July 2001)

The couple's pastor had tried to get the father to agree to circumcision.

One wonders what the Apostle Paul would have said to this pastor! He described those pushing circumcision as:

... rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision; they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for sordid gain what it is not right to teach. It was one of them, their very own prophet, who said,

"Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons."

That testimony is true. For this reason rebuke them sharply, so that they may become sound in the faith, not paying attention to Jewish myths or to commandments of those who reject the truth.
(Titus 1:10-14, New RSV)

What about those who urge others to circumcise their children?

Some believe in circumcision because of what they have been told. Christians should consider Paul's words:

God put every different part of the body, just as he wanted it to be.
(Good News Bible, 1 Corinthians 12: 18)

If Christians take this to heart they will have strength to resist the circumcision enthusiasts. As someone said to a knife-happy doctor, 'God knows best how to make little boys.'

Michael Glass
December 2002

Michael Glass is an Australian teacher, husband and father.

(File revised 11 January 2004)