Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Circumcision |
The curious, controversial rite of circumcision

Circumcision is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 112, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit Books.TheChristians.com.

Arguments over an ancient practice divide Jesus’ early followers, and the gulf remains for 2,000 years

Circumcision - The curious, controversial rite of circumcision

Circumcision – The curious, controversial rite of circumcision
A circumcision is depicted on this eight-inch sixteenth-century silver plate, which was crafted for use in the ritual.

The curious rite of male circumcision, in which the foreskin is surgically removed from the penis, usually in infancy, was the central issue that divided Jesus’ first followers from other Jews two to three decades after the Crucifixion. It thereby played a pivotal role in the split that would separate Christianity from Judaism for the next two thousand years.

Jewish followers of Jesus, loyal to Jewish tradition, demanded that adult Gentile males wishing to become Christian be required to submit to circumcision, just as other Gentiles had done when they wanted to become attached to the synagogue as God-fearers. Paul opposed them. The disagreement began a split which, widened by other theological issues, soon created a gulf that was never in two millennia to be bridged.

To the Jew, circumcision was far more than a merely physical thing. It gave the Jewish people a sense of national identity. It sealed a covenant between them and God. Indeed, it made the individual Jew a fellow worker with God and a part of God’s plan. Jews spoke of “the circumcised heart” or “circumcised lips,” meaning a will devoted to the Law of God, and a mouth that drew people toward God. Even the physical aspects of the land itself were viewed as “circumcised.” Devotional writers spoke of the “circumcised fruit trees” of Israel. Similarly the term “uncircumcised” came to mean unclean, profane or imperfect.

For the Jews, the practice had been instituted about seventeen hundred years before Christ by their patriarch Abraham, with the Law requiring circumcision of every Jewish male, customarily on the eighth day of his life. The antecedents of the rite, however, go back further. The historian Herodotus, writing in the 400s b.c., traces it to the Egyptians, some of whose nobility observed a somewhat similar practice. They slit the foreskin and let it hang free.

As the practice spread up the eastern Mediterranean coast to the Semitic countries, it changed. The whole foreskin was removed. Artistic renderings of Syrian warriors dating back to the third millennium B.C. show them circumcised, and it was at about this point that the Hebrews adopted it.

However, John J. Tierney, writing in the Catholic Encyclopedia, reports the rite of circumcision among the Aztec and Mayan races in North America, the Filipinos in East Asia, and native tribes in central Australia. In the South Pacific, he notes, the Samoans sometimes refer to the Europeans as “the uncircumcised.” All this suggests an origin other than the Egyptians.

Because of its sacramental implications, the observation of the rite, or the failure to observe it, often enters into Jewish history. For example, Genesis 34:1—18 tells how Shechem, the impetuous son of Hamor the Hivite, raped Jacob’s daughter, Dinah. Then he decided he wanted to marry her. Jacob’s sons, infuriated, hatched a plan: They said they would not permit marriage between one of their own and Shechem and Hamor’s people unless all the other men agreed to be circumcised. Urged by the infatuated Shechem, all of his male relatives agreed, and the dramatic and bloody mass operation took place. Two days later, while Shechem’s men were still lying about “in pain” and recuperating, a raiding party led by two of Jacob’s sons attacked and killed them all. Shechem’s people had asked for it, said their attackers. They had treated their sister “like a harlot.”

Moses, for unexplained reasons, failed to circumcise his son. God would have killed Moses, says the book of Exodus (4:24—26), but his wife, Zipporah, took up a sharp stone and circumcised the child herself, thereby saving her husband’s life from divine vengeance.

With the arrival in the Jewish lands of Alexander the Great, and the subsequent intrusion of Greek culture, the rite of circumcision fell into social disrepute. To the Greeks, and later the Romans, the male glans was a repugnant object, and some men pinned the foreskin to ensure that the glans remained covered and was not seen. Since male athletes often performed naked, circumcision rendered Jewish contestants physically disgusting to Greeks and Romans. To become a citizen, a man was required to undergo athletic training, so the effect of circumcision was to deny citizenship to Jews. Jewish men stirred similar revulsion in the public baths.

The result was that many Jews during the Greco-Roman period quietly abandoned the practice. In the succeeding Hasmonean era, after the Jews successfully revolted against their Greek overlords, things went ill for the backsliders–they were required to undergo circumcision, painfully, as adults.

After A.D. 70, when another Jewish revolt failed, this one against the Romans, the imperial government imposed a special tax on all circumcised subjects. And after a further Jewish rebellion sixty-five years later, circumcision was prohibited by law. Though this ban was soon repealed, Rome never did fully restore the right to proselytize and to circumcise Gentile converts.

The Jewish philosopher Philo, defending circumcision against the jeers of Greek and Roman intellectuals, argued that it rendered a man less susceptible to disease, that by clearing away an obstruction it fostered fertility and that by deliberately sundering the flesh it promoted spiritual “cleanliness.” Finally, he said, it excised the pleasures of sex, which have the power to “bewitch the mind.” It thereby subjugated to the will of God the human member that begets children.

Not all Christians rejected this reasoning. Ethiopian Christianity, always heavily influenced by the Old Testament, retained the practice. So did many Egyptian Christians. But beyond the Jews, its greatest survival came in Islam. Muslim boys, aged seven to twelve, are routinely circumcised, though the Koran, the holy book of Islam, does not require it nor even mention it.

In the mid-twentieth century, many Gentile parents had their male infants medically circumcised on hygienic grounds, though this theory fell from wide acceptance toward the century’s end. By then, too, children’s rights advocates were opposing it as “invasive” and were urging the courts in western countries to follow the example of Rome and prohibit circumcision by law.

This is the end of the Circumcision category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 112, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn. To continue reading more about Circumcision from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at Books.TheChristians.com