CIRCUMCISION AND CHRISTIANITY
The Old Testament, which is the basis of Judaism, is the foundation of Christianity. Circumcision has played a central role in the Jewish religion. What relevance does this ancient operation have within Christianity? What significance does circumcision have for today’s American Christian who faces the choice of having one’s son’s foreskin cut off by a doctor?
Little has been written about circumcision as it pertains to Christianity. My own brother, a Methodist minister with a Ph.D. in theology has communicated:
“I don’t know much about the subject of ‘circumcision.’ I don’t remember the subject ever being discussed in any class of theology, or Bible courses, or psychology…. From the standpoint of Christianity, it does not appear to have ever been practiced for religious purposes and therefore, circumcision is not an issue, theologically or morally for Christians.” 1
Circumcision and the History of Christianity
In the early days of the Christian Church, many old laws came into question. As frequently happens within established religion, some people wanted to adhere strictly to the established rules and traditions, while lacking an inward spirit of loving and caring. Centuries earlier the prophet Jeremiah spoke of a metaphorical “circumcision of the heart,” emphasizing that the physical act of circumcision alone was not sufficient if that person lacked love and commitment to God.
Jesus made little mention, at least in the scriptures, of circumcision. The covenant of Abraham was already ancient by the time of Christ. During the formation of the Christian religion, many of the early Christian leaders, particularly St. Paul, questioned the relevance of the operation. There are several references in the New Testament where St. Paul clearly states that circumcision is not necessary for the Christian:
Galatians: Ch. 5: 1 – Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.
2 – Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.
3 – For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.
6 – For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by love. 2
It is plain that according to Paul, spirituality and Christian love are not to be found in an operation, a cutting of a part of the body, but in the inspiration, caring and love that exist in one’s heart. Therefore the operation is meaningless in regards to whether or not one is a follower of Christ.
In Philippians, Paul denounces circumcision more strongly:
Philippians: Ch. 3: 2 – Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision. [Concision – in archaic terminology meaning “a cutting up or off.”] 3 – For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the Spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh. 3
One writer paraphrases Paul and comments on the meaning of the above passage:
“Those who want to show off and brag about external matters are the ones who are trying to force you to be circumcised. Even those who practice circumcision do not obey the Law; they want you to get circumcised so they can boast that you submitted to this physical ceremony…. It does not matter at all whether or not one is circumcised. What does matter is being a new creature.” 4
In Philippians, Paul is essentially saying:
“ ‘Watch out for those who do evil things, those dogs, men who insist on cutting the body….’ This is a very strong denunciation of the ancient operation, for in the Bible the dog was considered a base, unclean animal — a scavenger that ate of corpses and carrion.’ ” 4
Circumcision was a bitter source of contention in Christianity during the New Testament period. The early Christian leaders who were Jews, were themselves circumcised. Aside from spiritual considerations, circumcision was undoubtedly denounced for simple, practical reasons. For Christianity was not to be confined to the Hebraic peoples. The new religion was to spread to all peoples throughout the earth. Therefore, imposing circumcision on converts was imposing a practice that was foreign and repugnant to most peoples, as well as painful and dangerous during an age which lacked anesthetics and modern surgical techniques. Requiring circumcision of converts to Christianity would undoubtedly have been a hindrance to the establishment of the new religion.
Some writers have suggested that the ancient rite of circumcision was replaced by Christian baptism. Is baptism for Christians what circumcision is for Jews? Baptism varies in significance among different denominations of Christianity. Some Christian denominations baptize infants. Others baptize adults. Some sprinkle a few drops of water on the head. Others practice total immersion.
There are differences between the significance of the two rituals, for in most churches baptism “makes” one a Christian, while a Jew is a Jew by birth. Both male and female Christians undergo baptism, but only Jewish males are circumcised. Circumcision does not make one a Jew. A male Jew who is left intact is still Jewish. The difference may lie in the fact that Christianity is primarily a religion shared by people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, while Judaism is both a religion and an ethnic heritage.
While it does not appear that Christian baptism was specifically intended to be a replacement for Hebraic circumcision, the two rituals may share common ancient origins. Circumcision finds its primitive origins in adolescent initiation rites, and was often part of a blood sacrifice ritual. The primitive rites were sometimes accompanied by priests smearing themselves with blood from circumcision or other sacrifice, or washing themselves with the sacrificial blood mixed with water. Some historians speculate that baptism finds its origins in the same ancient practices. 5
Blood taboos predominated among the ancient Hebrews. Circumcision may have been connected to these blood taboos. Other blood taboos involved menstruating and recently delivered women, and draining the blood from freshly killed animals so that the blood was not consumed (i.e., “koshering” of meat). The significance of blood changed drastically with Christianity when Jesus presented his disciples with bread and wine that was to be consumed as His body and blood. The “Last Supper” (Eucharist) ritual is observed as “Mass” by Catholics and “Communion” by Protestants. Blood was believed to contain the life or soul of the being. This was the basis for the Hebraic blood taboos. It is possible that Christian Mass/Communion replaced Judaic circumcision, not with that specific intent, but by the drastic change in the significance of blood brought about by the new ritual.
St. Luke: Ch. 2: 21 – And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, His name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before He was conceived in the womb. 6
Most Americans know very little about circumcision. However, most are aware that it is mentioned in the Bible, and that the infant Jesus was circumcised. Many people deduce, perhaps subconsciously, that whatever circumcision is, it must be a beneficial thing because it was done to Jesus.
Christians consider Jesus the most perfect being to have ever existed. Yet His foreskin was cut off. Therefore, many conclude that the amputation of the foreskin must be a “perfecting” of the body, rather than a detraction or mutilation.
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance many works of art depicted the circumcision of the infant Jesus. Some Christian churches, primarily the Catholics, have observed the circumcision of Christ on the first day of January.* One writer comments on the observance of this event during the early days of Christianity:
“… Half smiling and half philosophising, the grand old fathers of the Church were pitying the Christ infant for what torture He had to suffer, and it is still to be revealed whether such a celebration is to commemorate a happy event in the life of Christ, or rather His introduction to martyrdom!” 7
Foley, in his vehement attack on neonatal circumcision states:
“Certain Christian clergymen, are quick to point out that Jesus Christ submitted to circumcision. They are not so quick to point out that Jesus also submitted to crucifixion.”8
Perhaps we should consider Jesus’ crucifixion and the circumcision of helpless infants both as examples of innocent beings being tortured except that His crucifixion had a clearer purpose.
Jesus’ circumcision does challenge the speculations that have been made about the traumatic operation’s ultimate effect on the character of the individual. One can argue that most of the great spiritual leaders within Judaeo-Christian history including most of the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, most of the apostles and early saints were circumcised as infants in accordance with the Abrahamic covenant. Certainly today there are many men who are spiritual leaders or are in other ways commendable people, who also happen to have been subjected to circumcision in infancy. No one has ever done any controlled study concerning the percentage of circumcised penises among criminals and vagrants compared to that among highly accomplished people of exemplary character. (Nor would most people consider any such effort of value. – R.R.) It is doubtful that circumcision, or any other painful medical procedure is going to “turn anyone into a criminal or a terrible person.” That is not the focus of today’s anti-circumcision movement. The operation is painful and traumatic. It is depriving the individual of a valuable, protective and sensate part of his body. It is unnecessary. These are our major concerns.
Perhaps the parent who has already had a son circumcised and now feels remorse can find some solace in the fact that the most celebrated infant to have ever been born was also a circumcised baby. However, for those who have yet to make the decision, no modern day Christian should have himself or his son circumcised simply because Jesus’ foreskin was cut off. Mary and Joseph were not modern day American parents who made a decision “should we or shouldn’t we have the baby circumcised?” In ancient Israel, at the time of Jesus’ birth, new parents had little or no choice about circumcision. Virtually all infant boys born to the ancient Hebrews were circumcised. Jesus was hardly in a position to be the exception. It was “against the law” not to have it done. Today’s young parents, who must decide whether or not to have a doctor amputate their baby’s foreskin, are in an entirely different situation.
An Ancient Holy Relic – The Prepuce of Christ
A bizarre sidelight in the history of circumcision concerns the amputated prepuce of the infant Jesus. During the Middle Ages there was a craze of religious fetishism involving “holy relics” including “bones of the Saints” and “splinters from the Holy Cross of Jesus.” Most of these “relics” were frauds which came from racketeers. This was made obvious by the fact that more “relics” existed than Saints or the Cross. This was another example of religious followers focusing on superficiality rather than true spirituality.
One of these “holy relics” was the “prepuce of the infant Jesus.”
” …When the worship of relics was in full bloom, the question was heard, what really happened to the holy foreskin of Christ? Where is it being kept?
“A holy legend was recalled according to which the mother of God had carried the foreskin of her Son about with her all her life like a precious jewel, in order that she might again accept Christ on the Day of Judgment … the Madonna was supposed to have entrusted this treasure to Saint John; … (or) to the holy Magdalen. The latter left the holy relic to the apostles, who left it to their successors. It was then hidden, until finally an angel from the land of the Unbelievers brought it to Charlemagne at Aix-la-Chapelle, who presented it to his only bride, the Sancta Ecclesia Romana. During the siege of Rome by Charles V in the year 1527, a soldier had stolen the relic, but it was evidently found again, as Gumbalungo relates in detail. The BLISSFUL WONDERFUL ODOR which met the nostrils of the women of Roman aristocracy (who were present when the find was opened and who ardently concerned themselves with the matter) is pictured as a miracle. This treasure was brought over to Calcata, where the relic is adorned every year by a complete indulgence (Muller).
“Soon the foreskin of Christ emerged in other places, so that finally more than twelve abbeys could show this relic. According to Kessler, at Charroux this relic was ‘set in silver and shown to pregnant women in order that they might be less painfully confined.’ The common people of the region have quite corrupted the name of the preputium and made ‘le Saint Repuce’ out of it. Even a queen of Sicily, who suffered from an incurable disease, made a pilgrimage to one of the abbeys and returned healthy….
“These doings probably became too much for the prudent church fathers. For purely doctrinary reasons, however, they first began to doubt the genuineness of these relics, in that they assumed that Christ had taken His foreskin with Him into Heaven. From that ensued a scholastic debate which centered around the point: HAS CHRIST A FORESKIN IN HEAVEN, OR HAS HE NOT?” 9
Most people today would find the history of Jesus’ prepuce ridiculous. Let us hope that the infant Jesus’ prepuce was buried in sand, as was the custom, decomposed normally, and ceased to exist. It seems bizarre that people would attach importance to a shriveled piece of tissue, regardless of its authenticity.
The Meaning of Circumcision for Today’s Christian
St. Matthew: Ch. 6: 19 – Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: 20 – But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. 21 – For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. 10
These words have many meanings for the Christian. One can only speculate if Jesus was foreseeing today’s department stores, modern gadgets and rampant consumerism.
The admonishment to attach central importance to spiritual, rather than material, physical things, is one of the basic messages of Christianity. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons that St. Paul declared circumcision irrelevant to the Christian.
The American Christian male today probably had his foreskin cut off in infancy. Most American Christian parents allow doctors to circumcise their baby boys. However, few Christians consciously think of medical circumcision as relating to their religion.
The only exceptions are the Abyssinian and Coptic Christians who circumcise infants and young boys as part of their religious rites. Apparently this practice is derived from a cultural heritage which predates their adoption of Christianity. Additionally, some Messianic Jews, i.e. Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, yet continue to embrace their Jewish faith and culture, do circumcise their baby boys.
Except for these, none of the Christian churches has any ritual related to infant circumcision. The operation is not performed in Christian churches. No Christian ministers or priests are expected to circumcise babies.
From the time of St. Paul and the beginning of the Christian church until the last few decades in the United States – a time span of almost two millennia – Christians were rarely circumcised. However, when routine circumcision of infants became a medical fad during the early part of the 20th century, American Christians have (perhaps subconsciously) accepted the practice more readily, because of its Biblical origins, than they might have otherwise.
Today there is an upsurge of Christian Fundamentalism. Some Christians today have decided that they should observe certain Old Testament laws, despite the fact that these were all rescinded in the New Testament. For example, some Christians refuse to eat pork. Similarly, others have enthusiastically accepted circumcision of their infant sons. Perhaps they have read some of the medical claims about cancer or hygiene, and decided that God must have commanded circumcision for “health” reasons.
The Christian is urged to learn the facts. The medical and “hygienic” arguments which have been posed for circumcision are not valid. Circumcision was declared unnecessary for Christians very early in the Church’s formation:
I Corinthians: Ch. 7: 19 – Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God.” 11
Although many Mormons** have their children circumcised, Mormon doctrine specifically states:
“Mormon received this revelation: ‘Little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken away from them in me, that it hath no power over them; and the law of circumcision is done away in me.’ ” (Moro. 8.) 12
Our medical profession has become for many a false religion, some would say an idolatry. Doctors are perceived as “holy men” and medical procedures are followed like “religious rituals.” Infant circumcision is but one of the medical rituals that we have accepted in a manner not unlike that of religious faith.
Certainly the medical profession provides a needed function, but we must seriously re-evaluate its role. Except for those who choose to use only spiritual or other alternative means of healing, all people make use of the medical profession for treatment of diseases and injuries. But the foreskin is neither a disease nor an injury! By signing circumcision permission papers, perhaps the Christian parent is ascribing to a false religious rite. For if God made a “covenant” with the ancient Hebrew patriarchs, He made no such “covenant” with the “patriarchs” of our medical profession.
“By signing circumcision permission papers, the Christian parent is ascribing to a false religious rite. For if God made a ‘covenant’ with the ancient Hebrew patriarchs, He made no such ‘covenant’ with the ‘patriarchs’ of our modern medical profession.”
In I Corinthians St. Paul states:
Ch. 7: 18 – Is any man called being circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised; is any called in uncircumcision? Let him not become circumcised 13 (Italics mine – R.R.)
Paul was addressing this to prospective converts of his day. However, the modern Christian should consider this passage as it relates to infants. For the child who is born to Christian parents is in a sense “called” in that he will be raised as a Christian. And the infant male is born with his foreskin. Therefore, isn’t the infant male “called in uncircumcision?” Perhaps the Christian parent is specifically going against this Biblical edict by having his son circumcised! Therefore, should not the Christian churches take a stand against circumcision for Christian babies?
Since attributes such as love, kindness, and caring are essential to the Christian character, the Christian should accept that a baby’s entrance into life should be as peaceful and loving as possible, and that he should have the right to keep all parts of his body. With a Christian spirit of love, the Christian parent should spare his son the trauma of foreskin amputation.
However, within any religion or cause, there is the problem of individuals becoming self-righteous, judgmental, and condemnatory towards others. Christians too often make this mistake, thereby defeating the purpose of Christian love for others. Natural childbirth enthusiasts similarly often become narrow – minded about other people’s choices concerning birth or breastfeeding. Some activists in the anti-circumcision cause also come across as angry, threatening and condemnatory towards others who have chosen circumcision for their sons. While intactivists do strongly hold that circumcision of non-consenting infants and children is child abuse, we are cautioned to be gentle and understanding about this matter when presenting our information to the uninformed public – however painful or damaging foreskin amputation may be, and however justified our feelings are on the matter. Our purpose is not intended anger others and turn people away from this cause – only to inspire people to think. Those who have been enlightened enough to leave their son(s) intact, must remember that others who have chosen circumcision are either devout Jews who believe that they must do this for religious reasons, or are people who have been misled to believe the common medical or “social” arguments for foreskin amputation. Many anti-circumcision activists are parents of circumcised sons, doctors who have performed or nurses who have assisted with circumcisions in the past, or are circumcised males themselves, and therefore realize that the operation is only done out of misinformation, or religious convictions, not from conscious intent to harm the child. All parents make mistakes with their children.
The Christian should remember Jesus words in St. Matthew:
Ch. 7: 1 – judge not, that ye be not judged. 2 – For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” 14
- The Rev. T.E. Romberg (brother of the author; personal correspondence).
- Galatians: Ch. 5: 1-3, 6.
- Philippians: Ch. 3: 2-3.
- Runyan Hous “Thus Spake St. Paul” ( … on circumcision) (unpublished).
- Wrana, Phoebe Historical Review “Circumcision” p. 387.
- St. Luke: Ch. 2: 15-21.
- D’Alba, Alexander, M.D. “Circumcision; the Savagery of the Cradle,” p. 8.
- Foley, John M., M.D. “The Unkindest Cut of All” Fact, Vol. 3, issue 4, July-August 1966, p. 6.
- Bryk, Felix Sex & Circumcision; A Study of Phallic Worship and Mutilation in Men and Women. Brandon House, North Hollywood, CA. c. 1967; p. 23-26.
- St. Matthew: Ch. 6: 19-21.
- I Corinthians: Ch. 7: 19.
- McConkie, Bruce R. Mormon Doctrine, p. 143-144.
- I Corinthians: Ch. 7: 18.
- St. Matthew: Ch. 7:1-2.
(* In recent years the Catholic church has changed the focus and the name of this observance. Today January 1st – the eighth day after Christmas – is celebrated as a mass in honor of the “maternity of Mary.” I have been told that Catholic authorities and Sunday school teachers decided that the subject of circumcision was too difficult and painful to explain to children. – R.R.)
(**Author’s note: I am well aware that many “mainstream” Christian denominations do not consider Mormonism true Christianity. However, any attempt to address such a theological issue would digress from the purpose of this book. – R.R.)
Author’s note: The chapters for this book were originally written during the late 70’s and early 80’s. At that time my spiritual orientation was more “open-ended” than it is today. I was raised a Christian, primarily in Methodist and Lutheran churches, but in early adulthood perceived Christianity largely as a philosophy and a system of ethics. Like so many of us, I had little comprehension of the underlying spirituality involved centered in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. During the mid-80’s I underwent some profound spiritual changes in my life.
I have since written two other articles which explore infant circumcision and the Christian faith in greater depth. One is quite lengthy, describing my own life experience in detail and exploring additional writings on the subject to a greater extent. The second is much shorter and is an extract of the first one, designed for use as a handout for new and/or expectant parents. Rather than rewrite the above chapter, I wish to recommend that interested readers check out the following article for further information. (My Website) “The Christian Parent” article.
https://independent.academia.edu/Michel_Herv%C3%A9_Bertaux_Navoiseau/Religions-and-circumcision (check indiv. articles**)