|Part of a series
|Biblical canon and books|
|Tanakh: Torah · Nevi'im · Ketuvim
Old Testament · New Testament ·
Deuterocanon · Antilegomena
Chapters & verses
Apocrypha: Jewish · OT · NT
|Development and authorship|
Old Testament canon
New Testament canon
|Translations and manuscripts|
|Septuagint · Samaritan Pentateuch
Dead Sea scrolls · Masoretic text
Targums · Peshitta
Vetus Latina · Vulgate
Gothic Bible · Luther Bible
Novum Testamentum Graece
NT textual categories
Historicity ( People)
Archeology · Artifacts
Science and the Bible
|Hermeneutics · Pesher
Midrash · Pardes
Allegorical · Literalism
|Inerrancy · Infallibility · Criticism
Islamic · Qur'anic · Gnostic
Judaism and Christianity
Biblical law in Judaism
Biblical law in Christianity
Male circumcision, when practiced as a religious rite, is found in the Hebrew Bible, in the Abrahamic covenant, such as Genesis 17, and is therefore practiced by Jews and Muslims and some Christians, those who constitute the Abrahamic religions.
Cultures circumcising males generally do it shortly after birth, during childhood or around puberty as part of a rite of passage. Circumcision is most prevalent in Muslim countries and Israel, and is most prevalent in the Jewish and Muslim faiths, though also common in the United States, the Philippines, South Korea, and Ethiopia, which are predominantly Christian. It is less common in Europe, Latin America, China and India. Hodges argues that in Ancient Greece the foreskin was valued and that Greek and Roman attempts to abolish ritual circumcision were prompted by humanitarian concerns.
There are numerous references to circumcision in the Jewish Bible. Circumcision was enjoined upon the biblical patriarch Abraham, his descendants and their slaves as "a token of the covenant" concluded with him by God for all generations, an "everlasting covenant" (Genesis 17:13), thus it is commonly observed by the Abrahamic religions.
The penalty of non-observance was karet, excision from the people (Genesis 17:10-14, 21:4; Lev 12:3). Non-Israelites had to undergo circumcision before they could be allowed to take part in the feast of Passover (Exodus 12:48), or marry into a Jewish family (Genesis 34:14-16). See also Mosaic Law directed at non-Jews and Conversion to Judaism.
It was "a reproach" for an Israelite to be uncircumcised (Josh 5:9) The name arelim (uncircumcised) became an opprobrious term, especially a pejorative name for the Philistines, who might have been of Greek origin, in the context of the fierce wars recounted in the Book of Samuel (1 Sam 14:6, 31:4. When the general (and future king) David wanted to marry King Saul's daughter, the King required a grisly "dowry" of a hundred Philistine foreskins. David went one better: "and David arose and went, he and his men, and slew of the Philistines two hundred men; and David brought their foreskins, and they gave them in full number to the king, that he might be the king's son-in-law. And Saul gave him Michal his daughter to wife".(1 Sam 18:25)
"Uncircumcised" is not, however, used in relation to Semitic non-Israelite neighbors such as the Moabites, Amonites and Edomites, who were culturally similar to the Israelites and might have also practiced circumcision.
"Uncircumcised" is used synonymously with tame (unclean) for heathen (Isa 52:1). The word 'arel' (uncircumcised) is also employed for "unclean" (Lev. 26:41, "their uncircumcised hearts"; compare Jer. 9:25; Ezek. xliv. 7, 9); it is even applied to the first three years' fruit of a tree, which is forbidden (Lev 19:23).
However, the Israelites born in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt apparently did not carry out the practice of circumcision. According to Josh 5:2-9, "all the people that came out" of Egypt were circumcised, but those "born in the wilderness" were not. In any case, we are told that Joshua, before the celebration of the Passover, had them circumcised at Gilgal.
The Bible contains several narratives in which circumcision is mentioned. There is the circumcision and massacre of the Shechemites (Genesis 34:1-35:5), the hundred foreskin dowry (1 Samuel 18:25-27) and the story of the LORD threatening to kill Moses, and being placated by Zipporah's circumcision of their son (Exodus 4:24-26), and the Circumcision at Gilgal of Joshua 5.
There is another sense in which the term "circumcise" is used in the Bible. Deut 10:16 says: "Circumcise the foreskin of your heart," (also quoted in Jer 4:4, New JPS translates as: "Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts") along with Jer 6:10: To whom shall I speak, and give warning, that they may hear? behold their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot hearken: ... (New JPS translates: "Their ears are blocked"). Some interpret this as giving the rite a spiritual meaning; circumcision as a physical act being enjoined nowhere in the book. Jer 9:25-26 says that circumcised and uncircumcised will be punished alike by the Lord; for "all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart." The New JPS translation adds the note: "uncircumcised of heart: I.e., their minds are blocked to God's commandments." Non-Jewish tribes that practiced circumcision were described as being "circumcised in uncircumcision."(Jeremiah 9:24)
Judaism teaches that the Bible was transmitted in parallel with an oral tradition, known as the oral law. Jewish practices and beliefs, thus, are based on reading the Bible through the perspective of the oral law; see the entries on the Mishnah, Talmud and rabbinic literature.
According to Jewish law, ritual circumcision of male children is a commandment from God that Jews are obligated to follow, and is only postponed or abrogated in the case of threat to the life or health of the child. Jews do not believe that non-Jews are obligated to follow this commandment; only Noahide laws apply to non-Jews. Many Christians have the same understanding of this issue (i.e., that it is a law intended for Jews, but not for Christians), see also Biblical law in Christianity and Dual-covenant theology.
During the Babylonian exile, Sabbath and circumcision became the characteristic symbols of the Jewish people. This seems to be the underlying idea of Isa. lvi. 4: "The eunuchs that keep my Sabbath" still "hold fast by my covenant," though not having "the sign of the covenant" (Gen. xvii. 11.) upon their flesh.. However, the Talmud orders that a boy must not be circumcised if he had two brothers, from the same mother as him, who have died as a result of their circumcisions; this may be due to a concern about haemophilia.
Contact with Greek polytheistic culture, especially at the games of the arena, made this distinction obnoxious to Jewish-Hellenists seeking to assimilate into Greek culture. The consequence was their attempt to appear like the Greeks by epispasm ("making themselves foreskins"; 1 Macc 1:15; Josephus, Ant. xii 5, § 1; Assumption of Moses, viii.; 1 Cor 7:18;, Tosef.; Talmud tractes Shabbat xv. 9; Yevamot 72a, b; Yerushalmi Peah i. 16b; Yevamot viii. 9a). Also, some Jews at this time stopped circumcising their children. 1 Macc 2:46 records that the Maccabean zealots "forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys they found within the borders of Israel."
The Rabbis also took action to ensure that the practice of circumcision did not die out. In order to prevent the obliteration of the "seal of the covenant" on the flesh, as circumcision was henceforth called, the Rabbis, probably after Bar Kokhba's revolt, instituted the "peri'ah" (the laying bare of the glans), without which circumcision was declared to be of no value (Shab. xxx. 6).
To be born without a foreskin was regarded as the privilege of the most saintly of people, from Adam, "who was made in the image of God," and Moses to Zerubbabel (see Midrash Ab. R. N., ed. Schechter, p. 153; and Talmud, Sotah 12a).
Uncircumcision being considered a blemish, circumcision was to remove it, and to render Abraham and his descendants "perfect" (Talmud Ned. 31b; Midrash Genesis Rabbah xlvi.)
Rabbinic literature holds that one who removes his circumcision has no portion in the world to come (Mishnah Ab. iii. 17; Midrash Sifre, Num. xv. 31; Talmud Sanhedrin 99).
According to the Midrash Pirke R. El. xxix., it was Shem who circumcised Abraham and Ishmael on the Day of Atonement; and the blood of the covenant then shed is ever before God on that day to serve as an atoning power. According to the same midrash, Pharaoh prevented the Hebrew slaves from performing the rite, but when the Passover time came and brought them deliverance, they underwent circumcision, and mingled the blood of the paschal lamb with that of the Abrahamic covenant, wherefore (Ezek. xvi. 6) God repeats the words: "In thy blood live!"
In the first century of the common era, the requirement for circumcision of proselytes was an open issue between the zealots and liberal parties in ancient Israel, before the Mishnah was edited and the halakah (Jewish law) finalized, the time of the Tannaim.
R. Joshua asserting that along with accepting Jewish beliefs and laws, immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath, cf. baptism) was enough for someone to convert to Judaism. In contrast, R. Eliezer makes circumcision a condition for the conversion. A similar controversy between the Shammaites and the Hillelites is given (Shab. 137a) regarding a proselyte born without a foreskin: the former demanding the spilling of a drop of blood of the covenant; the latter declaring it to be unnecessary.
The rigorous view is echoed in the Midrash: "If thy sons accept My Godhead [by undergoing circumcision] I shall be their God and bring them into the land; but if they do not observe My covenant in regard either to circumcision or to the Sabbath, they shall not enter the land of promise" (Midrash Genesis Rabbah xlvi.). "The Sabbath-keepers who are not circumcised are intruders, and deserve punishment," (Midrash Deut. Rabbah i.)
It appears that while the Palestinian Jews accepted the uncircumcised proselytes only as "Proselytes of the Gate", non-Palestinian Judaism did not make such a distinction until the Jewish-Roman wars, when the more rigorous view became prevalent everywhere. Thus Flavius Clemens, a nephew of the emperors Titus and Domitian, when, with his wife Domitilla, he embraced the Jewish faith; he underwent circumcision, for which he suffered the penalty of death (see Grätz, "Gesch." iv. 403 et seq., 702).
It was chiefly this rigorous feature of Jewish proselytism which provoked the hostile measures of the emperor Hadrian. And, furthermore, it was the discussion of this same question among the Jews—whether the seal of circumcision might not find its substitute in "the seal of baptism" — which led Paul of Tarsus to urge the latter in opposition to the former (Romans 2:25-29, 4:11-12, and elsewhere), just as he was led to adopt the antinomistic or antinational view, which had its exponents in Alexandria.
Flavius Josephus in Jewish Antiquities book 20, chapter 2 recorded the story of King Izates of Adiabene who decided to follow the Law of Moses at the advice of a Jewish merchant named Ananias. He was going to get circumcised, but his mother, Helen, who herself embraced the Jewish customs, advised against it on the grounds that the subjects wouldn't stand to be ruled by someone who followed such "strange and foreign rites". Ananias likewise advised against it, on the grounds that worship of God was superior to circumcision (Robert Eisenman in James the Brother of Jesus claims that Ananias is Paul of Tarsus who held similar views) and that God would forgive him for fear of his subjects. So Izates decided against it. However, later, "a certain other Jew that came out of Galilee, whose name was Eleazar", who was well versed in the Law, convinced him that he should, on the grounds that it was one thing to read the Law and another thing to practice it, and so he did. Once Helen and Ananias found out, they were struck by great fear of the possible consequences, but as Josephus put it, God looked after Izates. As his reign was peaceful and blessed, Helen visited the Jerusalem Temple to thank God, and since there was a terrible famine at the time, she brought lots of food and aid to the people of Jerusalem.
It has become generally accepted in all branches of Judaism that circumcision is an essential requirement for Jews. Subject to overriding medical considerations, the circumcision must take place eight days after the birth of the child, even when this falls on Shabbat; but Samaritans and Karaite Judaism do not follow this rule. The child must be medically fit for a circumcision to be performed, and Jewish law prohibits parents having their son circumcised if medical doctors hold that the procedure may unduly threaten the child's health (e.g. because of hemophilia). If by reason of the child's debility or sickness the ceremony is postponed, it cannot take place on Shabbat.
It is the duty of the father to have his child circumcised; and if he fails in this, the beth din of the city must see that the rite is performed In the absence of a Jewish expert, a non-Jewish physician may, according to R. Meïr, perform the ceremony, as may women, slaves, and children.
The origin of circumcision in Islam is a matter of religious and scholarly debate. It is mentioned in some hadith, but not in the Qur'an. Some Fiqh scholars state that circumcision is recommended (Sunnah); others that it is obligatory. Some have quoted the hadith to argue that the requirement of circumcision is based on the covenant with Abraham.
The timing of Muslim circumcision varies. Turkish, Balkan, rural Egyptians and Central and South Asian Muslims typically circumcise boys between the ages of six and eleven. Traditionally, Turkish circumcisions are celebrated with sweets and the "Sünnet Düğünü", or "Circumcision Feast/Celebration," and performed rarely with no anesthetic. It is considered a very important celebration in man's life as a passage to a manhood. Many parents of children born in hospitals now choose to have their sons circumcised in the hospital setting, a few days after birth. In Pakistan, Muslims may be circumcised at all ages from the newborn period to adulthood, though the medical profession has encouraged medical circumcisions in the first week after birth to reduce complications: "Circumcision is performed by barbers, medical technicians, quacks and doctors including paediatric surgeon[s] [and as] yet there is no consensus for the best age and method." In Iran, Dr. Paula Drew states that “circumcision, which formerly celebrated the onset of manhood, has for many years now been more customarily performed at the age of 5 or 6 for children born at home, and at two days old for those born in a medical setting.…By puberty, all Muslim Iranian boys must be circumcised if they are to participate fully in religious activities.” Kamyar et al. describe circumcision as an "obligatory custom" and note that it is not necessary for the circumciser to be a Muslim.
The Deuterocanon/Biblical Apocrypha reveal the cultural clash between Jews and Greeks, and between Judaizers and Hellenizers. Greeks valued the foreskin, and when they took part in athletic sports, they did it in the nude . However, they insisted that the glans remained covered, and they did not approve of the Jewish custom of circumcision. The Books of the Maccabees reveal that some Jewish men chose to undergo epispasm, foreskin restoration by stretching the residual skin , so that they could conform to Greek culture and take part in these sports. (1 Macc 1:11-15). Some also left their sons uncircumcised (1 Macc 2:46). This relatively peaceful period came to an end when Antiochus Epiphanes attacked first Egypt and then sacked and looted Jerusalem (1 Macc 1:16-64). Epiphanes determined to force everyone to live the Greek way and abandon the Jewish way. Among other things, he banned circumcision.
Though many were prepared to conform to Greek culture, observant Jews saw circumcision as a mark of Jewish loyalty and many who kept to the Mosaic Law defied the edict of Antiochus Epiphanes prohibiting circumcision (1 Macc 1:48,1:60; 2:46). Jewish women showed their loyalty to the Law, even at the risk of their lives, by themselves circumcising their sons. "For example, two women were brought in for having circumcised their children. They publicly paraded them around the city, with their babies hanging at their breasts, and then hurled them down headlong from the wall." (2 Macc 6:10) At the same time, the Zealots forcibly circumcised the uncircumcised boys within the borders of Israel (1 Macc 2:46).
In the upshot, the Jewish Zealots defeated the Greeks and they retained the right to circumcise.
The Book of Jubilees, part of the Bible of the Ethiopian Orthodox, written in the time of John Hyrcanus, reveals the hostility directed against those who abandoned circumcision (xv. 26-27): "Whosoever is uncircumcised belongs to 'the sons of Belial,' to 'the children of doom and eternal perdition'; for all the angels of the Presence and of the Glorification have been so from the day of their creation, and God's anger will be kindled against the children of the covenant if they make the members of their body appear like those of the Gentiles, and they will be expelled and exterminated from the earth".
|“||R. Emden (), in a remarkable apology for Christianity contained in his appendix to "Seder 'Olam" (pp. 32b-34b, Hamburg, 1752), gives it as his opinion that the original intention of Jesus, and especially of Paul, was to convert only the Gentiles to the seven moral laws of Noah and to let the Jews follow the Mosaic law— which explains the apparent contradictions in the New Testament regarding the laws of Moses and the Sabbath.||”|
Today, most Christian denominations are neutral about biblical male circumcision, neither requiring it nor forbidding it. The first Church Council in Jerusalem declared that circumcision was not necessary (Acts 15). It is customary among the Coptic, Ethiopian, and Eritrean Orthodox Churches, and also some other African churches . Some Christian churches in South Africa oppose circumcision, viewing it as a pagan ritual, while others, including the Nomiya church in Kenya, require circumcision for membership. Some participants in focus group discussions in Zambia and Malawi said that Christians should practice circumcision because Jesus was circumcised and the Bible teaches the practice.
While Jesus' circumcision was recorded as having been performed in accordance with Torah requirements in Luke 2:21, according to the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 15, the leaders of the Christian Church at the Council of Jerusalem rejected circumcision as a requirement for Gentile converts, possibly the first act of differentiation of Early Christianity from its Jewish roots, see also List of events in early Christianity. Paul of Tarsus, who called himself Apostle to the Gentiles, attacked the practice, but not consistently, for example in one case he personally circumcised Timothy "because of the Jews" that were in town (Timothy had a Jewish Christian mother but a Greek father Acts 16:1-3). He also appeared to praise its value in Rom 3:1-2. Paul argued that circumcision no longer meant the physical, but a spiritual practice (Rom 2:25-29). And in that sense, he wrote 1 Cor 7:18: "Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised" -- probably a reference to the practice of epispasm . Paul was circumcised when he was "called". He added: "Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised.", and went on to argue that circumcision didn't matter: "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts." (1 Cor 7:19)
Later he more explicitly denounced the practice, rejecting and condemning those who promoted circumcision to Gentile Christians. He accused Galatian Christians who advocated circumcision of turning from the Spirit to the flesh. And in Gal 3:3 says "Are you so foolish, that, whereas you began in the Spirit, you would now be made perfect by the flesh?" He accused circumcision advocates of wanting to make a good showing in the flesh Gal 6:12 and of glorying or boasting of the flesh Gal 6:13. Some believe Paul wrote the entire book of Galatians attacking circumcision and requiring the keeping of Jewish law by Christians, saying in chapter five: "If ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing."
The Catholic Encyclopedia's entry on Judaizers notes: "Paul, on the other hand, not only did not object to the observance of the Mosaic Law, as long as it did not interfere with the liberty of the Gentiles, but he conformed to its prescriptions when occasion required (1 Cor 9:20). Thus he shortly after circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:1-3), and he was in the very act of observing the Mosaic ritual when he was arrested at Jerusalem (21:26 sqq.)."
Simon Peter, who for Catholic Christians is the first Pope, condemned circumcision for converts according to Acts 15. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, charged that the advocates of circumcision were "false brothers" (Gal 2:4). Some Biblical scholars think that the Epistle of Titus, generally attributed to Paul, may state that circumcision should be discouraged among Christians (Titus 1:10-16), though others believe this is merely a reference to Jews. Circumcision was so closely associated with Jewish men that Jewish Christians were referred to as "those of the circumcision" (Col 3:20)  or conversely Christians who were circumcised were referred to as Jewish Christians or Judaizers. These terms (circumcised/uncircumcised) are generally interpreted to mean Jews and Greeks, who were predominate, however it is an oversimplification as 1st century Iudaea Province also had some Jews who no longer circumcised (see Hellenistic Judaism), and some Greeks (see Proselytes or Judaizers) and others such as Egyptians, Ethiopians, and Arabs who did.
In the Gospel of John 7:23 Jesus is reported as giving this response to those who criticized him for healing on Sabbath: "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?"
The Greek Orthodox Church celebrates the Circumcision of Christ on 1 January, while Orthodox churches following the Julian calendar celebrate it on 14 January. The Russian Orthodox Church considers it a "Great Feast". In the Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches it has been replaced by other commemorations.
Historically, the Roman Catholic Church denounced religious circumcision for its members in the Cantate Domino, written during the 11th Council of Florence in 1442.  This decision was based on the belief that baptism had superseded circumcision (Col 2:11-12), and may also have been a response to Coptic Christians, who continued to practice circumcision. The modern Roman Catholic Church maintains a neutral position on the practice of non-religious circumcision, and has never addressed the issue of infant circumcision specifically.
Some Catholic scholars, such as Fr. John J. Dietzen, a retired priest and columnist, have argued that paragraph number 2297 from the Catholic Catechism (Respect for bodily integrity) makes the practice of elective and neonatal circumcision immoral. John Paul Slosar and Daniel O'Brien, however, argue that the therapeutic benefits of neonatal circumcision are inconclusive, but that recent findings that circumcision may prevent disease puts the practice outside the realm of paragraph 2297. They also argue that statements regarding mutilation and amputation in the "Respect for bodily integrity" paragraph are made within the context of kidnapping, hostage taking or torture, and that if circumcision is defined as an amputation, any removal of tissue or follicle, regardless of its effect on functional integrity, could be considered a violation of moral law. The proportionality of harm versus benefit of medical procedures, as defined by Directives 29 and 33 of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (National Conference of Catholic Bishops), have also been interpreted to support and reject the practice of circumcision. These arguments represent the conscience of the individual writers, and not the official stance of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Druze have no male circumcision in their religion, although, according to one source, it is practiced among those living in urban areas or outside the Middle East, mainly for hygienic reasons.
Circumcision in South Korea is largely the result of American cultural and military influence following the Korean War. The origin of circumcision in the Philippines is uncertain. One newspaper article speculates that it is due to the influence of western colonizers. However, Antonio de Morga's seventeenth century History of the Philippine Islands, speculates that it is due to Islamic influence. In West Africa infant circumcision may have had tribal significance as a rite of passage or otherwise in the past; today in some non-Muslim Nigerian societies it is medicalised and is simply a cultural norm. In early 2007 it was announced that rural aidpost orderlies in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea are to undergo training in the circumcision of men and boys of all ages with a view to introducing the procedure as a means of prophylaxis against HIV/AIDS, which is becoming a significant problem in the country.
Circumcision is part of initiation rites in some African, Pacific Islander, and Australian aboriginal traditions in areas such as Arnhem Land, where the practice was introduced by Makassan traders from Sulawesi in the Indonesian Archipelago. Circumcision ceremonies among certain Australian aboriginal societies are noted for their painful nature, including subincision for some aboriginal peoples in the Western Desert. In the Pacific, ritual circumcision is nearly universal in the Melanesian islands of Fiji and Vanuatu; participation in the traditional land diving on Pentecost Island is reserved for those who have been circumcised. Circumcision is also commonly practised in the Polynesian islands of Samoa, Tonga, Niue, and Tikopia. In Samoa, it is accompanied by a celebration. Among some West African animist groups, such as the Dogon and Dowayo, it is taken to represent a removal of "feminine" aspects of the male, turning boys into fully masculine males. In many West African traditional societies circumcision has become medicalised and is simply performed in infancy without ado or any particular conscious cultural significance. Among the Urhobo of southern Nigeria it is symbolic of a boy entering into manhood. The ritual expression, Omo te Oshare ("the boy is now man"), constitutes a rite of passage from one age set to another. For Nilotic peoples, such as the Kalenjin and Maasai, circumcision is a rite of passage observed collectively by a number of boys every few years, and boys circumcised at the same time are taken to be members of a single age set.
In Sikhism, there is a rule forbidding cutting operations on the body (except necessary surgery), which also applies to ritual circumcision.
2. Leonard B. Glick. Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. (ISBN 0-19-517674-X)