CIRCUMCISION (sĭr'kŭm-sĭ’shŭn, Lat. a cutting around). The cutting off of the foreskin, a custom that has prevailed, and still prevails, among many peoples in different parts of the world—in Asia, Africa, America, and Australia. In ancient times it was practiced among the western Semites—Hebrews, Arabians, Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, and Egyptians, but not among the Babylonians, Assyrians, Canaanites, and Philistines. Various theories are held regarding the origin and original significance of circumcision, but there can be no doubt that it was at first a religious act.
Among the Hebrews the rite was instituted by God as the sign of the covenant between him and Abraham, shortly after the latter’s sojourn in Egypt. God ordained that it be performed on Abraham, on his posterity and slaves, and on foreigners joining themselves to the Hebrew nation (
According to the terms of the covenant symbolized by circumcision, the Lord undertook to be the God of Abraham and his descendants, and they were to belong to him, worshiping and obeying only him. The rite effected admission to the fellowship of the covenant people and secured for the individual, as a member of the nation, his share in the promises God made to the nation as a whole. Circumcision reminded the Israelites of God’s promises to them and of the duties they had assumed. The prophets often reminded them that the outward rite, to have any significance, must be accompanied by a “circumcision of the heart” (
Practiced in ancient times in many parts of the world, it was especially important for Israel, for whom it was a sign of God's covenant with Abraham. It is still practiced by Jews, Muslims, and other peoples. It was abandoned early by the Christian Church, notably when the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) decided it was not obligatory on Gentiles. From a remote date it has been in use in the Church of Ethiopia, where it is performed before baptism, between the third and eighth day after birth.
CIRCUMCISION (מוּל, H4576, מוּלָה, H4581; περιτομή, G4364). The Eng. word is derived from the Lat. and means literally “to cut around.” The Biblical reference is to an operation whereby the foreskin (prepuce), a covering of skin on the head of the penis of the male, is removed by surgery. Today most male babies born in the western world undergo this simple operation in infancy because of hygienic considerations.
Circumcision found acceptance among widely scattered primitive societies throughout the world. Anthropologists have found tribes in America, Africa, and Australia practicing this rite.
Theories of origin.
Yahweh is credited with introducing circumcision as a sign of the covenant (
Studies of circumcision practices by anthropologists have issued in several naturalistic theories of the origin of this practice. Since
In antiquity Herodotus suggested that the explanation for the Egyp. practice was personal hygiene. Certainly, the foreskin can be an incubator and carrier of filth and social disease. However, this explanation does not take account of the universal identification of circumcision with religious sacrifice.
Many peoples tattoo or scarify themselves so that they will be easily identifiable to other members of their tribe. With the sharp distinction made by the Hebrews between those who were circumcised and those who were not, surely circumcision partook of this function in Heb. life. However, since the mark of circumcision could not normally be readily apprehended, this cannot be the primary explanation of the origin of the practice.
Rite of passage.
Many tribes around the world have practiced circumcision as a part of the ceremony marking the passing of males from the status of children to that of adults. Usually this occurs about the time of puberty. Some scholars have suggested this was the origin of the practice among the Hebrews, with it subsequently being moved to infancy because of the pain involved. There is no real textual basis for this reconstruction. The Hebrews set the eighth day (
Vicarious human sacrifice.
With the passing of the practice of human sacrifice, an expendable portion of every male was sacrificed as a substitutionary offering. However, there is no evidence that the Hebrews practiced human sacrifice, except perhaps for apostate groups under the influence of pagan religions (
It is the writer’s opinion that although some of these theories may be related to supporting causes for the practice of circumcision, there is no compelling reason to reject the account of origin as it appears in
The Jewish practice.
The rite of circumcision was a sign that one was a member of the covenant community. There is no reason to doubt that circumcision dates to the origin of the Heb. nation. Several early accounts concerning circumcision are of interest here, although they appear in difficult passages.
First, there is the account in
Second is the account of the circumcision of Moses and/or his sons (
Third is the account of Joshua circumcising all the Heb. males as he entered the land and prepared for the conquest (
Fourth is David’s “bride price” for Saul’s daughter Michal, 200 Philistine foreskins, twice what Saul had asked (
Circumcision is commanded in the law codes only in passing as part of a reference to the Passover (
By the time of Jesus, circumcision was performed at the Temple or synagogue by a priest. Earlier it was a family activity performed in the home. Interestingly, the literal tr. of father-in-law (חָתָן, H3163) is circumciser. Perhaps he customarily performed this act on the sons of his daughters. Also in the time of Jesus the naming of a child was a part of the circumcision ceremony.
Among the Jews circumcision was a mark of distinction. The uncircumcised were viewed with contempt. This ethnocentric attitude lay behind the controversy about circumcision in the Early Church.
This ethnocentrism also blinded many to the real meaning of the rite. It became a form of external religious practice lacking spiritual content. As such it was condemned by the prophets. Jeremiah attempted to get at its real meaning by introducing the concept “circumcised heart” (
The history of circumcision illustrated one of the basic paradoxes which plague religion. Man needs symbols as a means of expressing religious faith. Repeatedly, however, the symbols have become ends in themselves. They have lost their original purpose and power. Periodically symbols must be renewed, or discarded.
Early Church controversy.
The first generation Christians were Jews. Many, if not most, continued to frequent the synagogues and Temple (
However, as converts among the Gentiles began to multiply, a great controversy arose (
The account of the first church council is recorded in
Although Paul won a victory at the council, the issue continued to plague him (Gal. and much of Rom. are addressed to this issue). The Judaizers followed him from city to city and finally at Jerusalem succeeded in getting him imprisoned by charging him with polluting the Temple by bringing a non-proselyte Greek there (
Paul taught that the symbol must not be confused with its meaning. Faith, not circumcision, was the basis of God’s covenant with Abraham (
Relevance of circumcision for today.
Paul declared circumcision was not to be the key symbol of the new covenant. What has replaced it? Baptism (
T. Lewis, “Circumcision,” ISBE, I (1915), 656, 657; R. Bultmann, Theology of the, I (1955), 108-114; R. Patai, Sex and Family in the Bible (1959), 195-204; J. P. Hyatt, “Circumcision,” IDB, I (1962), 629-631.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
The removal of the foreskin is a custom that has prevailed, and prevails, among many races in different parts of the world--in America, Africa and Australia. It was in vogue among the western Semites--Hebrews, Arabians, Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Egyptians, but was unknown among the Semites of the Euphrates. In Canaan the Philistines were an exception, for the term "uncircumcised" is constantly used in connection with them. Generally speaking, the rite of circumcision was a precondition of the enjoyment of certain political and religious privileges (
1. Circumcision in the Old Testament:
In the account of the institution of the covenant between Yahweh and Abraham which Priestly Code (P) gives (
2. Theories of Origin:
The different theories with regard to the origin of circumcision may be arranged under four heads:
(1) Herodotus (ii.37), in dealing with circumcision among the Egyptians, suggests that it was a sanitary operation. But all suggestions of a secular, i.e. non-religious, origin to the rite, fail to do justice to the place and importance of religion in the life of primitive man.
(2) It was a tribal mark. Tattooed marks frequently answered the purpose, although they may have been originally charms. The tribal mark enabled one member of the tribe to recognize another and thus avoid injuring or slaying a fellow-tribesman. It also enabled the tribal deity to recognize a member of the tribe which was under his special protection. A mark was placed on Cain to indicate that he was under the special protection of Yahweh (
(3) It was a rite which celebrated the coming of age of the person. It signified the attainment of puberty and of the right to marry and to enjoy full civic privileges.
(4) As human sacrifices began to be done away with, the sacrifice of the most easily removed portion of the anatomy provided a vicarious offering.
(5) It was a sacramental operation. "The shedding of blood" was necessary to the validity of any covenant between tribes or individuals. The rite of blood signifies the exchange of blood on the part of the contracting parties, and therefore the establishment of physical affinity between them. An alliance based on blood-relationship was inviolable. In the same way the tribal god was supposed to share in the blood of the sacrificed animal, and a sacred bond was established between him and the tribe. It is not quite obvious why circumcision should be necessary in connection with such a ceremony. But it may be pointed out that the process of generation excited the wonder and awe of primitive man. The prosperity of the tribe depended on the successful issue of the marriage bond, and a part of the body which had so much to do with the continuation and numerical strength of the tribe would naturally be fixed upon in connection with the covenant of blood. In confirmation of the last explanation it is urged that in the case of the covenant between Yahweh and Abraham circumcision was the rite that ratified the agreement. In opposition to (3) it has been urged that among the Hebrews circumcision was performed in infancy--when the child was 8 days old. But this might have been an innovation among the Hebrews, due to ignorance of the original significance of the rite. If circumcision conferred upon the person circumcised the right to the enjoyment of the blessings connected with membership in the tribe it was natural that parents should be anxious that such an initiatory act should be performed early in life. The question of adult and infant baptism is capable of similar explanation. When we examine explanations (2), (3), (4), (5), we find that they are really different forms of the same theory. There can be no doubt that circumcision was originally a religions act. Membership in the tribe, entrance upon the rights of citizenship, participation in the religious practices of the tribe--these privileges are interdependent. Anyone who had experienced the rite of blood stood within the scope of the covenant which existed between the tribe and the tribal god, and enjoyed all the privileges of tribal society. It is easily understood why the historian carefully relates the circumcision of the Israelites by Joshua on their arrival in Canaan. It was necessary, in view of the possible intermingling of the conquerors and the conquered, that the distinctive marks of the Abrahamic covenant should be preserved (
3. Spiritual Significance:
4. Figurative Uses:
In a few suggestive passages we find a figurative application of the term. For three years after the settlement in Canaan the "fruit of the land" was to be considered as "uncircumcised" (