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 (Gen.17.12). Every male child was to be circumcised on the eighth day. Originally the father performed the rite, but in exceptional cases a woman could do it (Exod.4.25). In later times a Hebrew surgeon was called in. The child was named at the ceremony. Today the rite is performed either in the parent’s home or in the synagogue. In former times flint or glass knives were preferred, but now steel is usually used.

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” (Lev.26.41; Deut.30.6; Ezek.44.7). Jeremiah said that his countrymen were no better than the pagans, for they were “uncircumcised in heart” (Jer.9.25-Jer.9.26). Paul used the word concision for this outward circumcision not accompanied by a spiritual change. In the early history of the Christian church, Judaizing Christians argued for the necessity of circumcising Gentiles who came into the church over against Paul, who insisted that the signs of the old covenant could not be forced on the children of the new covenant. Paul’s view was affirmed by the Council of Jerusalem (Acts.15.1-Acts.15.41).——SB

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 (Gen 17:10-14). The shedding of blood, cutting, is universally associated with covenant making, both in the OT and the ancient world. Given within the setting of Abraham’s failure to have children by Sarah, circumcision may have meant symbolically: I am yielding my powers of procreation, my stake in the future to Yahweh. I am becoming totally dependent upon Him. If I have descendants enough to be a great nation it will be Yahweh’s doing, not my own. One can well imagine that this was the supreme sacrifice for the ancient patriarch. This theory of origin is called

Sacramental operation.

Studies of circumcision practices by anthropologists have issued in several naturalistic theories of the origin of this practice. Since Genesis 17:10-14 is attributed to the Priestly Code by the textual critics, some students doubt the authenticity of this account. Also Egyp. tomb art depicts the practice of circumcision prior to Abraham’s sojourn there. Abraham would have been familiar with the practice before the events described in Genesis 17. Consequently, thoroughness and honesty demand consideration of these other theories.

Hygienic operation.

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.

Tribal mark.

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 (Gen 17:11, 12; Luke 1:59) as the time to circumcise. For converts to Judaism, however, circumcision was something of a rite of passage. It marked their commitment to and entrance into the covenant relationship with Yahweh. Unfortunately, as noted by Jeremiah 4:4 and in Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6, many of the natural Jews were circumcised physically, but failed to realize the symbolic and spiritual significance of the act.

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 (Lev 18:21; Ezek 16:20).

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 Genesis 17:10-14. This was a sacramental operation. Bonds are bound by blood among the ancients. Covenants are sealed by shed blood. Circumcision, the cutting of one’s genital organ, symbolized one’s utter dependence upon and commitment to the will of Yahweh. Rightly understood circumcision is a most meaningful rite.

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 Genesis 34 of the Shechemites submitting to circumcision and subsequently being slain. This record substantiates the contention that circumcision was adopted early. It also indicates that other Semites were slower in adopting this practice.

Second is the account of the circumcision of Moses and/or his sons (Exod 4:24-26). This is a most difficult passage. Coming as it does immediately after a prophecy of the events of the initial Passover, it would seem to have been a lesson for Moses concerning the power of God and the seriousness of the task presented to him. Apparently, Moses had not yet brought his own sons under the covenant by having them circumcised.

Third is the account of Joshua circumcising all the Heb. males as he entered the land and prepared for the conquest (Josh 5:2-7). As the ancient writer explains this was a season of forging the diverse groups who had comprised the train of the Exodus into a united band. Here circumcision partakes of “tribal mark.”

Fourth is David’s “bride price” for Saul’s daughter Michal, 200 Philistine foreskins, twice what Saul had asked (1 Sam 18:20-29). This was a feat of valor and disdain for the enemy.

Circumcision is commanded in the law codes only in passing as part of a reference to the Passover (Exod 12:48) and in the rites of purification following childbirth (Lev 12:3). This infrequency of command would seem to indicate that circumcision was a widely accepted practice, not requiring lengthy prescriptions.

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” (Jer 4:4). Jeremiah’s contemporaries believed that God was on their side. Not so, cried Jeremiah. Religion must be internalized. Symbols must not be emptied of their meaning and allowed to stand alone. Circumcision was meant to symbolize a commitment of oneself to God’s will forever. It is an outward sign of a heart, the inner core of one’s personality, dedicated to doing the will of God. Paul picks up this train of thought in Romans 4:9-13 where he contends that circumcision is not the cause of God’s promise to Abraham, rather it is an act of faith symbolizing Abraham’s confidence in God’s ability to do what He has promised.

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 (Acts 5:42; 6:7). They saw themselves as a reform movement within Judaism, not a new religion. The central issue in the early chs. of Acts is whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. Even during the persecution led by Saul (Paul) the Christians remained within Judaism (9:1, 2). The essential mark of distinction was their experience of the power and activity of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

However, as converts among the Gentiles began to multiply, a great controversy arose (Acts 10-15). Essentially the issue was this: since circumcision is the mark of the people of the covenant, and since Christ brought and is bringing the fulfillment of the covenant promises, is it not necessary for one to be circumcised (be a proselyte Jew) to participate in these promises? Or phrased another way: Does one need to become a Jew before he can be a follower of Christ? At Jerusalem a “circumcision party” was formed. Countering this group was Paul and his followers. Peter seems to have vacillated on the matter (Acts 11; 15; Gal 2).

The account of the first church council is recorded in Acts 15. Although there are some problems of harmonization, Galatians 2 is generally thought to be Paul’s account of this council. (Some believe Galatians 2 refers to an earlier visit by Paul to Jerusalem mentioned in Acts 11:27-30.) Here Paul won the support of the church leaders. Circumcision was dropped as a prerequisite for being recognized as a member of the Christian fellowship. The only requirements were a turning from pagan worship and refraining from immorality (Acts 15:19-21).

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 (Acts 21). Likely the circumcision controversy caused Paul to rethink the whole of Jewish legalism and come to his position concerning the primacy of faith (Gal 2:15-21) and the sacrificial death of Christ. In this sense the circumcision controversy was not only the first but also the most important controversy in church history.

Paul taught that the symbol must not be confused with its meaning. Faith, not circumcision, was the basis of God’s covenant with Abraham (Rom 4:9-12). Circumcision of the heart, purity and commitment to doing the will of God, is what is desired (Rom 2:29).

Relevance of circumcision for today.

Paul declared circumcision was not to be the key symbol of the new covenant. What has replaced it? Baptism (Col 2:8-15) may be interpreted as such. Yet it suffers the same danger of becoming confused with that which it was meant to signify. Both Paul and the writer of Hebrews avoid this rather obvious identification. The more likely sacrament is that of the Lord’s Supper, and Paul so labels the cup (1 Cor 11:25). The advantage of this symbol is that it is to be repeated regularly during adulthood. Consequently, the believer is repeatedly confronted by the meaning of this symbol.


T. Lewis, “Circumcision,” ISBE, I (1915), 656, 657; R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, 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 (Ex 12:48; Eze 44:9); and in view of the fact that in the ancient world religion played such an important role in life, it may be assumed that circumcision, like many other strange customs whose original significance is no longer known, originated in connection with religion. Before enumerating the different theories which have been advanced with regard to the origin and original significance of circumcision, it may be of advantage to consider some of the principal references to the rite in the Old Testament.

1. Circumcision in the Old Testament:

In the account of the institution of the covenant between Yahweh and Abraham which Priestly Code (P) gives (Ge 17), circumcision is looked upon as the ratification of the agreement. Yahweh undertook to be the God of Abraham and of his descendants. Abraham was to be the father of a multitude of nations and the founder of a line of kings. He and his descendants were to inherit Canaan. The agreement thus formed was permanent; Abraham’s posterity should come within the scope of it. But it was necessary to inclusion in the covenant that every male child should be circumcised on the 8th day. A foreigner who had attached himself as a slave to a Hebrew household had to undergo the rite--the punishment for its non-fulfilment being death or perhaps excommunication. According to Ex 12:48 (also P) no stranger could take part in the celebration of the Passover unless he had been circumcised. In the Book of Jos (Jos 5:2-9) we read that the Israelites were circumcised at Gilgal ("Rolling"), and thus the "reproach of Egypt" was "rolled away." Apparently circumcision in the case of the Hebrews was prohibited during the Egyptian period--circumcision being a distinctive mark of the ruling race. It is noticeable that flint knives were used for the purpose. This use of an obsolete instrument is one of many proofs of conservatism in religion. According to the strange and obscure account of the circumcision by Zipporah of her eldest son (Ex 4:25) the performance of the rite in the case of the son apparently possesses a vicarious value, for thereby Moses becomes a "bridegroom of blood." The marriage bond is ratified by the rite of blood (see 4 below). But it is possible that the author’s meaning is that owing to the fact that Moses had not been circumcised (the "reproach of Egypt") he was not fit to enter the matrimonial estate (see 3 below).

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 (Ge 4:15). It has been suggested, in the light of Isa 44:5 the Revised Version, margin, that the employer’s mark was engraved (tattooed) on the slave’s hand. The prophet represents Jews as inscribing on their hands that they belong to Yahweh. The walls of Jerusalem are engraved on Yahweh’s palms (Isa 49:16). On the other hand "cuttings in the flesh" are prohibited in Le 19:28 because they were common in the case of the non-Jewish religions. Such tattooed marks might be made in conspicuous places when it was necessary that they should be easily seen, but there might be reason for secrecy so that the marks might be known only to the members of the tribe in question.

(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 (Jos 5:3).

3. Spiritual Significance:

In Jer 9:25 and De 30:6 we find the spiritual significance of circumcision. A prophet like Jeremiah was not likely to attach much importance to an external act like circumcision. He bluntly tells his countrymen that they are no better than Egyptians, Edomites, Moabites and Ammonites. They are uncircumcised in heart. Paul uses the term concision for this outward circumcision unaccompanied by any spiritual change (Php 3:2). The question of circumcision occasioned a protracted strife among the early Christians. Judaizing Christians argued for the necessity of circumcision. It was a reminiscence of the unrelenting particularism which had sprung up during the prolonged oppression of the Greek and Roman period. According to their view salvation was of the Jews and for the Jews. It was necessary to become a Jew in order to become a Christian. Paul consented to circumcision in the case of Timothy "because of the Jews" (Ac 16:3). But he saw that a principle was at stake and in most of his epistles he points out the sheer futility of the contention of the Judaizers. (See commentaries on Romans and Galatians.)

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" (Le 19:23), i.e. it was the property of the Baalim, the gods of Palestine The fruit of the fourth year belonged to Yahweh. Moses with characteristic humility describes himself as a man of "uncircumcised lips" (Ex 6:30). Jeremiah charges his contemporaries with having their ear uncircumcised (Jer 6:10) and their heart (Jer 9:26). "An uncircumcised heart" is one which is, as it were, closed in, and so impervious to good influences and good impressions, just as an uncircumcised ear (Jer 6:10) is an ear which, from the same cause, hears imperfectly; and uncircumcised lips (compare Ex 6:12,30) are lips which open and speak with difficulty (Driver on De 10:16).

T. Lewis