Removal of the foreskin or prepuce of the male genital organ, whether for religious reasons or as a purely hygienic measure. Circumcision was practiced in the ancient Near East by the western Semites, including the Ammonites, Moabites, Hebrews, and Edomites. The procedure was rejected by the east Semitic peoples of Mesopotamia, the Canaanites, and the Shechemites.
The Old Testament. The special meaning of circumcision for the people of Israel is found in Genesis 17 and occurs within the context of God's renewed covenant promise to Abraham, following the initial contractual relationship (Gen. 15). On the second occasion, God again promised lands and offspring to the still childless patriarch, and gave him the sign of circumcision, which was to be imposed upon Abraham and his descendants as a token of covenant membership (Gen 17:10). For the Israelites circumcision was a religious rite and was intended to mark the beginning of covenant solidarity for Abraham's descendants rather than describing the historical origins of the procedure.
While Abraham and his household were circumcised forthwith, the Lord's command required that hereafter male infants were to be circumcised on the eighth day of life. This in itself was distinctively different from contemporary pagan practices, which seem to have associated the rite either with puberty or with approaching marriage.
From the beginning sharp knives made from chipped flints were used for the resection, since flint maintained a superior edge. For this reason the retention of flint instruments for purposes of circumcision endured for centuries after the beginning of the Iron Age (ca. 1200 b.c.). Traditionally the head of the household administered the rite in Israel, but on special occasions a woman might officiate (Exod 4:24-26).
In the Mosaic law, a spiritual interpretation was imposed upon the procedure when the Israelites were instructed to circumcise their hearts (Deut 10:16). This demand required them to recognize that, in addition to bearing the physical mark of covenant membership, they were also under obligation to manifest specific spiritual qualities of commitment and obedience to the Lord's will. Jeremiah (4:4) made precisely the same demands upon his contemporaries because of their evil deeds, which were the very opposite of what God required. For him, circumcision entailed consecration to the Lord and to the high moral ideals of the covenant, of which holiness was representative (Lev 11:44). A true covenant member would be motivated by love of God (Deut 6:5) and one's neighbor (Lev 19:18).
The New Testament. When Greek paganism threatened to swamp Judaism some two centuries before Christ was born, circumcision became a distinctive indication of Jewish fidelity to the covenant. Thus John the Baptist was circumcised (Luke 1:59), as were both Jesus (Luke 2:21) and Saul of Tarsus (Php 3:5), on the eighth day of life, making them accredited members of the covenant people. But Jesus was already casting doubt on the preeminence of the rite when he stated that his healings made people completely whole (John 7:22-23). Stephen reinforced this by accusing contemporary Judaism of the very tendencies that Jeremiah had condemned (Acts 7:51). Although in the period of the primitive church the believers maintained Jewish religious traditions, problems began to arise when the gospel was preached among Gentiles. Christians who had come from a Jewish background felt that Gentiles should become Jews through circumcision before being able to experience Christ's saving work.
This attitude rested partly upon the contemporary notion that circumcision was a necessary part of salvation, as well as being its effective guarantee. Others repudiated this view of salvation by works, particularly when uncircumcised Gentiles received God's outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44-48). They saw that the prophecies of Ezekiel, in which the Lord promised a clean heart and an indwelling of his Holy Spirit (36:25-27), and the dramatic proclamation of Joel that God would pour out his Spirit upon all flesh (2:28; cf. Acts 2:17), were now being fulfilled. The spiritual significance of circumcision had been achieved by divine grace without the performance of the physical rite, thus making the latter obsolete.
Not all Jews rejoiced at their badge of pride and privilege being set aside (Php 3:4-6), and consequently a group of Pharisaic Jews known as the "circumcision party" proclaimed at Antioch (Acts 15:1-5) the necessity of circumcision for salvation. Peter opposed these Judaizers, affirming the saving efficacy of faith in Christ alone (Acts 15:8-11), and denying the necessity of circumcision for the Gentiles.
To resolve the issue Paul and Barnabas consulted with the elders in Jerusalem, where it was agreed that Gentiles should not be compelled to be circumcised (Acts 15:13-21). Paul was indifferent to the Judaizers' vaunted claims of "circumcision spirituality, " and although he circumcised the partly Jewish Timothy (Acts 16:3) to facilitate his mission, he opposed circumcision for the Gentile Titus (Gal 2:3). In Galatia, Paul resisted strenuously the Judaizers' doctrine of righteousness by works, which he stigmatized as a "different gospel" (Gal 1:6-7), and reviled the proponents as "dogs" and "evil workers."
This controversy was to follow Paul throughout his ministry. To counter the Judaizers' position he conceded that, while circumcision was of great value for the old covenant, it carried no significance for the "covenants of promise" (Eph 2:12). What was fundamentally important in God's sight was being a "new creation" (Gal 6:15) and keeping God's commandments (1 Cor 7:19), apart from which circumcision or uncircumcision are meaningless, and allowing faith to work through love (Gal 5:6). Paul taught resolutely that, in the new covenant, salvation came by grace and faith, not works (Eph 2:8). For the believer, circumcision or the lack of it was a matter of total indifference. What really counted was the faith and obedience that have always characterized covenants between God and humankind.
R. K. Harrison
See also Judaizers
Bibliography. D. Jacobson, The Social Background of the Old Testament; R. Patai, Sex and Family in the Bible; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions.