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Thursday, July 29 2021


The understanding of circumcision amongst contemporary Western hemisphere Christians is typically skewed at best.  The situation is further complicated in a hypersexualized culture that cannot keep a straight face in discussing these types of subjects.  Nevertheless, in the biblical context, it is an important issue that needs to be understood.  Otherwise, we walk away with extremist ideas that never lead to truthful conclusions. 

Additionally, I am aware of a number of different takes and understandings concerning the matter.  While there are some points in these that may pique one’s interests, I will not be able to pursue each of them for brevity’s sake.  It is my intent to share with you some historical backdrop for biblical contextual understanding.  This is not an exhaustive discussion on the matter.  It is merely highpoints to start with.

Near and Middle Eastern antiquity chronicles the customs of circumcision in Egypt and Semitic (Middle Eastern) cultures.  However, we have no reliable records as to the origins of the practice altogether.  The earliest records we have date back to the 3rdc millennium BC (3000-2001 BC) from Syrian and Egyptian sources.  There are disputes concerning who started the practice.  But in more recent findings, there is reason to believe that Egyptians may have adopted the custom from the Semites.   

In Egypt, it was most acquainted with the priesthood.  There, the priests would cut the foreskin without complete removal, thus allowing the skin to hang freely.  The vast majority of the Semitic groups customarily removed the foreskin altogether.  If given to the archaeological evidence and datings, the Hebrew adaptation begins well over a millennia after the Egyptians.  Genesis 17 is the first mention of circumcision in the Scriptures according to YHWH’s covenant with Abraham.  Under this historical timeline, it would not be a strange command in making a covenantal pact.  At times, understanding of history such as this brings some angst to Christians and Jews alike.  However, it should not.  YHWH uses many things that are somewhat familiar to the people (cf. the Suzerain / Vassal Treaty-Covenant effect in comparison to YHWH’s covenant with Israel) during the timeframes we read about.  While we do not have any concrete evidence to support the argument, one may still speculate that YHWH had such customs in place as far back as the Tower of Babel, which were subsequently spread throughout the world and diluted over time.

The Abrahamic covenantal act of circumcision would be an identifying mark of a religious commitment between man and YHWH.  As outlined by Hall, there are three basic divisions of the significance of circumcision over the Hebraic history[1]:

  1. Hebrew Writings
    1. Circumcision behind the Stories
    2. The Bloody Bridegroom (Exodus 4:24-26)
    3. Circumcision of Abraham
    4. Circumcisions at Gilgal (Joshua 5:2-9)
  2. Greek and Roman Periods to the Bar Kokhba Revolt
    1. Consolidating Circumcision
    2. Explaining Circumcision to the Greeks
    3. Neglecting Circumcision
  3. Early Christians and Circumcision
    1. Circumcision is Necessary
    2. Circumcision is Irrelevant
    3. Jews Should Circumcise; Gentiles Should Not
    4. Literal Circumcision is Abolished
    5. Circumcision Used Positively

Again, for the sake of brevity, I will not detail the history behind these titles.  I will offer a generalization that will hopefully aid you in your understanding of the implications when this is mentioned in Acts 7 and subsequent passages. 

At the risk of oversimplification, one might make the argument that circumcision is a practice of a ‘blood-rite” that occurs in a covenant.  As was practiced during covenantal agreements, animals would be slaughtered and separated.  The participants would pass between the parts and state that if either party should break the covenant, may what has happened to the animals happen to them.[2]  Likewise, participants would often bind blood from themselves between the parties to signify a bond/pact.  Even in contemporary terms, we speak of things “written in blood,” and have movie scenes that demonstrate similar practices.[3]  Circumcision served as a sign of blood between the man and YHWH and was to be a form (cutting away) that displayed this function (covenantal pact).

Over time, the people of Israel also began to look upon this as a sign of national identity.  At times, to some degree, the original function became somewhat eclipsed by the national identity as opposed to the covenant with YHWH.  Under the correct application of the function, the sign of the flesh (circumcision) was an outward indicator of what was supposed to be a part of one’s spiritual condition in terms of being dedicated to YHWH, i.e., a circumcised heart, lips, ears, fruit trees, etc.[4]

When Alexander the Great conquered the Near and Middle East, he imposed the Greek culture everywhere he went.  A considerable portion of this culture was public nudity – but not necessarily in our contemporary hyper-sexualized thought process.  To the Greek, the public exposure of a man’s bare glans was as obscene as we would think a naked man in the produce section of a grocery store.  Thus, circumcision was seen as horrific mutilation and a repugnant display.  This was taken so seriously, that drastic measures were often taken in certain circumstances.  If a Greek child was born with what was considered a defective foreskin, he would be subject to a surgery that would lengthen it to the desired shape.  If a man was to be in public nudity (including competitive sports), they would often tie the foreskin with string or pin the end together, so to not risk exposing the glans. 

As the Romans adopted this attitude from the Greeks, ridicule and scorn for circumcised Jews abounded.  Thus, public baths, sporting events, etc., were no place for a Jew to attempt to appear.  As time progressed, it also became a mark for severe persecution – even death.  Men would be publicly stripped in court for observation, and at certain points in history, infants were slaughtered based on whether they were circumcised or not.  Emperor Hadrian considered castration and circumcision as equivalent and outlawed both. 

Therefore, as one might easily read and understand that strict Judaizers in the biblical text were harshly critical and discriminatory against those who were not circumcised,[5] imagine the risk that a man was taking who was circumcised in the Greco-Roman atmosphere.[6]  There was much more on the line for Timothy than just getting a pass for the Jews that Paul was attempting to reach. 

At the risk of overgeneralizing the subject, there were 2 major attitudes amongst the Jews that prevailed for centuries concerning circumcision.  1) If a male was uncircumcised, it was impossible for him and his household to behold any blessing of YHWH.  In effect, he was handed over to the realm of evil.  2) If a male was circumcised, then it was just the reverse – both he and his household enjoyed the favor and protection of YHWH. 

The history is mixed on views from both proponents and antagonists concerning anything associated with marriage, the transference of covenant, fertility, etc.  This is peripheral to the focus in the upcoming passages in Acts. 

There is much more in history concerning the church and its attitudes towards circumcision.  This article is an informal attempt to bring you up to speed on some of the pending implications in the biblical text of Acts as we proceed with our studies.

For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over every ruler and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision performed without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.  Colossians 2:11


[1] Robert G. Hall, 1992. Circumcision. ABD, Volume 1 A-C: 1025.

[2] Genesis 15; Jeremiah 34:18, 19.

[3] The Outlaw Josey Wales scene with Ten Bears, cutting their palms and clasping each other’s hands together.

[4] Exodus 6:12, 30; Leviticus 19:23-25; 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 6:10; 9:25, 26.

[5] Acts15:5ff; Galatians

[6] Acts 16:1-3

Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 02:52 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
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