Why Christians need not be circumcised

"He should be circumcised. Jesus was ..."

"So was Judas"
"Jesus was also crucified."

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Contents

Only one of the four gospels mentions Jesus' own circumcision, and then in such a roundabout way, it need not have happened:

And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, who was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Luke 2:21

When Jesus might well be expected to mention circumcision, he does not:

Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.

John 6:28-29

Jesus is reported to have mentioned circumcision only once:

Jesus answered and said to them, "I did one work, and you all marvel.

"Moses therefore gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath.

"If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath, so that the law of Moses should not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made a man completely well on the Sabbath?"

John 7 21-23

What is interesting is that he speaks of circumcision in the second person, as if it has nothing to do with him, and he contrasts circumcision with healing, emphasising that it is an injury, as well as an example of over-zealous law-keeping. (Some have taken the words of the King James Bible - "made a man every whit whole" - to mean that Jesus even undid the man's circumcision, but this seems strained.)

 

The well-known story of Peter's vision of being invited to kill and eat "unclean" animals comes just before an obvious parallel, where "uncircumcised" men are baptised.

The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” ...

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord.

Acts 10 15... 44-6

This clearly indicates that being circumised is not essential to receiving the "gifts of the spirit" or to being baptised, and hence Christian.

Circumcision was a big issue for the early church, because it meant the difference between Christianity being just a sect of Judaism or a whole new religion - and because adult Greeks especially were unwilling to undergo a painful operation to join the new sect.

 

And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."...

And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: "Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.

"So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us,

"And made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.

"Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?"

"But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they."...

And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, "Men and Brethren, listen to me:...

...I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God,

But that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood....

They wrote this letter..."to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings.

"Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying 'You must be circumcised and keep the law' - to whom we gave no such commandment - ...

"... it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things:

"That you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and, from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell."

So when they were sent off, they came to Antioch; and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the letter.

When they had read it, they rejoiced over its encouragement.

Acts 15:1... 7-11... 13...19-20,23-4,28-31

 

"...which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear" suggests that Peter and some of his hearers had belonged to a branch of Judaism that had already abandoned circumcision for at least a generation.

For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision is counted as uncircumcision.

Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision?

And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law?

For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh;

But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.

What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision?

Much in every way! Chiefly because to them [the Jews] were committed the oracles of God.

Romans 2:25 -3:2

The reason given refers to the first version of the question ("What advantage then has the Jew?") far better than to the second ("what is the profit of circumcision?"). Circumcision is referred to only as a symbol of Judaism. Paul is convinced that the oracles of God will still be committed to Christians from now on, though they are not physically circumcised.

 

Since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith,

Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.

Romans 3:30-31

The use of "through faith" (how the uncircumcised are justified) makes it clear that Paul believes Christians can establish the law without circumcising.

 

"Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin."

Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness.

How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised.

And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also.

And the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.

For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.

Romans 4:8-13

 

Was anyone called while circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised.

Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters.

I Corinthians 7:18-19

But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.

1 Corinthians 12:18

Then he [Paul] came to Derbe and Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed, but his father was a Greek;

... Paul wanted to have him go on with him. And he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in that region, for they all knew that his father was Greek.

Acts 16:1,3

And perhaps more to the point, the Jews in that region all knew that Timothy's mother was Jewish. Paul's circumcision of Timothy was not an endorsement of circumcision in general (as some modern Christians claim), but purely a tactical move, to make him ritually acceptable to Jews.

 

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and also took Titus with me.

And I went up by revelation, and communicated to them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to those that were of reputation, lest by any means I might run, or had run, in vain.

Yet not even Titus who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised.

Galatians 2:2

When he was preaching to Gentiles, with a Gentile, he had no use for circumcision.

 

Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.

Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing.

And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law.

You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justifed by law; you have fallen from grace.

For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.

Galatians 5:1-6

 

Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished.

I wish that those who are upsetting you [by demanding circumcision] would [go all the way and] castrate themselves!

Galations 5:11-12 (NIV)

 

As many as desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these would compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ.

For not even those who are circumcised keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.

Galatians 6:12-13

 

In him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.

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.

And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses,

Having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it away, having nailed it to the cross.

Colossians 2:11-14

 

Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds,

And have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him,

Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.

Colossians 3:9-11

 

In that He says, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

Hebrews 8:13
New King James Version

This addresses those who say the earlier Covenant of circumcision is still binding on Christians.


Figurative circumcision

Both the Hebrew and Greek ("Old" and "New") Testaments make various references to figurative circumcisions, of the heart or of the lips, where circumcision is a metaphor for purification. In each case, they acknowledge, implicitly or explicitly, that physical circumcision does not purify. For example:

And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, To keep the commandments of the Lord, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good? Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens is the Lord's thy God, the earth also, with all that therein is. Only the Lord had a delight in thy fathers to love them, and he chose their seed after them, even you above all people, as it is this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.

Deuteronomy 10:12-16
King James Version

"Behold, the days are coming," says the LORD, "that I will punish all who are circumcised with the uncircumcised -

"Egypt, Judah, Edom, the people of Ammon, Moab and all who are in the farthest corners, who who dwell in the wilderness. For all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are unicircumcised in the heart."

Jeremiah 9:25-26
New King James Version

Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilators. For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.

Philippians 3:2-3
King James 2000 Version

 


The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas

The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas (Greek fragments and a complete Coptic text dating from the first or second century CE of 114 sayings supposedly written by the apostle Thomas earlier than the New Testament) attributes a firm statement against circumcision to Jesus himself:

His disciples said to Him, "Is circumcision beneficial or not?"

He said to them, "If it were beneficial, their father would beget them already circumcised from their mother. Rather, the true circumcision in spirit has become completely profitable."

Thomas 53

But the vote of the Jesus Seminar is that Jesus did not say this. "...it reflects the same position, more or less, found in the letters of Paul ... This fact prompted the Fellows to assign it to a later phase of the Christian movement, during which it spread into predominantly gentile regions." - Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels (Macmillan, New York, 1993)

 

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons)

The Book of Mormon also attributes the end of any need for circumcision directly to Jesus:

Listen to the words of Christ, your Redeemer, your Lord, and your God.
Behold, I came into the world not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; the whole need no physician, but they that are sick; wherefore, little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them; and the law of circumcision is done away in me.

Moroni 8: 8

Doctine and Covenants, Section 34 (an offsite link) explains this further.

 

The Roman Catholic Church

 

The bruises that [Paul] the Apostle received in the long history of his passion are the witness of the presence of the Cross of Jesus in St Paul's body; they are his stigmata. Thus, one can say that it is not circumcision that saves: these stigmata are the consequence of his Baptism, the expression of his dying with Jesus, day after day, the sure sign of his being a new creature (cf. Gal 6: 15).

- Pope Benedict XVI, on the Square outside the Lower Basilica of St Francis, Assisi
June 17, 2007

Together with Paul, he [St Barnabas] then went to the so-called Council of Jerusalem where after a profound examination of the question, the Apostles with the Elders decided to discontinue the practice of circumcision so that it was no longer a feature of the Christian identity (cf. Acts 15: 1-35). It was only in this way that, in the end, they officially made possible the Church of the Gentiles, a Church without circumcision;

- Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, January 31, 2007

According to the General Council of Vienna: "Christians may not be enticed into Judaism; neither may they be circumcised for any reason." This was reinforced by the Council of Florence, in the document "Cantate Domino" (1441) signed by Pope Eugene IV:

The Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes, and teaches that the matter pertaining to the law of the Old Testament, of the Mosaic law...although they were suited to the divine worship at that time, ceased, and the sacraments of the New Testament began; and whoever, even after the passion, placed hope in these matters of the law and submitted himself to them as necessary for salvation, as if faith in Christ could not save without them, sinned mortally...All, therefore, who after that time observe circumcision and the Sabbath and the other requirements of the law, it declares alien to the Christian faith and not in the least fit to participate in eternal salvation, unless some day they recover from these errors."

According to Catholic dogma, the teachings of General Councils belong to the Deposit of Faith, do not allow for dissent, and can never be revoked or modified, being protected from error by the Holy Ghost.

Therefore it strictly orders all who glory in the name of Christian, not to practise circumcision either before or after baptism, since whether or not they place their hope in it, it cannot possibly be observed without loss of eternal salvation.

Pope Eugene IV, Bull of Union with the Copts

Writing of castration, Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58) decreed that

...the amputation of any part of the human body is never legal, except when the entire body cannot be saved from destruction by any other method.

De Synodo dioecesana

This was reinforced by Pope Pius XII in 1952:

3. Religious precepts

(a) Catholic. From a moral point of view, circumcision is permissible if, in accordance with therapeutic principles, it prevents a disease that cannot be countered in any other way

Pius XII, Discorsi e messaggi radiodiffusi, t. XIV, Rome 1952, s. 328-329

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Item 2297: Respect for bodily integrity ... Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.
From the website of
the Office of the Permanent Diaconate

Roman Catholic Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, USA

ETHICAL AND RELIGIOUS DIRECTIVES
FOR CATHOLIC HEALTH CARE SERVICES

Fourth Edition
Publication No. 5-452 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

29. All persons served by Catholic health care have the right and duty to protect and preserve their bodily and functional integrity.16 The functional integrity of the person may be sacrificed to maintain the health or life of the person when no other morally permissible means is available.17

30. The transplantation of organs from living donors is morally permissible when such a donation will not sacrifice or seriously impair any essential bodily function and the anticipated benefit to the recipient is proportionate to the harm done to the donor. Furthermore, the freedom of the prospective donor must be respected, and economic advantages should not accrue to the donor.

31. No one should be the subject of medical or genetic experimentation, even if it is therapeutic, unless the person or surrogate first has given free and informed consent. In instances of non-therapeutic experimentation, the surrogate can give this consent only if the experiment entails no significant risk to the person's well-being. Moreover, the greater the person's incompetency and vulnerability, the greater the reasons must be to perform any medical experimentation, especially non-therapeutic.

32. While every person is obliged to use ordinary means to preserve his or her health, no person should be obliged to submit to a health care procedure that the person has judged, with a free and informed conscience, not to provide a reasonable hope of benefit without imposing excessive risks and burdens on the patient or excessive expense to family or community.18

33. The well-being of the whole person must be taken into account in deciding about any therapeutic intervention or use of technology.

16. For example, while the donation of a kidney represents loss of biological integrity, such a donation does not compromise functional integrity since human beings are capable of functioning with only one kidney.
17. Cf. directive 53.
18. Declaration on Euthanasia, Part IV; cf. also directives 56-57.

 

In spite of this, "Operation Tule" ( mass circumcision) is frequently organised by Catholic organisations, such as one at the Central School in San Jose Del Monte, Philippines, on April 29, 2001, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, the Daughters of Mary Immaculate, and the Catholic Women's League.

 

The Question Box

"The Morality of Circumcision"
by Father John Dietzen

- The Tablet, the official paper
of the Roman Catholic Diocese
of Brooklyn
30 October 2004, p 33

Q. What is the morality of circumcision? The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that amputations and mutilations performed on innocent people without strictly therapeutic reasons are against the moral law.

Pope Pius XII taught that circumcision is morally permissible if it prevents a disease that cannot be countered any other way.

In spite of these and other church statements against circumcision through the centuries, I'm told there is no strict Catholic rule against the practice today. Why not? No medical association in the world today any longer says circumcision is therapeutic. (Ohio)

A. I'm not sure why not, but the fact is male circumcision generally just doesn't appear very much on the "radar screen" of Catholic moral teaching. Many major moral theology texts don't mention it. A notable except is "Medical Ethics," by Father Edwin Healy SJ (Loyal University Press), who holds that since routine circumcisions are not medically defensible they are morally objectionable.

A few observations may help explain. The practice of circumcision arose thousands of years ago and is prevalent in many cultures around the world. Nearly always it has religious or social significance, signifying full membership in the group and establish- ing one's social position in the society.

The first divine command to the Jews, for example, was that every male child be circumcised, symbolizing the covenant between God and Abraham (Gn 17).

After the famous confrontation between Paul and other leaders of the early church (Acts 15 and Galatians 2), Christians pretty much rejected the necessity of circumcision for becoming a believer in Christ.

The idea didn't entirely die, however. The theory that circumcision still held some spiritual benefits even for Christians, prompted at least some of the condemnations you speak of. The Council of Vienna (1311), for example, decreed that Christians should not be lured into Judaism or be circumcised for any reason.

The following century, the Council of Florence (1438-1435) ordered "all who glory in the name of Christian not to practice circumcision either before or after baptism, since whether or not they place their hope in it, it cannot possibly be observed without loss of eternal salvation."

Today, while nontherapeutic male circumcision remains common in some places, as a general practice it is forbidden in Catholic teaching for more basic reasons of respect for bodily integrity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against moral law" (N. 2297).

Elective circumcision clearly violates that standard. It is an amputation and mutilation, and, to my knowledge, and as you note, no significant medical group in the world defends it as having any therapeutic value. In 1999 the Council on Scientific Affairs of the American Medical Association stated that neonatal circumcision is nontherapeutic because no disease is present and no therapeutic treatment is required.

Modern Catholic Church documents do not deal explicitly with the morality of elective circumcision. The above basic principles, however, clearly render it immoral. It violates the bodily integrity of infant male children and unnecessarily deprives them of a part of their body that can protect the glans of the penis during infancy and serve at least a sexual function for adults.

My understanding from physicians is that circumcision rarely if ever arises as an ethical consideration. Usually it is requested by the parents for more social reasons such as, it's always been done in our family. In that case, the procedure might be carried out in some places rather routinely, even if it is not what the child needs and no curative or remedial reason renders it ethical.

 

 

The Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Science)

Christian Science is based on Idealism, the belief that Mind is the only reality (the opposite belief from Materialism), and Matter is a mere concept of Mind, specifically the Mind of God. Since God is only good, all evil, including illness, is illusory, "error". This means Christian Scientists generally reject conventional medical treatments in favour of prayer and Christian Science healing. One would think that prophylactic (preventative) medical treatments like circumcision would then be doubly anathema, since they encourage erroneous belief in sickness where none was before.

The Church of Christ, Scientist has no official policy regarding circumcision. Members are encouraged to turn to the Bible and "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" by Mary Baker Eddy (who discovered Christian Science) for guidance in making personal choices, but they always make their own decisions without needing to seek the approval of the Church.
...
Dorothy Estes
Web Response Team

"Science and Health" nowhere refers directly to circumcision, either as rite or prophylactic surgery. It does refer to rites in general:

First in the list of Christian duties [Jesus] taught his followers the healing power of Truth and Love. He attached no importance to dead ceremonies.

Science and Health p 31, line 12

Whatever materializes worship hinders man's spiritual growth and keeps him from demonstrating his power over error.

Science and Health p 4, line 32

(And what could "materialize worship" more than body modification?)

"Science and Health" refers to conventional medicine only in very general terms, always negatively:

One should never hold in mind the thought of disease, but should efface from thought all forms and types of disease, both for one's own sake and for that of the patient.

Science and Health p 396, line 1

Giving drugs to infants, noticing every symptom of flatulency, and constantly directing the mind to such signs, - that mind being laden with illusions about disease, health-laws, and death, - these actions convey mental images to children's budding thoughts, and often stamp them there, making it probable at any time that such ills may be reproduced in the very ailments feared.

Science and Health p 417, line 24

How much more so to operate surgically on a healthy baby?
 

A condensed form of the text above is downloadable as a Word 95 document or in .pdf format (which requires Adobe Acrobat Reader ).

Get Acrobat Reader

 

Unitarian Universalism

Finnish leader condemns circumcision

 

knife and fish

 


 

Jesus' circumcision

Jesus' own circumcision was important in four respects, according to the church fathers:

  • It was - like his baptism - unnecessary for purifying him: they believed that circumcision took away the stain of original sin, which Jesus never had. (But they believed he removed that stain from believers by his crucifixion.)
  • It was, however, a sign of his obedience to the law, and necessary for his redemption of us.
  • It was voluntary, part of the burden God as Father took on himself, when he chose to be incarnated as the Son and as a Jew. The church fathers believed that circumcision, like crucifixion, was shameful, and it was a mark of Christ's humility that he endured it.
  • They believed it mystically prefigured his death and resurrection, and hence that of us all.
They were also in no doubt that it was very painful.

 

Mary knew the rite of circumcision was to remove original sin, but she also knew Jesus did not require it. She asked Almighty God if it should be done. He responded: "My Daughter and my Dove, do not let thy heart be afflicted because thy Son is to be subjected to the knife and to the pains of circumcision. I have sent Him in to the world as an example, that he put an end to the law of Moses by entirely fulfilling it (Matthew 5:17)...Resign thyself, then, to the shedding of his blood and willingly yield to Me the first fruits of the eternal salvation of men."

-The Mystical City of God by Venerable Mother Mary of Agreda, pp432-8

 

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