World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Circumcision controversy in early Christianity

Article Id: WHEBN0015056202
Reproduction Date:

Title: Circumcision controversy in early Christianity  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Split of early Christianity and Judaism, Christianity in the 1st century, Jewish Christian, Epistle to the Galatians, Christianity and antisemitism
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Circumcision controversy in early Christianity

The Council of Jerusalem[1] during the Apostolic Age of the history of Christianity did not include religious male circumcision as a requirement for new gentile converts. This became known as the "Apostolic Decree"[2] and may be one of the first acts differentiating early Christianity from Judaism.[3] Circumcision was enjoined upon the biblical patriarch Abraham, his descendants and their slaves as "a token of the covenant" concluded with him by God for all generations, as an "everlasting covenant". ([Genesis 17:13])

Judaism background

There are numerous references in the Hebrew Bible to the obligation for circumcision. For example, Leviticus 12:3[4] says:

On the eighth day a boy is to be circumcised.

And the uncircumcised are to be cut off from the covenant in Genesis 17:14:[5]

Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.

During the 1st century BC there was a controversy in Judaism relating to whether or not a proselyte who was already circumcised needed to be ritually re-circumcised. This is done via a pinprick creating a drop of blood and is still practiced to this day.

Judaism 1st and 2nd century AD

Jewish sources vary on whether or not circumcision of proselytes was a universal practice in tannaitic times.[8]

The disagreement centers on the correctness of contradictory passages In the Babylonian Talmud and Jerusalem Talmud and which passage is older.[8] B. Yevamot 46a is summarized as follows:

Rabbi Joshua says that if a proselyte is immersed but not circumcised this is valid. Because our mothers where immersed but not circumcised. Rabbi Eliezer says the opposite. Because such was found regarding our fathers. However the sages say both are required.[8]

P. Qiddushin 3:12 (3:14, 64d) is summarized as follows:

Rabbi Eliezer says only circumcision is required the same as in B. Yevamot 46a. Rabbi Joshua says both are required.[8]

During tannaitic times uncircumcised semi-converts also existed, see God-fearer and Ger toshav.[8]

Circumcision of Jesus

Circumcision of Jesus, sculpture in the Cathedral of Chartres.

According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was circumcised eight days after his birth, in accordance with Mosaic Law.[9]

Mosaic Law in Early Christianity

Icon of James the Just, who issued the Apostolic Decree ( Acts 15:19-21) at the Council of Jerusalem, c. 50 AD.

Similar differences and disputes existed within Early Christianity, but disputes within Christianity extended also to the place of Mosaic Law or Old Covenant in general in Christianity. This is particularly notable in the mid-1st century, when the circumcision controversy came to the fore. Alister McGrath, a proponent of Paleo-orthodoxy, claimed that many of the Jewish Christians were fully faithful religious Jews, only differing in their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah.[10] As such, they tended to be of the view that circumcision and other requirements of the Mosaic Law were required for salvation. Those in the Christian community who insisted that biblical law, including laws on circumcision, continued to apply to Christians were pejoratively labeled Judaizers by their opponents and criticized as being elitist and legalistic.[11]

The Council of Jerusalem[12] of about 50 AD was the first meeting in early Christianity called upon to consider the application of Mosaic Law to the new community. Specifically, it had to consider whether gentile converts to Christianity were obligated to undergo circumcision for full membership in the Christian community, but it was conscious that the issue had wider implications, since circumcision is the "everlasting" sign of the Abrahamic Covenant.[13] Jewish culture was still trying to find its place in the more dominant Hellenistic culture which found circumcision to be repulsive.[14]

The decision of the Council, called the Apostolic Decree,[15] was that most Mosaic Law, including the requirement for circumcision of males, was not obligatory for gentile converts, in order to make it easier for Jewish-Christian proselytizers to induce gentile prospects to join the Christian movement.[16] The Council did retain the prohibitions against eating meat containing blood, or meat of animals not properly slain, and against "fornication" and "idol worship".[17] There is a view that 'strangled' and 'blood' in the texts refer to foreskin conditions - paraphimosis and ruptured frenulum, respectively.[18] Beginning with Augustine of Hippo,[19] many have seen a connection to Noahide Law, while some modern scholars[20] reject the connection to Noahide Law[21] and instead see Leviticus 17-18[22] as the basis.

The Decree is one of the first acts differentiating the Church from its Jewish roots,[23] though a similar dispute was taking place at the same time within Judaism, but which came to a contrary conclusion.

Teaching of Paul

Artist depiction of Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, 16th century (Blaffer Foundation Collection, Houston, Texas). Most scholars think Paul actually dictated his letters to a secretary.[24]

While the issue was theoretically resolved, it continued to be a recurring issue among Christians. Four years after the Council of Jerusalem, Paul wrote to the Galatians about the issue, which had become a serious controversy in their region. There was a burgeoning movement of Judaizers in the area that advocated adherence to traditional Mosaic laws, including circumcision. According to McGrath, Paul identified James the Just as the motivating force behind the movement. Paul considered it a great threat to his doctrine of salvation through faith and addressed the issue with great detail in Galatians 3.[25][26]

Paul, who called himself Apostle to the Gentiles, attacked the practice, though not consistently. In the case of Timothy, whose mother was Jewish Christian but whose father was Greek, he personally circumcised him "because of the Jews" that were in town.[27][28] He also appeared to praise its value in Romans 3:1-2.

Two interpretations exist of Paul's comment on those wanting to force circumcision on Gentile Christians in Galatians 5:12. The KJV reading "I would they were even cut off" suggests cut off from the Church, but most modern versions, following scholars such as Lightfoot, R. C. H. Lenski and F. F. Bruce, read as the ESV "I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!" - due to a reading of the Greek text apokopsontai[29] "be cut off" as Paul wishing that the circumcisers would castrate themselves.[30] This parallels κατατομή katatomē. Eusebius reported that the early Christian Origen did in fact castrate himself, though following Matthew 19:12.[31]

Paul argued that circumcision no longer meant the physical, but a spiritual practice. (Romans 2:25-29) And in that sense, he wrote: "Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised" (1 Corinthians 7:18) - probably a reference to the practice of epispasm.[32]

Later Paul more explicitly denounced the practice, rejecting and condemning those who promoted circumcision to Gentile Christians. Paul warned that the advocates of circumcision were "false brothers".(Gal 2:4) He accused Galatian Christians who advocated circumcision of turning from the Spirit to the flesh: "Are you so foolish, that, whereas you began in the Spirit, you would now be made perfect by the flesh?" (Gal 3:3) He accused advocates of circumcision of wanting to make a good showing in the flesh (Gal 6:12) and of glorying or boasting of the flesh. (Gal 3:13) Some believe Paul wrote the entire Epistle to the Galatians attacking circumcision and any requirement for the keeping of Jewish law by Christians, saying in chapter five: "Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all." (Galatians 5:2)

In a late letter he warned Christians to "Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision," (κατατομή, katatomē)[33] saying that Christians were the true circumcision because they worshipped in the Spirit of God. (Phil 3:2-3)

Florentine Bechtel notes in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1910): Judaizers:

Paul, on the other hand, not only did not object to the observance of the Mosaic Law, as long as it did not interfere with the liberty of the Gentiles, but he conformed to its prescriptions when occasion required ( 1 Corinthians 9:20). Thus he shortly after circumcised Timothy ( Acts 16:1-3), and he was in the very act of observing the Mosaic ritual when he was arrested at Jerusalem ( Acts 21:26).[34]

Later views

St. Peter holding the Keys of Heaven, by Rubens

According to Acts, Simon Peter condemned required circumcision of converts.[35] When the various passages from the New Testament regarding circumcision are gathered together, a strongly negative view of circumcision emerges, according to Michael Glass.[36] Some Biblical scholars think that the Epistle to Titus, generally attributed to Paul, but see Authorship of the Pauline epistles, may state that circumcision should be discouraged among Christians,[37] though others believe this is merely a reference to Jews. Circumcision was so closely associated with Jewish men that Jewish Christians were referred to as "those of the circumcision"[38][39] or conversely Christians who were circumcised were referred to as Jewish Christians or Judaizers. These terms (circumcised/uncircumcised) are generally interpreted to mean Jews and Greeks, who were predominate, however it is an oversimplification as 1st century Iudaea Province also had some Jews who were not circumcised, and some Greeks (called Proselytes or Judaizers) and others such as Egyptians, Ethiopians, and Arabs who were.

A common interpretation of the circumcision controversy of the New Testament was, that it was over the issue of whether Gentiles could enter the Church directly or ought to first convert to Judaism. However, the Halakha of Rabbinic Judaism was still under development at this time, as the Jewish Encyclopedia[40] notes: "Jesus, however, does not appear to have taken into account the fact that the Halakha was at this period just becoming crystallized, and that much variation existed as to its definite form; the disputes of the Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai were occurring about the time of his maturity." This controversy was fought largely between opposing groups of Christians who were themselves ethnically Jewish, see section Jewish background above. According to this interpretation, those who felt that conversion to Judaism was a prerequisite for Church membership were eventually condemned by Paul as "Judaizing teachers".

The source of this interpretation is unknown; however, it appears related to Supersessionism or Hyperdispensationalism (see also New Perspective on Paul). In addition, modern Christians, such as Ethiopian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox still practice circumcision while not considering it a part of conversion to Judaism, nor do they consider themselves to be Jews or Jewish Christians.

The Jewish Encyclopedia article on Gentile: Gentiles May Not Be Taught the Torah[41] notes the following reconciliation:

Contemporary practices

Today, most Christian denominations are neutral about ritual male circumcision, neither requiring it nor forbidding it. The practice is customary among the Coptic, Ethiopian, and Eritrean Orthodox Churches, and also some other African churches.[42] Some Christian churches in South Africa oppose circumcision, viewing it as a pagan ritual, while others, including the Nomiya church in Kenya,[42][43] require circumcision for membership. Some participants in focus group discussions in Zambia and Malawi said that Christians should practice circumcision because Jesus was circumcised and the Bible teaches the practice.

The Greek Orthodox Church celebrates the Circumcision of Christ on 1 January,[44] while Orthodox churches following the Julian calendar celebrate it on Gregorian 14 January. The Orthodox Church considers it one of the twelve "Great Feasts". In the Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches, the commemoration of the circumcision of Christ has been replaced by other commemorations.[45]

Circumcision is common in some predominantly Christian countries such as the United States,[46] the Philippines,[47][48] South Korea, Ethiopia, and Kenya, and is also widely practiced among Christians from Egypt,[49] Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, and North Africa. Circumcision is less common in Europe, East Asia and Latin America. It is practiced amongst some Indian Christians.

See also


  1. ^ A description is found in Acts of the Apostles, chapter 15, but see also Historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles
  2. ^ Florentine Bechtel 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia: Judaizers: Council of Jerusalem (A.D. 50 OR 51): "But to still the clamours of the converts from Pharisaism who demanded that the Gentile converts "must be circumcised and be commanded to observe the Law of Moses", the matter was discussed in a public meeting. ... By the decree of the Apostles the cause of Christian liberty was won against the narrow Judaizers, and the way smoothed for the conversion of the nations. The victory was emphasized by St. Paul's refusal to allow Titus to be circumcised even as a pure concession to the extremists ( Galatians 2:2-5)."
  3. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Baptism: "According to rabbinical teachings, which dominated even during the existence of the Temple (Pes. viii. 8), Baptism, next to circumcision and sacrifice, was an absolutely necessary condition to be fulfilled by a proselyte to Judaism (Yeb. 46b, 47b; Ker. 9a; 'Ab. Zarah 57a; Shab. 135a; Yer. Kid. iii. 14, 64d). Circumcision, however, was much more important, and, like baptism, was called a "seal" (Schlatter, "Die Kirche Jerusalems," 1898, p. 70). But as circumcision was discarded by Christianity, and the sacrifices had ceased, Baptism remained the sole condition for initiation into religious life. The next ceremony, adopted shortly after the others, was the imposition of hands, which, it is known, was the usage of the Jews at the ordination of a rabbi. Anointing with oil, which at first also accompanied the act of Baptism, and was analogous to the anointment of priests among the Jews, was not a necessary condition."
  4. ^ Leviticus 12:3
  5. ^ Genesis 17:14
  6. ^ Brenton's translation of Esther in the Septuagint 8:17: "in every city and province wherever the ordinance was published: wherever the proclamation took place, the Jews had joy and gladness, feasting and mirth: and many of the Gentiles were circumcised, and became Jews, for fear of the Jews."
  7. ^ a b Jewish Encyclopedia: Circumcision" Circumcision of Proselytes
  8. ^ a b c d e
  9. ^ Luke 2:21-24
  10. ^ McGrath, Alister E., Christianity: An Introduction. Blackwell Publishing (2006). ISBN 1-4051-0899-1. Page 174: "In effect, they [Jewish Christians] seemed to regard Christianity as an affirmation of every aspect of contemporary Judaism, with the addition of one extra belief — that Jesus was the Messiah. Unless males were circumcised, they could not be saved (Acts 15:1)."
  11. ^ McGrath, page 174: "Paul notes the emergence of a Judaizing party in the region — that is, a group within the church which insisted that Gentile believers should obey every aspect of the law of Moses, including the need to be circumcised. According to Paul [reference is made to Galatians, but no specific verse is given], the leading force behind this party was James ... the brother of Jesus ..."
  12. ^ Acts 15
  13. ^ Genesis 17:9-14
  14. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Circumcision: In Apocryphal and Rabbinical Literature: "Contact with Grecian life, especially at the games of the arena [which involved nudity], made this distinction obnoxious to the Hellenists, or antinationalists; and the consequence was their attempt to appear like the Greeks by epispasm ("making themselves foreskins"; I Macc. i. 15; Josephus, "Ant." xii. 5, § 1; Assumptio Mosis, viii.; I Cor. vii. 18; , Tosef., Shab. xv. 9; Yeb. 72a, b; Yer. Peah i. 16b; Yeb. viii. 9a). All the more did the law-observing Jews defy the edict of Antiochus Epiphanes prohibiting circumcision (I Macc. i. 48, 60; ii. 46); and the Jewish women showed their loyalty to the Law, even at the risk of their lives, by themselves circumcising their sons.";
  15. ^ Acts 15:19-21
  16. ^ Acts 15:19
  17. ^ Karl Josef von Hefele's Commentary on canon II of Gangra notes: "We further see that, at the time of the Synod of Gangra, the rule of the Apostolic Synod with regard to blood and things strangled was still in force. With the Greeks, indeed, it continued always in force as their Euchologies still show. Balsamon also, the well-known commentator on the canons of the Middle Ages, in his commentary on the sixty-third Apostolic Canon, expressly blames the Latins because they had ceased to observe this command. What the Latin Church, however, thought on this subject about the year 400, is shown by St. Augustine in his work Contra Faustum, where he states that the Apostles had given this command in order to unite the heathens and Jews in the one ark of Noah; but that then, when the barrier between Jewish and heathen converts had fallen, this command concerning things strangled and blood had lost its meaning, and was only observed by few. But still, as late as the eighth century, Pope Gregory the Third 731 forbade the eating of blood or things strangled under threat of a penance of forty days. No one will pretend that the disciplinary enactments of any council, even though it be one of the undisputed Ecumenical Synods, can be of greater and more unchanging force than the decree of that first council, held by the Holy Apostles at Jerusalem, and the fact that its decree has been obsolete for centuries in the West is proof that even Ecumenical canons may be of only temporary utility and may be repealed by disuse, like other laws."
  18. ^
  19. ^ Contra Faust, 32.13
  20. ^ For example: Joseph Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries), Yale University Press (December 2, 1998), ISBN 0-300-13982-9, chapter V
  21. ^ Genesis 9
  22. ^ Lev 17-18
  23. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Baptism: "According to rabbinical teachings, which dominated even during the existence of the Temple (Pes. viii. 8), Baptism, next to circumcision and sacrifice, was an absolutely necessary condition to be fulfilled by a proselyte to Judaism (Yeb. 46b, 47b; Ker. 9a; 'Ab. Zarah 57a; Shab. 135a; Yer. Kid. iii. 14, 64d). Circumcision, however, was much more important, and, like baptism, was called a "seal" (Schlatter, "Die Kirche Jerusalems," 1898, p. 70). But as circumcision was discarded by Christianity, and the sacrifices had ceased, Baptism remained the sole condition for initiation into religious life. The next ceremony, adopted shortly after the others, was the imposition of hands, which, it is known, was the usage of the Jews at the ordination of a rabbi. Anointing with oil, which at first also accompanied the act of Baptism, and was analogous to the anointment of priests among the Jews, was not a necessary condition."
  24. ^
  25. ^ Galatians 3
  26. ^ McGrath (2006). Pp 174-175.
  27. ^ Acts 16:1-3
  28. ^ McGarvey on Acts 16: "Yet we see him in the case before us, circumcising Timothy with his own hand, and this 'on account of certain Jews who were in those quarters.'"
  29. ^ ὄφελον καὶ ἀποκόψονται οἱ ἀναστατοῦντες ὑμ
  30. ^ Thomas Marberry, Robert E. Picirilli, Daryl Ellis Galatians through Colossians 1988 p90 "The main problem concerns the meaning of the phrase "I would they were even cut off. ... often used to describe some type of bodily mutilation such as castration (Lightfoot 207; Lenksi 272; Bruce, Galatians 238; Arndt and Gingrich 92)."
  31. ^
  32. ^ SOURCE?? "making themselves foreskins"; I Macc. i. 15; Josephus, "Ant." xii. 5, § 1; Assumptio Mosis, viii.; I Cor. vii. 18;, Tosef.; Talmud tractes Shabbat xv. 9; Yevamot 72a, b; Yerushalmi Peah i. 16b; Yevamot viii. 9a; [1]; Catholic Encyclopedia: Circumcision: "To this epispastic operation performed on the athletes to conceal the marks of circumcision St. Paul alludes, me epispastho (1 Corinthians 7:18).") Paul was circumcised when he was "called." He added: "Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised.", and went on to argue that circumcision didn't matter: "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts". (1 Cor 7:19)
  33. ^ Strong's G2699
  34. ^ Bechtel, Florentine.  
  35. ^ Acts 15:7-10
  36. ^ The New Testament and Circumcision
  37. ^ Titus 1:10-16
  38. ^ Colossians 3:20
  39. ^ cultural/glass1
  40. ^ article on Jesus Jesus article on Jesus
  41. ^ Gentile: Gentiles May Not Be Taught the Torah
  42. ^ a b Customary in some Coptic and other churches:
    • "The Coptic Christians in Egypt and the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians— two of the oldest surviving forms of Christianity— retain many of the features of early Christianity, including male circumcision. Circumcision is not prescribed in other forms of Christianity... Some Christian churches in South Africa oppose the practice, viewing it as a pagan ritual, while others, including the Nomiya church in Kenya, require circumcision for membership and participants in focus group discussions in Zambia and Malawi mentioned similar beliefs that Christians should practice circumcision since Jesus was circumcised and the Bible teaches the practice."
    • "The decision that Christians need not practice circumcision is recorded in Acts 15; there was never, however, a prohibition of circumcision, and it is practiced by Coptic Christians." "circumcision", The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2001-05.
  43. ^ Mattson CL, Bailey RC, Muga R, Poulussen R, Onyango T (2005) Acceptability of male circumcision and predictors of circumcision preference among men and women in Nyanza province Kenya. AIDS Care 17:182–194.
  44. ^ Greek Orthodox Archdiocese calendar of Holy Days
  45. ^ For example, "The Calendar of the Church Year" in The (Online) Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal Church in the United States of America), [2] retrieved 11 October 2006.
  46. ^ Pfuntner A., Wier L.M., Stocks C. Most Frequent Procedures Performed in U.S. Hospitals, 2011. HCUP Statistical Brief #165. October 2013. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. [3].
  47. ^
  48. ^
  49. ^

External links

  • Jewish Encyclopedia: Circumcision
  • Catholic Encyclopedia: Circumcision
  • Gentiles and Circumcision
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from World eBook Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.