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In the ancient world circumcision was practiced by Israelites, Egyptians, and others (Jer 9:25-26) but was rejected by Greeks and Romans.


Was circumcision practiced only by the Hebrew people in ancient times?

Circumcision, the oldest known surgical procedure, refers to the complete or partial removal of the glans of the penis. The practice is first evidenced in northwest Syria where three statues of warriors dating to ca. 2800 BCE reveal the complete removal of the prepuce. Ancient Egyptian priests were partially circumcised as they were initiated into the service of the gods (ca. 2345 BCE). According to Genesis, the practice of circumcision among the Hebrews began with Abraham, who was told to circumcise all males, including slaves, in his household (Gen 17:10-14). The cut around the penis became a signifying mark of all descendants of Abraham and later served as a physical marker for the nation of Israel.

The biblical authors were well aware that some of Israel’s neighbors practiced circumcision while others did not. The book of Jeremiah lists “Egypt, Judah, Edom, the Ammonites, Moab, and all those with shaven temples who live in the desert” as circumcised (Jer 9:25-26). The Philistines, who lived in the land of Canaan but had migrated from western areas, however, did not circumcise and were often called “the uncircumcised” as a derogatory epithet (e.g., 1Sam 14:6; 1Sam 31:4; 2Sam 1:20). Circumcision was apparently not practiced in Assyria and Babylonia.

What is the significance of the rite in the Bible?

The significance of circumcision is multivalent and depends on time and place. Most accounts throughout the ancient Near East place circumcision around the time of puberty, either to prepare youth for marriage or, as in Egypt, the priesthood. This notion is reflected in the Bible as well. The Shechemites are forced to be circumcised in order for their leader to marry within Jacob’s clan (Gen 34:14-24). Zipporah, Moses’s wife, saves her family by circumcising her son but complains that Moses has been a “bridegroom” (a Semitic word related to circumcision) of blood to her.

In the Bible, circumcision is usually associated with the covenant relationship between the nation of Israel and Yahweh, first established with Abraham. Israel is consecrated to her God, not just from puberty but from infancy (Gen 17:12; Lev 12:3). As they perform circumcision, Israelites permanently acknowledge their responsibility to serve Yahweh. Just as priests in Egypt initiate their service to the gods by circumcision, so all baby boys in Israel, are physically devoted to Yahweh (see the description of Israel as a “kingdom of priests”; Exod 19:6). The sexual aspect of circumcision cannot be overlooked since the mark of the covenant is specifically cut on the male member of procreation, which will ensure the continuance of the covenant into the next generation. Only circumcised males may participate in the national festival of Passover. Those who refuse circumcision will be “cut off” from the nation and lose the blessings of fertility and land (Exod 12:43-49). Similarly, only the circumcised nation can inherit the promised land (Josh 5:2-9).
The Bible attaches symbolic value to the act of circumcision by reference to various body parts and unripe fruit as “uncircumcised.” The prophets, for instance, refer to rebellious hearts and ears as “uncircumcised” (Ezek 44:1-9; Jer 6:10). “Uncircumcised” fruit is that which is borne by a tree not yet four years old when the fruit may be pruned. This act releases it to be offered to God, as well as eaten by Israel (Lev 19:23-25). Metaphorically this practice may point to the “pruning” or disciplining of sexual activity itself (cf. Philo, Spec. Leg. 1.1-11).

During the Second Temple period, Greeks and Romans opposed circumcision as a mutilation of the body. King Antiochus IV “Epiphanes” outlawed circumcision, which triggered the Maccabean Revolt (1Macc 1:48). Circumcision became a do-or-die signifier of a man’s Judaism and many Jews were willing to be martyred rather than reject the practice (e.g., 2Macc 6:1). Some zealots even forced circumcision on fellow Jews, and after the success of the revolt, some Jewish rulers forced it on neighboring peoples (Josephus, Ant. 13.254-58, 314-19, 395-97). On the other hand, many Jews attempted to reverse their circumcision, a painful operation known as epispasm, in order to avoid persecution and to participate more fully in Hellenistic culture (e.g., athletic games in the nude and public bathhouses; see 1Macc 1:15; Josephus, Ant. 12.237-41; 1Cor 7:18).

Early Christianity sprang from Jewish roots, and thus most of the early believers were circumcised Jews. According to the gospels, both John the Baptist and Jesus were circumcised and named on the eighth day after their birth (Luke 1:59; Luke 2:21). The issue of whether or not circumcision was necessary for gentile believers in Christ, however, was hotly debated in the early church. The conclusion of the Apostolic Council was that the Holy Spirit had already approved gentile believers by public manifestation; hence, the church should not saddle them with the difficulty of performing circumcision (Acts 15:1-29; see also Acts 21:21; Col 3:11).

  • harrington-hannah

    Dr. Hannah K. Harrington, Professor of Old Testament at Patten University, Oakland, CA, holds a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley (1992). She has written over seventy publications relating to holiness and ritual purity in Second Temple Judaism and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Notable examples include: Holiness: Rabbinic Judaism and the Graeco-Roman World (Routledge, 2001); Purity Texts (Sheffield Academic, 2004); and, The Purity and Sanctuary of the Body in Second Temple Judaism (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2019).