It may come as a surprise to some of my readers that I have a theological background and most of my family members are devout, pious Christians. I often refer to myself as the ‘black un-sheep’ of the family. I am forever perplexed by the affection of calling oneself a sheep, and that this mindless obedience is considered virtuous in Christian culture is incredibly troubling. Needless to say, I engage in theistic debates with my highly educated and intelligent family members.
Naturally, we discuss the origins of circumcision and what the Bible actually says. Since both my brothers have a background in theology and can read and translate Greek, Latin, Hebrew and some Aramaic, the interpretation and history of First Century Christians is pretty well understood and covered in these familial debates. So much of what the Bible says (any scholar will tell you) has to be understood in its cultural context. Including circumcision.
At the time of the New Testament and First Century Christianity, there was intense debate over the practice of circumcision. This was a major transition point for Judaism as it birthed into the all-inclusive Christianity. Prior to Christ, Jews were distinct in their culture & religion, even when living in occupied territory, and Gentiles were non-Jews subject to the religion of the emperor. Christ was the promise that would open the Kingdom of Heaven to everyone on Earth, not just the chosen Jews. Because Jesus was born a Jew, under Mosaic Law (the old law), he was himself circumcised on his eighth day of life. Nearly all the apostles and disciples of Jesus (the chosen twelve) were also Jews, and therefore circumcised.
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the remaining believers moved to spread the good word to all the world. Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice, so the Mosaic Law that had bound previous Jews was no longer relevant. The believers who were not Jewish, and every Jew who believed Jesus was the Messiah, were no longer bound by the yoke of circumcision or any of the old laws (such as mixing cloth, eating unclean food, and other Jewish rituals).
However, this was greatly contentious concerning circumcision because it was so very personal, such as it is today. Our complex psychosexuality as human beings has remained consistent concerning the cutting of our genitals. There were people known as ‘Judaizers’ who were attempting to make the church more “Jewish” and circumcision was the issue of intense debate. At first the argument was that one needed to be circumcised to be part of the Church. This was immediately shot down by the council of elders. Circumcision was no longer mandatory. Then, these same circumcision apologists modified their argument to ‘sure, circumcision wasn’t part of the covenant, but it made one more holy.’ This idea of circumcision making one more moral and chaste was a tool to circumcise American boys from the late 19th to mid 20th Century.
There was a time (according to Galatians, about fifteen years) where the church held a neutral position. If you chose to be circumcised or chose to circumcise your sons, that would be fine. Just like it was okay if one didn’t feel comfortable mixing milk and flesh or wearing cloth of mixed fabric. This was a time of transition, and it was a major cultural shift. In Acts, the church held a position of personal and parental choice. Neither one is better than the other.
Enter Galatians, where Paul says he’s had a revelation, and circumcision is absolutely a sacrilege to the sacrifice of Jesus. At this time Paul wasn’t living in Jerusalem, but that’s where HQ was for the elders. I imagine him trotting in, waving furiously, ‘I’VE HEARD FROM G-D, STOP CUTTING PENISES!’ He says in his letter to the Galatians, in recounting the meeting, that there were people there trying to convince Titus, who was with him, to be circumcised.
His letter to the Galatians is the official Christian stance on circumcision, and he makes very compelling arguments against it. He states several times that circumcision does not make one more holy, and says if you circumcise, you better keep the whole law because you have rendered the new covenant worthless. He reveals the very darkness that is veiled in the cutting of our genitals (whether you believe in a deity or not, there is very real evil in cutting a child). He rails against the Galatians, much like one might rail against Christian Americans, ‘You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you? Before your OWN EYES you saw Jesus crucified.’
Paul says in Galatians 5:11 ‘I wish those who would trouble you would mutilate themselves.’
Again in Philemon 3:2 Paul warns, ‘Beware the dogs, beware the evil doers, beware the false circumcision.’
Recently while having this conversation concerning the Biblical understanding of circumcision with someone entrenched in theism, my husband says,
‘Both Buddha and Jesus state blasphemy is unforgivable, and if you think about it, circumcision, desecrating and discarding a natural part of our bodies – the bodies of children – is blasphemy. To say we need to cut something off of a child, a healthy part of his penis, to hurt a child physically, psychologically, and sexually, and call it the will of god, is blasphemy.’
Below are the scriptures, specifically from Galatians, concerning circumcision.
if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you are seeking to be justified by law; and you have fallen from grace. (Galatians 5:2-4)
This persuasion [to circumcise] did not come from Him who calls you…I have confidence in you in the Lord that you will adopt no other view; but the one who is disturbing you will bear his judgement, whoever he is. (5:8, 10)
But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished. I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves. (Galatians 5:11-12)
The acts of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, angry outbursts, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these… (Galatians 5:19-21)
Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. (Galatians 6:7)
So I have become your enemy by telling you the truth? (Galatians 4:16)
It’s usually at this point, Christians who very much want to believe that circumcision is good, and perhaps have never been taught what the Bible really says about circumcision, pull out the erroneous health benefits and the classic script of modern day circumcision apologists.
To these people, those who believe their bodies were created by a divine and intelligent deity, I would ask, ‘why would your god put something on your body, only to have you remove it?’
Our babies are born perfect, foreskin included. Paul goes to great lengths to establish there is nothing holy, rather there is very real darkness, in genital cutting, and our bodies are ‘perfectly and wonderfully made.’ For Christians to disrespect the very creation of their god, by desecrating the bodies of children, by forcibly removing healthy erogenous tissue, causing harm and trauma, is the opposite of trust in an infallible creator.