Circumcision is the ritualistic removal of the male's foreskin, practiced by many African, South American, and Middle Eastern peoples. Often performed at puberty, it may have originated as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood; some biblical texts have been interpreted in this way (Gen. 17.25; Exod 4.24–26). In Jewish tradition, following biblical commandments (Gen. 17.12; 21.4; Lev. 12.3), males are normally circumcised at eight days of age. Proselyte males are circumcised before admission into the community.

Although some rabbis held that males who had been born Jews could maintain their status without circumcision, across the centuries others demanded excommunication for those not circumcised (e.g., Gen. 17.14). According to one passage, even Moses would have died had his son not been circumcised (Exod. 4.24–26). Nevertheless, according to Joshua 5.2–9, apparently those born in the wilderness were not circumcised until they entered Canaan. Then the Lord required that they be circumcised, presumably to enable them to celebrate Passover (Josh. 5.10; see Exod. 12.48). Later scribes modified this tradition by improbably having them be circumcised “a second time” (Josh. 5.2).

Antiochus Epiphanes had women and their sons who had been circumcised despite his proscription killed (1 Macc. 1.60). Some Palestinian Jews managed to have themselves uncircumcised, stood apart from the holy contract, yoked themselves to the gentiles, and sold themselves to do evil (1 Macc. 1.15). This does not necessarily mean that they performed some sort of surgical reconstruction, for these four items are all parallel ways of making the same statement, that liberal Jews became so completely Hellenized that orthodox Jews said they were no longer circumcised. This was probably insult rather than fact, just as male Jews who mingled with gentiles socially and in business were called “harlots,” as if they had mingled sexually. There may, however, have been liberal Jews and Jewish Christians who stretched the remaining foreskin to make circumcision less obvious (1 Cor. 7.18). “Circumcision” was also used metaphorically. Someone who did not accept divine teaching was said to have an uncircumcised ear (Jer. 6.10), and a stubborn person had an uncircumcised heart (Lev. 26.41; Jer. 9.25–26).

Circumcision was traced back to the covenant or contract God made with Abraham, and thus is widely practiced by Muslims as well as Jews. It was called the “sign of the covenant” (Gen. 17.11), the covenant in the flesh (Gen. 17.13), and the “covenant of circumcision” (Acts 7.8); the traditional European Jewish (i.e., Yiddish) term for circumcision, bris, is an alternate pronunciation of the word for “covenant” (Hebr. běrît). In earliest Christianity, there was considerable debate over the requirement of circumcision (Acts 15.1–21; Gal. 2.3–14); Paul, however, held that circumcision was part of the old contract that had been superseded and was therefore no longer required (Gal. 6.15), and his view ultimately became normative for Christians (See Law, article on New Testament Views).

George Wesley Buchanan