CIRCUMCISION: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery

by David L. Gollaher
Basic Books, New York, NY, 2000, Chapter 2, pp. 31-32, 34-35.

(Luke 2:21).  But circumcision did not figure into his teachings.  Among
early Christians, the question of circumcision arose when Jesus’ apostles-
above all Paul, a Jew steeped in rabbinic tradition- began successfully to
proselytize Gentiles.  Since the first male followers of Christ were Jews
circumcised in infancy, strong voices in the early Church argued that
circumcision was compulsory for converts.  Yet Paul, a genius of practical
evangelism, saw clearly that requiring circumcision would vastly inhibit
the appeal of his gospel.  In an era of religious ferment, Greek and Roman
men might be persuaded to entertain a new theology.  Given the ordeal of
an operation on the adult penis, though, few would have embraced
Christianity if circumcision were a prerequisite.

So, in a brilliant theological strategem, Paul expanded and reinterpreted
the ancient distinction between physical and spiritual circumcision.  In
his Letter to the Galatians, Paul explained that in the process of
instituting a new covenant, a fresh basis for the relationship between God
and humankind, Jesus Christ subsumed the old covenant between God and
Abraham.  Christ, he said, fulfilled the law, and this fulfillment
rendered circumcision irrelvant in the eye of God.  “In Christ Jesus
neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything,” he
proclaimed (Galatians 5:6).  In Corinth, where a bitter dispute broke out
when a group of conservative Jewish converts pressured their Gentile
counterparts to become circumcised, Paul was equally adamant: “Was anyone
already circumcised when he was called?  let him not seek to remove the
marks of circumcision.  Was anyone uncircumcised when he was called?  Let
him not seek circumcision”(1 Corinthians 7:18).

In Pauline theology, faith in Christ eliminated the raison d’etre for
circumcision: that is, to distinguish Jew from Gentile.  Unlike the law of
the patriarchs, the new dispensation was to be universal.  In his passion
to describe a simple Christian faith that transended the elaborate, highly
codified law he had grown up with, Paul frequently used circumcision to
epitomize the old, outmoded order. . .

The early Church’s cession of circumcision was a crucial aspect of
Christianity’s transformation from a Jewish sect to a community with a
distinct religious identity.  Within the communities of early
Christianity, believers experienced a powerful sense that Jesus had
liberated them from all formal constraints of the law, from circumcision
to dietary restrictions.  “We Christians eat pork,” a Christian speaker
boasted in the seventh-century Trophies of Damascus, “because He who freed
me from circumcision also freed me from abstinence from pork.”
Nevertheless, Christians accepted the Torah and the other books of the Old
Testament literally as the word of God.  In consequence, theologians
discoursed at length on the question of what, in light of the Gospel of
Christ, God had truly intended in the old covenant with Abraham.

Abelard, the twelfth-century French monk and theologian, addressed the
problem of circumcision as part of a broader attempt to reconcile the old
covenant with the new.  In Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a
, he held that God had never invented circumcision as a
universally binding obligation.  Even in the Old Testament, it was not
essential to salvation.  Enoch, Noah, and Job, not to mention Moses,
entered the Kingdom of God without it.  Circumcision was, in Abelard’s
view, a narrow requirement, ordained exclusively for Abraham and his
offspring.  Since circumcision was not an absolute condition of salvation
in the Old Testament and was explicitly rejected by the apostle Paul, the
Philosopher in Abelard’s dialogue rejects it as obsolete, like the complex
temple rituals specified in the Book of Leviticus.3

Abelard clarified his argument in two other works, Commentaries on Romans
and Sermon on Circumcision
.  Once upon a time, he said, the mark had
served an essential role.  It set Israel apart from the Gentile tribes
around them and encouraged Jews to marry within their own group.  The
appearance of the Messiah, however, dissolved the need for any
distinctions.  “With the cessation of the Law and the succession of the
more perfect Gospels,” he wrote, “circumcision has been overtaken by the
sacrament of baptism which sanctifies men and women alike.”  Other
theologians expanded on these ideas.  Guibert of Nogent, recalling Paul’s
statement that “in Christ there is neither male nor female,” wrote that it
was unthinkable that any measure of saving grace would exclude women.
Indeed, the Ysagoge in Theologiam, providing background on the sacraments,
taught that Jesus had replaced circumcision with baptism expressly to
include women in the new covenant.  Peter Alfonsi, in a similar vein,
noted Paul’s decree that in Christ, the distinction between Jew and
Gentile vanished.  Judaism, as Rupert of Deutz explained, was tribal.
Mingling with dozens of other desert people, the Jews needed a
distinguishing characteristic.  Christianity’s greater destiny, however,
was to spread the Gospel to the four corners of the earth; its promise was
salvation to all people, of all languages and races.  Baptism could be
applied universally and was, in the teachings of Christ and the apostles,
directly linked to salvation.  Circumcision, at best, symbolized an
outmoded law whose fulfillment had already been realized in Christ.4

3  Abelard, Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian,
Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Sources in Translation, vol. 20 (1979).

4  Abelard, Sermon on Circumcision, quoted in A. S. Abulafia, Christians
and Jews in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance
 (1986), 125: J. L. Thompson,
“‘So Ridiculous a Sign’: Men, Women, and Lessons of Circumcision in
Sixteenth-Century Exegesis,” Archiv fur Reformationsgeschichte 86 (1996):
236-56.  Thompson shows that early Protestant commentators shared with
their Catholic forbears a desire to vaunt the superiority of the New
Testament over the Old while at the same time maintaining historical
continuity from Adam through Christ to the sixteenth-century church.