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Circumcision controversy in early Christianity

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Today, most Christian denominations are neutral about biblical male circumcision, neither requiring it nor forbidding it. The first Christian Church Council in Jerusalem, held in approximately 50 AD, decreed that circumcision was not a requirement for Gentile converts.[1] According to the Columbia Encyclopedia:[2]

The decision that Christians need not practice circumcision is recorded in Template:Bibleverse; there was never, however, a prohibition of circumcision, and it is practiced by Coptic Christians.

Jewish backgroundEdit

The biblical requirement for Jewish circumcision is contained in Template:Bibleverse:

On the eighth day a boy is to be circumcised.

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia article on circumcision of proselytes:

The issue between the Zealot and Liberal parties regarding the circumcision of proselytes remained an open one in tannaitic times [1st and 2nd centuries]; R. Joshua asserting that the bath, or baptismal rite, rendered a person a full proselyte without circumcision, as Israel, when receiving the Law, required no initiation other than the purificative bath; while R. Eliezer makes circumcision a condition for the admission of a proselyte, and declares the baptismal rite to be of no consequence (Yeb. 46a). A similar controversy between the Shammaites and the Hillelites is given (Shab. 137a) regarding a proselyte born circumcised: the former demanding the spilling of a drop of blood of the covenant; the latter declaring it to be unnecessary. The rigorous Shammaite view, voiced in the Book of Jubilees (l.c.), prevailed in the time of King John Hyrcanus, who forced the Abrahamic rite upon the Idumeans, and in that of King Aristobulus, who made the Itureans undergo circumcision (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, xiii. 9, § 1; 11, § 3). According to Template:Bibleverse, Septuagint, the Persians who, from fear of the Jews after Haman's defeat, "became Jews," were circumcised.

Circumcision of JesusEdit


According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was circumcised eight days after his birth, in accordance with Mosaic Law. (Template:Bibleverse)

Circumcision controversy Edit

Disputes over the Mosaic law generated intense controversy in Early Christianity. This is particularly notable in the mid-1st century, when the circumcision controversy came to the fore. Alister McGrath claimed that many of the Jewish Christians were fully faithful religious Jews, only differing in their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah.[3] As such, they believed that circumcision and other requirements of the Mosaic law were required for salvation, if one equates fully faithful religious Jews with Legalism (theology), for a counterview, see Covenantal nomism. See also Judaism and Christianity. 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, besides other claimed sins.[4]

Council of JerusalemEdit

Main article: Council of Jerusalem
File:Saint James the Just.jpg

The Council of Jerusalem (Template:Bibleverse) 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 new 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. Jewish culture was still trying to find its place in the more dominant Hellenistic culture.

At the time, the Christian community would have considered itself a part of the wider Jewish community, with most of the leaders of the Church being Jewish.

The decision of the Council came to be called the Apostolic Decree (Template:Bibleverse) and was that most Jewish law, including the requirement for circumcision of males, was not obligatory for Gentile converts, possibly in order to make it easier for them to join the movement.[5] However, the Council did retain the prohibitions against eating meat containing blood, or meat of animals not properly slain, and against "fornication" and idol worship.[6] Beginning with Augustine of Hippo[7], many have seen a connection to Noahide Law, while some modern scholars[8] reject the connection to Noahide Law (Template:Bibleverse) and instead see Template:Bibleverse as the basis. See also Old Testament Law directed at non-Jews and Leviticus 18. In effect, however, the Jerusalem Church created a double standard: one for Jewish Christians and one for Gentile converts. See Dual-covenant theology for the modern debate.

File:Temple inscription in greek.jpg

The Decree may be the first act of differentiation of the Church from its Jewish roots[9], see also List of events in early Christianity. Although the outcome is not inconsistent with the Jewish view on the applicability of Mosaic Law to non-Jews, the Decree created a category of persons who were members of the Christian community (which still considered itself to be part of the Jewish community) who were not considered to be full converts of the wider Jewish community. These partial converts were welcomed, a common term for them being "God fearers" (similar to the modern movement of B'nei Noah), but there were certain rituals and areas in the Temple from which they (Gentiles) were excluded, just as, for example, only the Kohen Gadol could enter the Kodesh Hakodashim of the Temple. This created problems especially when the Christian community had become dominated by new Gentile members.

Teaching of PaulEdit

See also: Pauline Christianity
File:StPaul ElGreco.jpg

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 Template:Bibleref.[10]

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. (Template:Bibleverse)[11]. He also appeared to praise its value in Template:Bibleverse.

Paul argued that circumcision no longer meant the physical, but a spiritual practice (Template:Bibleverse). And in that sense, he wrote: "Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised" (Template:Bibleverse) - probably a reference to the practice of epispasm [12]. 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." (Template:Bibleverse)

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". (Template:Bibleverse) 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?" (Template:Bibleverse) He accused advocates of circumcision of wanting to make a good showing in the flesh (Template:Bibleverse) and of glorying or boasting of the flesh (Template:Bibleverse). 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: "If ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing."

In a late letter he warned Christians to beware of the mutilation (Strong's G2699), saying that Christians were the true circumcision because they worshipped in the Spirit of God (Template:Bibleverse).

The Catholic Encyclopedia: Judaizers notes: "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 (Template:Bibleverse). Thus he shortly after circumcised Timothy (Template:Bibleverse), and he was in the very act of observing the Mosaic ritual when he was arrested at Jerusalem (Template:Bibleverse-nb sqq.)."

Later viewsEdit

See also: Primacy of Simon Peter
File:Pope-peter pprubens.jpg

Simon Peter, who later came to be called the first Pope, condemned circumcision for converts. (Template:Bibleverse) When the various passages from the New Testament regarding circumcision are gathered together, a strongly negative view of circumcision emerges. [2] Some Biblical scholars think that the Epistle of Titus, generally attributed to Paul, but see Authorship of the Pauline epistles, may state that circumcision should be discouraged among Christians (Template:Bibleverse), 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" (e.g. Template:Bibleverse) [3] 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 article on Jesus 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 notes the following reconciliation:

R. Emden, in a remarkable apology for Christianity contained in his appendix to "Seder 'Olam" (pp. 32b-34b, Hamburg, 1752), gives it as his opinion that the original intention of Jesus, and especially of Paul, was to convert only the Gentiles to the seven moral laws of Noah and to let the Jews follow the Mosaic law — which explains the apparent contradictions in the New Testament regarding the laws of Moses and the Sabbath.


  1. 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 (Template:Bibleverse)."
  2. "circumcision", The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2001-05.
  3. McGrath, Alister E., Christianity: An Introduction. Blackwell Publishing (2006). ISBN 1405108991. 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)."
  4. 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 ..."
  5. Template:Bibleverse
  6. 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 disuser, like other laws."
  7. Contra Faust, 32.13
  8. For example: Joseph Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries), Yale University Press (December 2, 1998), ISBN 0300139829, chapter V
  9. 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."
  10. McGrath (2006). Pp 174-175.
  11. 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.'"
  12. "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)."

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