I’ve seen a lot of Jewish and Christian publications say that the Bible correctly predicted the best time for circumcision, on the eighth day, such is in marked contrast to circumcision rituals in other cultures, for example in Islam. Although I usually don’t like finding scientific predictions in the Bible, is God allowed to make exceptions in cases where health and safety is paramount?
I wouldn’t consider this a prediction. It is what works best. Calling it a prediction is simply apologetics in action.
The Hebrews alone in the Ancient world got this right though.
I didn’t know about this. Fascinating. Thank you.
In June 2000, a new edition of the best seller None of These Diseases, by Dr. S. I. McMillen was released. McMillen notes enthusiastically that in the first days of life the newborn faces a serious dearth of blood clotting substances; whereas, after the eighth day, the level of clotting material – prothrombin – in the blood reaches its lifetime average of 100%. However, just before the eighth day, the amount of blood clotting material increases rapidly, until on the eighth day itself, it is 110% of the norm!
In other words, only on the eighth day of life do blood clotting substances reach their all-time high – well beyond the amount that will accompany a normal human being for the rest of his life.
Good advice still doesn’t make it a prediction. How about the prohibition against pork? Is that a prediction or just a good dietary practice?
I’d suggest viewing circumcision as anything more than a sign of the Abrahamic covenant is saying more than the text can maintain.
Publications? What are your sources?
A Christian response to this topic must begin with a Christian stance on the topic, and that stance is made fairly clear by St Paul. The resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit have inaugurated the dawn of the age to come. Certainly that dawn is only provisional and awaits future consummation, but the insights provided steer a clear path for the Christian. Faced with those who would still promote circumcision, Paul is forced to speak forcibly. If you permit yourselves to be circumcised, you are cut off from Christ (Galatians 5). The play on words is clear. If you cut off your foreskin you are cut off from Christ. He finishes that passage with a rather shocking statement that those who want to cut off a part of the penis (the foreskin) should go all the way and castrate themselves. Paul takes a similar dim view of the practice in Philippians 3, where he revises the self-labelling of the Jews as the “people of the circumcision” as the “people of the mutilation”. It is hard, therefore, to know why Christians want to spend so much time trying to justify the practice with dubious claims about medical benefits when such claims are never made in the Biblical text.
Genesis 15 is placed alongside Genesis 17 in the Old Testament because they consist of two traditions about the covenant with Abraham - one involving circumcision and the other not. At some stage it appears that a practice amongst other Semitic tribes was incorporated into Israelite belief, perhaps on the basis that “if you can’t beat 'em, join them”. In that culture, circumcision was understood as a sign on the penis - the organ of generation - as a sign that one was entering into a period of human fecundity. In other words, many offspring! One can still find signs of that in the Old Testament, where fecundity is understood as a promise achieved by entering the covenant.
Today there are many attempts to justify the practice. There were supposed to be “Tyson’s glands” underneath the foreskin which created smegma. This in turn was supposed to promote all kinds of diseases. Today we know that Tyson’s glands do not exist and there are no sebaceous glands under the foreskin. An intact (not circumcised) penis was supposed to encourage urinary tract infections, cervical cancer in women, and HIV. Indeed, circumcision has been described as a cure looking for a disease.
The foreskin is simply the shaft skin of the penis. When the penis becomes erect, it approximately doubles in length. The shaft skin for this extension is provided as the foreskin unfolds. When the penis becomes flaccid, the shaft skin folds over itself. At the mid point of this fold, the type of skin changes and contains highly erogenous fine-touch receptors. Unfortunately, these are always removed by circumcision, so that male circumcision becomes a sexually maiming practice. Perhaps it is time for Christians to stand alongside St Paul. (See above.)
Then why did Paul arrange for Timohty to be circumcised in Acts 16? Is Timothy cut off from Christ? I’m a little worried about how many male friends and relatives I won’t be seeing in heaven now.
Well, it can be a difficult surgery. I couldn’t walk for a year after mine.
Obviously, Paul was not saying that the presence or abscence if a bit of skin is required to go to heaven, but is expressing his anger at those who are legalistic in adherence to Jewish tradition and making it a requirement to be part of the Christian community. Certainly, that legalism is something we still struggle with in different forms.
As to medical indications for circumcision, I would agree that there are no overwhelming reasons, but also no overwhelming problems with it either except in rare cases with inexperienced hands . It winds up being a cultural ritual. Without Vit K, certainly around the 8th day is probably safer, but in the US, most are done in the newborn nursery on the day of discharge at 1-2 days of age, or in the office in followup with minimal problems… I probably have not done a circumcision in 20 years, but through the years have done hundreds when in early practice and residency.
Circumcision as an adult is often times medically necessary due to infection or scarring, and is a much more difficult and painful procedure. No doubt Timothy was not too thrilled.
Then why did Paul arrange for Timothy to be circumcised in Acts 16?
The answer to this question may not help your case. It appears that some Jews threatened to kill uncircumcised men who came amongst them and according to Luke it was “because of the Jews in that place”. But let us take a step back from this Biblical literature and ask ourselves what we are comparing. In Galatians and Philippians, we are hearing Paul from his own voice (allowing for the role of a scribe). Indeed, in the last chapter of Galatians, Paul literally writes in his own hand. On the other hand, in Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, we are seeing Luke’s reconstruction of Paul according to his sources. Though Luke may have had contact with Paul at some points, this contact was fairly superficial. Is Luke’s attempt to reconstruct Paul, or Paul’s own letters, likely to give the most accurate portrait of Paul and his theology?
We know from an overview of Luke-Acts that Luke tries to present a watered-down portrait of Paul – as someone who bends over backwards to appear diplomatic in his relationships with Jews. The problem with this portrait is that it clashes with what we know of Paul from his own letters in which he was extremely undiplomatic, and the lack of success which Acts had in persuading Jews probably derives from the same discrepancy. In his letter to the Galatians (2:3) Paul explains that even though he took Titus (a Greek) to Jerusalem, where an inscription threatened death to any uncircumcised man who came near the Temple, Titus was not compelled to be circumcised. So perhaps Luke got the story wrong. In fact, Luke is notorious for getting things mixed up. An example is found in his account of Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road. But even if Luke did get it right regarding Timothy, it was an exceptional action taken in extreme circumstances and not Paul’s general policy.
In the second comment you feign doubt that you will see certain male acquaintances in heaven, if what Paul says is true. In this you appear to be equating “cut off from Christ” with not “going to heaven”. That seems to be a rather “pie in the sky when you die” interpretation of what Paul was trying to say. Since Phil also seems to be approaching the issue from that viewpoint, I will try to address that in my reply to him.
FYI, I don’t have very strong opinions about circumcision either way, so I’m not aiming to argue anyone out of their convictions – but Paul is talking about circumcision in terms of attempting to be justified through the law. So yes, if someone gets circumcised for the purpose of justification, their understanding of law and grace is seriously messed up and needs to be corrected. Paul is right to be angry at legalism that attempts to portray Christ’s sacrifice as insufficient. It would seem his tirade against circumcision is less about the physical act and more about the law it represents.
I would see being “cut off from Christ” as more than merely about heaven, but still a pretty serious thing, but I’ll wait for your response since I’m not really sure where you’re going with that.
Elle and Phil, I am hoping to cover the comments of both of you in this reply, for you both want to navigate around Paul’s strong objection to circumcision by confining it to the issue of justification by the keeping of the Law, rather than by grace; or the practice of a legalism that involves upholding the letter of the Law, rather than the spirit of the Law. If you live in a culture that practices male circumcision, this interpretation gets you off the hook, so it is bound to be popular. However, as reinforcing as that cultural comfort may be, it does not stand up to progress in New Testament studies over the past few centuries.
In a nutshell, Paul’s objection to the Law and circumcision derives from an eschatological interpretation of the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Eschatology, which comes from the Greek word “eschaton”, is a study of things relating to the end of time. It is sometimes called an apocalyptic worldview. In the time of Jesus and Paul, Jews believed that the world would come to an end with the last judgement, the resurrection of the dead and the eschatological gift of the Holy Spirit. For Paul and other early Christians, Jesus’ resurrection was seen as the dawn of the general resurrection and thus of the dawn of the Age to Come.
One can see the eschatological interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul portrays Jesus’ resurrection as the “first fruits” of an ongoing event which includes the general resurrection of believers. Paul and other New Testament authors share in this view that the end has become an extended event. It is a bit like looking at a mountain range from afar and seeing it as a single point but discovering on arrival at that point that the mountain range goes on for a ways. This extension of the “End” by New Testament authors gives rise to what theologians call the tension “between the already and the not yet”.
So where does the Christian life stand in this tension of “the already and the not yet”? For Paul, the Christian life is lived out in the power of this eschatological event, not with the tools of the Old Covenant. Paul makes this clear in Romans where he says,
“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11 NRS)
And earlier in that same letter he says,
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4 NRS)
These statements by Paul make it clear that the Christian life is lived in the power of the resurrection, and thus, in the power of the Age to Come. There is still a final consummation to come in New Testament theology, often referred to as the “Second Coming”, but the Christian life involves a dip into the eschatological Spirit. (No pun intended.) Thus, Paul can say that the “end of the ages has come upon us”. (1 Corinthians 10:11) By way of comparison, the old way of the Law has become obsolete.
The problem with this eschatological (or apocalyptic) world view is that it soon came into disrepute. Not simply because the expected follow-up events did not come in short time, but because some people were endlessly predicting the end of the world on a certain date and proved to be wrong. The whole area of eschatology became an embarrassment. I can sympathize with that embarrassment. As an advanced amateur astronomer I can only cringe when fundamentalist Christians take the blood-red eclipsed Moon as a sign that the end is about to come, knowing full-well that the red color is caused by the refraction of red sunlight by the Earth’s atmosphere into the Earth’s shadow and onto the Moon. (The blue sunlight is scattered.) It has been happening ever since there was a Moon and an atmosphere on Earth.
Because of this embarrassment, Christians began to interpret their Scriptures without reference to the eschatological beliefs of their authors. With each attempt they got further away from the original meaning. Originally the Law referred to the Law of Moses - the statutes and case laws, as well as the lore, in the first five books of the Bible. This eventually became diluted into a discussion of law in the generic sense, and its relationship to grace. So what I am saying is that if you really want to understand what the authors of the New Testament were on about, you need to put your objections to their eschatology on the back-burner and “go with the flow”.
Because of this foundation in Christian eschatology, Paul can say of the Law of Moses and its practice of circumcision, “what once had glory now has no glory” (2 Corinthians 3:10). Thus Paul is free to now call circumcision “mutilation’ (Philippians 3: 2).
Definitely agreeing with Gregoreite on this. The objection seems justified from one perception but if you read it in more details, this would change your mindset.
Well put, and I certainly do not disagree, though feel that circumcision in the verses cited and overall was a peripheral issue, a symptom, if you will, of the problem, not the problem itself. My thoughts on eschatology agree with yours so far as I can see, so no conflict there.
I guess I see where you’re coming from though I think the eschatology has a lot more implications than can be covered in a short discussion, so I’m probably not getting all of that. It sounds to me like you’re saying that circumcision is somewhat in line with other ceremonial aspects of the law – that it would make about as much sense theologically today as it would to sacrifice an animal on an altar. And I agree, except it’s complicated by other nonreligious reasons given for circumcision. I expect, as it’s already on the decline in Europe, it won’t be long before it’s much less of an issue in the US as well.
Current stats as per uptodate:
The United States is the only country in the developed world where the majority of male infants are circumcised for nonreligious reasons. Circumcision rates in the United States vary according to geographic area, socioeconomic status, religious affiliation, insurance coverage, hospital type, and racial and ethnic group. The overall prevalence is estimated to be about 80 percent for males aged 14 to 59 years, with most of these procedures performed in newborns . Circumcision rates are highest in the Midwestern states (74 percent), followed by the Northeastern states (67 percent) and Southern states (61 percent), and are lowest in the Western states (30 percent) . The rate is higher in non-Hispanic whites (91 percent) than in non-Hispanic blacks (76 percent) and Mexican Americans (44 percent) .
I’m very grateful for neonatal administration of Vitamin K. Not only in the neonatal time, but there are also bleeding risks up to 6 months. It’s more of a risk with breast feeding, apparently. https://www.cdc.gov/healthcommunication/toolstemplates/entertainmented/tips/kvitamin.html
It is very interesting to see who decides to circumcise or not. My family, typical of the Midwest, always did–but my brother, who was in Quebec when his son was born, couldn’t find anyone to do it for his son till he returned to Michigan at about 2months of age.
Phil, I don’t know what you mean by “peripheral” here. Paul talks about circumcision seventeen times in his letters and through most of his major epistles, including Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Titus. It is always at the centre of his discussions about the obsolete nature of the Law of Moses. There was a good reason for that. Most people in the Roman Empire regarded it as an abomination.
As far as Paul was concerned, what once had glory no longer had glory. We can see a parallel for that today. The routine circumcision of neonates was introduced into English speaking countries (and thus never in Europe) for reasons of “moral hygiene”. Dr John Kellogg offered the opinion that as much pain as possible should be inflicted on the genitals of children, by way of circumcision or the application of carbolic acid, to protect against sexual waywardness including masturbation. These thoughts even made their way into professional medical journals. But today we would regard such ideas as those of detestable perverts. When such views lost favour, the argument moved from “moral hygiene” into “physical hygiene” and the invention of secretions which supposedly caused all manner of disease.
Of course, the reality is that every male circumcision causes irreparable damage through the removal of fine touch erogenous sensors and by changing the mechanical nature of sexual intercourse. The foreskin provides the extra shaft skin necessary for the penis to become erect and still glide in and out smoothly. The circumcised penis results in the shaft skin being very tight and thus abrasive during intercourse. No one has a moral right to do that to a child with its consequences for the child in adult life. To read of attempts to justify infant circumcision with claims of less hemorrhaging if performed on the eighth day is ridiculous, because there is even less hemorrhaging when not done at all.
I think Paul’s objection to circumcision and yours are in two quite different realms, so I think I will stick to the spiritual one with discussion in this setting.