Circumcision on the eighth day?

Phil, I was rather shocked by your sudden turn about, as up until your last post, you were strongly agreeing with me. So, I have looked back over my post to see what might have suddenly caused a change of heart.

The first thing that crops up is a possible disagreement over whether St Paul’s concern over circumcision was central or peripheral. I argued that it was central and gave evidence of its frequent mention in so many of his letters. I am not backing down from that point; and as further evidence I would point to the descriptive label used by both Paul and his opponents of themselves. We might call them Judaizers, but in the New Testament they are called “the circumcision”. When we think of all the different labels that could have been used of themselves, it is extraordinary that they used this one. They could have called themselves “Jews” or “Israelites”, or “the people of the Book”, or “the orthodox”, but they chose the label of “the circumcision”. That tells us a lot about what was central to their faith, and what was central to St Paul’s rejection of them.

I came to this discussion because an email landed in my inbox from BioLogos saying that a lot had happened since my last visit. When I clicked on the link, I ended up with this discussion near the top of my page, and an apparent attempt by some to find a recommendation for circumcision on the eighth day. I thought to myself, “Surely not!” Some “wanna be” Christians obviously get confused as to whether they are Christians or Jews. As St Paul said, if anyone is in Christ, he/she is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come. That is Paul’s spiritual objection to circumcision.

Christians are not a bunch of “modern primitives” hankering after a tribal past. The resurrection comes to us as an anticipation of the eschaton. The gift of the Holy Spirit comes to us as an anticipation of the eschatological Spirit. That means that Christians live out of the future, not the past. Every day brings us closer to God. Every advance in science helps us to understand what God is really like, from studying his Creation.

The “spiritual” is not about casting a topic out to the periphery where it becomes so nebulous it does not upset us. Paul’s conflict with “the circumcision” was an extremely emotional one. An inscription from those times declared that any uncircumcised man entering at that location would be killed. Being prepared to commit murder in order to promote circumcision reveals a highly-charged situation. On the other side, Greek and Roman authorities ruling Judea found the practice so abhorrent they tried to ban it. St Paul’s suggestion that the people who promoted circumcision should go all the way and castrate themselves carried a two-barrelled impact. In addition to the association of circumcision with castration, it also alluded to the pagan worshippers of the goddess Cybele, who at the height of their worshipping frenzy, did actually castrate themselves. St Paul really did know how to insult people!

So, what’s the point of saying this? Well, we in the West are so arrogant, and I include myself in this, that we imagine that all issues are decided by cold, intellectual rationality. (Let’s ignore the trap pf “rationalisation”.) This is how we think we “know” the truth about something. But the other side of being human is the emotional side. Can we really understand the meaning of Paul’s words without entering into the emotional space that he and his opponents shared? I don’t think we can. So, if any of my posts have stirred up strong feelings, I make no apology. That is part of the pathway to understanding the Scriptures.

I think Phil’s point was that Paul’s objection to circumcision had absolutely nothing to do with affecting sexual sensation in men. It was a missiological concern. Given that this forum is dedicated to discussing questions where science and faith intersect, pursuing a debate about whose penis has better sex is not really within the scope of our purpose here. If you are going to make an argument that circumcision is not biblical, you have to stick with the theological arguments. And personally, I don’t think you can make any better a case from the Bible that it is wrong to circumcise infants than you can that it is wrong for women to worship with their heads uncovered.


During the time that the Jews were under Greek and Roman rule, there were several attempts by their rulers to ban circumcision on pain of death. This resulted in many Jews being prepared to suffer death rather than give up the practice of their religion. Imagine how they felt when Paul came along and said circumcision is no longer part of our relationship with God, whether we are Jews or Gentiles. Did this make their sacrifice meaningless?

By way of analogy, I think of a conversation with a friend who was a Vietnam veteran. We lost that war. Does that mean that those who gave their lives did so for nothing? My friend replied saying not to ask that question of anyone who had come out of a battle with the brains of their buddy literally splattered on their uniform. I got his point, and it serves to illustrate the kinds of heightened feelings that can surround any such debate.

You write:

“… pursuing a debate about whose penis has better sex is not really within the scope of our purpose here.”

This statement is crude, ridiculing and minimalizing of the point that has been made; and hardly a respectful comment for a moderator to make. To see that in a clearer light, imagine someone saying of the fight to end female circumcision, that it is “a debate about whose vulva has better sex”. What Paul does say about circumcision has strong value in both theological and ethical terms. In the fight against female circumcision we have armed for that fight by labelling it not as “female circumcision”, but as “female genital mutilation”. Paul does the same in the New Testament, by re-labelling male circumcision as “mutilation” (Philippians 3) and placing it along a continuum with castration (Galatians 5).

You write:

“Paul’s objection to circumcision had absolutely nothing to do with affecting sexual sensation in men.”

That’s two superlatives in a row, but with no evidence to back it up. Let’s think about Paul. He came not from Galilee or Judea, but from right outside the boundaries of ancient Israel. He was from Tarsus, a town in what was then called Asia Minor and is now Turkey. He was a Roman citizen, which must have involved him in associating with people in the heart of Gentile culture. If Luke gives an accurate portrayal of Paul when he came before the Areopagus in Greece, he was intimately familiar with Greek philosophy, being able to debate with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers; and he was very familiar with the Greek poetry of Epimenides the Cretan and Aratus of Cilicia, who gave him the famous lines, “In him we live and have our being” and “we are his offspring”, found in Acts 17:28. It was this familiarity which enabled him to keep open the line of discussion with the Athenians.

It is no surprise then that Paul regarded circumcision in exactly the same way as the Greeks did, namely, as mutilation of an otherwise perfect body. However, Paul also lived during a time when his fellow Jews regarded circumcision as reducing sexual pleasure. The first century Jew, Philo, wrote: “The legislators thought good to dock the organ which ministers to such intercourse thus making circumcision the symbol of excision of excessive and superfluous pleasure." It is most likely then that when Paul accepted the Greek evaluation of circumcision as mutilation when defining its status in the New Covenant, he was well aware that he was rejecting the Jewish aim of reduction of sexual pleasure through circumcision.

Female genital mutilation and male circumcision are not at all comparable, sorry.

This is a bare assertion. He was a circumcised Jew and had no problem with Jews continuing the practice in their own communities. He called it mutilation to make a rhetorical point and to show his strong feelings about Jewish Christians who were essentially racist and hypocritically legalistic in their attitudes toward Gentile converts.

You have provided no real evidence of this. And it is debatable as a fact. If it weren’t why would some adult men in the US actually opt to undergo circumcision in the hope that it will improve sex? But like I said, arguing about sexual performance and enjoyment is really beyond the scope of the purpose of this forum. It is also a bare assertion that Jews circumcised infants out of any motivation to reduce sexual pleasure in boys. It was the sign of the convenant, along with Torah observance. It was synonymous with Jewish identity, a source of pride. It is this nationalistic pride that is the issue for Paul, not following the Mosaic law, which Paul in many places declares holy and good.

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Perhaps to help [us all] let go of the phallic theme [nope! no emojis forthcoming here], it might be interesting to ponder what equivalent sorts of symbols we strongly attach to tribal identities today (whether national, cultural, or religious).

Perhaps the flag? Or our language? A lot of Americans get their dander up at the mere suggestion that any other languages apart from English should be accommodated in our country. And yet, I don’t think either of these suggestions approaches the intensity of religious commitment that circumcision entailed for the Jews in that time. It might be about like Paul walking into a conservative church today and telling them that they shouldn’t be insisting on baptism for new converts. The response would be swift and immediate: church leaders everywhere would be pointing Paul to chapter and verse of all manner of holy writ to show why baptism absolutely is necessary. And the point to ponder here then, is that the 1st century Pharisees would have had all the same case to make (probably an even stronger one actually!) pointing to chapter and verse about why circumcision cannot be considered optional. And yet … there our famous Pharisee was … blowing such legalism right out of the water.

[clarifying and sanitizing edits]


I think the closest parallel would be the debate over Muslim background believers and Insider Movements. If you want to see people getting their dander up, suggest that you can follow Christ and still call yourself Muslim. And honestly, my own opinion tends to waver back and forth depending on whose article I have just read.

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“Insider Movements!” That’s my first exposure (in my recollection) to that phrase, though the concept is familiar enough. Yeah - that would be a hot topic. There would probably be less affront if people allow themselves to think of such movements as stepping stones. “Okay - they’re going in the right direction!” But that concept still carries understandable offense to those so characterized - as if their place of standing is really no better than a half-way house. I can sympathize with feeling the tugs toward all sorts of incompatible directions. Having read and been influenced by “The Shack”, I still like the idea of Jesus refusing to be locked out of any group and finding followers for himself from among every conceivable group, from Muslims to atheists, and - even Christians (!).

Okay, I’d better cease and desist from that provocation before somebody starts casting about for a greater selection of heretic emojis to use in their response. :heresy:

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I was out of town and away from the computer the last couple of days, but if anyone wants to discuss non-theologic circumcision issues further, will move it to a private conversation, where you may be free to do so.

He was a circumcised Jew and had no problem with Jews continuing the practice in their own communities. He called it mutilation to make a rhetorical point and to show his strong feelings about Jewish Christians who were essentially racist and hypocritically legalistic in their attitudes toward Gentile converts.

Yes, indeed, Paul was a circumcised Jew. The passage comes from Philippians 3 where Paul tells us he was circumcised on his eighth day. He tells us himself, so what else did he say about it when he told us so? "More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Phi 3:8 NRS). The word translated as “rubbish” here is the Greek word σκύβαλα (Phi 3:8 GNT). If you look that up in a Greek lexicon you will find that it means “garbage” or “faeces”. In other words, Paul regards such things as a load of …. (You can insert your own word here, depending upon your fondness for Anglo-Saxon words. However, those scriptures translated for use in public worship should use the milder translation as “rubbish”.)

This is not a position from which Paul can retreat into a “carry on with the practice” fellow Jewish Christians. Paul is speaking as a Jewish Christian and quite clearly saying circumcision has no worth in the dawn of the Age to Come inaugurated by Jesus’ resurrection.

Christy, I think I detect in your posts an older view of the issue with the Law of Moses which interpreted Paul’s critique of the Law as a matter of rejecting legalism, understood as an adherence to the letter of the Law, rather than the spirit of the Law. This understanding has been superseded by our re-discovery that Jesus and Paul both operated within an apocalyptic or eschatological worldview which saw the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit as the dawn (but not the consummation) of the Age to Come. This rendered any division of people into Jew and Gentile obsolete. There was only one means of salvation for both.

When Paul advises those circumcised not to try and remove the marks of their circumcision he is not giving authority for Jewish Christians to continue the practice of circumcision. He is saying not to bother trying to undo what cannot be undone. Some Jews, in the multicultural world of the 1st century Roman Empire, felt resentful of the fact that they had been circumcised and embarrassed to perform naked in gymnastic events. So they tried to “undo” their circumcision by trying to stretch the shaft skin of the penis until it looked like that still had enough shaft skin to be regarded as foreskin. Paul was saying not to be bothered with this.

Female genital mutilation and male circumcision are not at all comparable, sorry.

There is a wide range of genital cuttings of both males and females. Some forms of female circumcision are no more than labiaplasty; something that many women decide to undergo for aesthetic reasons.

For an authority article on the comparison of male circumcision with female circumcision, see the following:

If it weren’t why would some adult men in the US actually opt to undergo circumcision in the hope that it will improve sex?

Because they are misinformed.

Perhaps to help [us all] let go of the phallic theme [nope! no emojis forthcoming here],

We could, but it would be going off topic for the thread. This is a forum for people to discuss the relationship between science and the Christian Faith. The original posters appear to have been suggesting that a scientific fact about blood clotting factors after birth was a hidden sign to those of us in the scientific world of God’s involvement and God’s endorsement of the practice of circumcision. After all, only God would have known this then, right? My point is that such an idea effectively dis-endorses Paul’s writings and thus the Christian scriptures. In the course of debating this we have wobbled all over the place into New Testament theology and the scientific objections to the practice of male circumcision.

Imagine that!

[some of those “wobblings” have been of your own contribution - and they were good contributions too!]

I still maintain that “circumcision”, while certainly being the fleshly and real embodiment of a covenant, is - in that very sense, symbolic of something much deeper than the mere fleshly question. And in Paul’s day it had come to be a useful symbol for “the law”.

If @Reggie_O_Donoghue of the O.P. feels his question hasn’t yet been answered about whether this should be counted as a “scientific prediction”, then I guess he can weigh in again to keep asking.

That is not my understanding. I don’t think he “rejected the Law.” I think he acknowledged that community membership in “the people of God” was no longer constituted by Torah observance, but by the gift of the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit had been poured out on non-observant Gentiles because they believed in Christ, crucified, resurrected, and exalted, so post-Pentecost it became obvious that the mark of community membership had changed. I agree with you that it was an inherently eschatological worldview, that “the dividing wall of hostility had been torn down” and that “now there was no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, Barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all.” What I disagree with you is that saying circumcision didn’t matter meant it was wrong. He said being male didn’t matter. That doesn’t make maleness wrong.

If anyone today told me they were circumcising their child to gain favor with God or as some kind of act of righteousness I would tell them I didn’t think there was any more spiritual value in it than in keeping kosher or growing a beard and sidelocks. But comparably, if someone wants to keep kosher or grow a beard and sidelocks for cultural reasons or reasons of personal preference, that is their prerogative. I grant that this issue of circumcision is more complicated because an irreversible decision is being made by parents on behalf of a child who could potentially regret the decision, especially if there are complications. There I think the anti-circumcision folks have a valid point. But it is also a fact that the overwhelming majority of white American fathers are so satisfied with their circumcisions that they fairly unhesitatingly make that decision for their male infants (almost all the mothers I know deferred to the fathers of their boys on this) for reasons of cultural and personal preference. Perhaps you are right and if there was better medical education in this area, people would change their mind. But personally, when I hear anti-circumcision people talk about it, it comes across much like the anti-vax propaganda; emotional, anecdotal, and completely ignoring all the valid reasons given by the other side, so I am inclined to dismiss it without looking into it further.

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I enjoyed Scot McKnight’s remark on the video someone referenced on the New Perspective, that the Jewish view was that they were in a special relationship because of the covenant, and were “a cut above the rest.”


Translating ‘circumcision’ in minority languages is always fun. Most groups who have read the Bible their whole lives in a second language have no idea what it is and think it is just some holy sign of the covenant. I know of one family in Columbia that wanted to give their child a “Bible name” and named their son “Circoncisión.” When you explain it to try to come up with an appropriate term in their language, often people are often quite horrified. In the translation we work on, the phrase they chose is “the round mark of the Jews.”


How do you explain circumcision in the Old Testament? Do you think it was not given and endorsed by God?

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