The Rite of Circumcision

By Wayne Jackson

On his second missionary journey, when Paul came to Lystra, he incorporated a disciple named Timothy into his evangelistic team (cf. Acts 16:1-3). Since Timothy’s father had been a Greek, the apostle had the young man circumcised as a matter of expediency (cf. 1 Cor. 9:20), to prevent offense while working among the Jews.

Since critics of the Bible characterize circumcision as a cruel and barbaric custom, some comment is appropriate.

“Circumcision” translates the Greek word, peritome, “to cut around,” and has to do with the surgical removal of the loose skin (prepuce) of the male genital organ. The procedure was not unique to the Hebrews, the ancient Egyptians practiced it (Herodotus 2.37), as did other nations of the antique world.

Among the Hebrews, however, it was assigned a unique meaning; it was designated as a “sign” in the flesh of Hebrew males, signifying a special covenant relationship with God (Gen. 17:11). It also may have been instituted to suggest the nation’s need for sexual purity and the abstention from pagan worship, since heathen religion was often intwined with immoral sexual activity.

When practiced without an accompanying sincerity and devotion to God, however, the ritual was worthless (cf. Dt. 30:6; Jer. 4:4). When Stephen told the rebellious Jews of his day that they were “uncircumcised in heart and ears,” he was essentially charging that they were pagan in disposition (Acts 7:51).

In the New Testament there was a limited sense in which circumcision symbolized baptism. Just as the Jewish rite involved a severing of the flesh, similarly, when one is immersed in water, he puts off the old, fleshly man, and becomes a new creature in Christ (Col. 2:11-12). The rite does not provide support for infant baptism.

Circumcision appears to have hygienic benefits as well. Dr. S.I. McMillen has argued that wives of circumcised men are far less likely to contract certain forms of cancer (None of These Diseases, Westwood, NJ: Revell, 1963, 19-24).

Enter some notes at appropriate places in your Bible.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.