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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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is from the Latin, circumcidere, "to cut all around," because the Jews, in circumcising their children, cut off after this manner the skin which covers the prepuce. God enjoined Abraham to use circumcision, as a sign of his covenant. In obedience to this order, Abraham, at ninety-nine years of age, was circumcised: also his son Ishmael, and all the males of his property, Genesis 17:10 . God repeated the precept of circumcision to Moses: he ordered that all who were to partake of the paschal sacrifice should receive circumcision; and that this rite should be performed on children, on the eighth day after their birth.

The Jews have always been very exact in observing this ceremony, and it appears that they did not neglect it when in Egypt. But Moses, while in Midian with Jethro his father-in-law, did not circumcise his two sons born in that country; and during the journey of the Israelites in the wilderness, their children were not circumcised. Circumcision was practised among the Arabians, Saracens, and Ishmaelites. These people, as well as the Israelites, sprung from Abraham. Circumcision was introduced with the law of Moses among the Samaritans and Cutheans. The Idumeans, though descended from Abraham and Isaac, were not circumcised till subdued by John Hircanus. Those who assert that the Phenicians were circumcised, mean, probably, the Samaritans; for we know, from other authority, that the Phenicians did not observe this ceremony. As to the Egyptians, circumcision never was of general and indispensable obligation on the whole nation; certain priests only, and particular professions, were obliged to it. Circumcision is likewise the ceremony of initiation into the Mohammedan religion. There is, indeed, no law in the Koran which enjoins it, and they have the precept only in tradition. They say that Mohammed commanded it out of respect to Abraham, the head of his race. They have no fixed day for the performance of this rite, and generally wait till the child is five or six years of age.

CIRCUMCISION, Covenant of. That the covenant with Abraham, of which circumcision was made the sign and seal, Genesis 17:7-14 , was the general covenant of grace, and not wholly, or even chiefly, a political and national covenant, may be satisfactorily established. The first engagement in it was, that God would "greatly bless" Abraham; which promise, although it comprehended temporal blessings, referred, as we learn from St. Paul, more fully to the blessing of his justification by the imputation of his faith for righteousness, with all the spiritual advantages consequent upon the relation which was thus established between him and God, in time and eternity. The second promise in the covenant was, that he should be "the father of many nations;" which we are also taught by St. Paul to interpret more with reference to his spiritual seed, the followers of that faith whereof cometh justification, than to his natural descendants. "That the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to that which is by the law, but to that also which is by the faith, of Abraham, who is the father of us all," —of all believing Gentiles as well as Jews. The third stipulation in God's covenant with the patriarch, was the gift to Abraham and to his seed of "the land of Canaan," in which the temporal promise was manifestly but the type of the higher promise of a heavenly inheritance. Hence St. Paul says, "By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise;" but this "faith" did not respect the fulfilment of the temporal promise; for St. Paul adds, "they looked for a city which had foundations, whose builder and maker is God," Hebrews 11:19 . The next promise was, that God would always be "a God to Abraham and to his seed after him," a promise which is connected with the highest spiritual blessings, such as the remission of sins, and the sanctification of our nature, as well as with a visible church state. It is even used to express the felicitous state of the church in heaven, Revelation 21:3 . The final engagement in the Abrahamic covenant was, that in Abraham's "seed, all nations of the earth should be blessed;" and this blessing, we are expressly taught by St. Paul, was nothing less than the justification of all nations, that is, of all believers in all nations, by faith in Christ: "And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Heathen by faith, preached before the Gospel to Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham;" they receive the same blessing, justification, by the same means, faith, Galatians 3:8-9 . This covenant with Abraham, therefore, although it respected a natural seed, Isaac, from whom a numerous progeny was to spring; and an earthly inheritance provided for this issue, the land of Canaan; and a special covenant relation with the descendants of Isaac, through the line of Jacob, to whom Jehovah was to be "a God," visibly and specially, and they a visible and "peculiar people;" yet was, under all these temporal, earthly, and external advantages, but a higher and spiritual grace embodying itself under these circumstances, as types of a dispensation of salvation and eternal life, to all who should follow the faith of Abraham, whose justification before God was the pattern of the justification of every man, whether Jew or Gentile, in all ages. Now, of this covenant, in its spiritual as well as in its temporal provisions, circumcision was most certainly the sacrament, that is, the "sign" and the "seal;" for St. Paul thus explains the case: "And he received the SIGN of circumcision, a SEAL of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised." And as this rite was enjoined upon Abraham's posterity, so that every "uncircumcised man-child whose flesh of his foreskin was not circumcised on the eighth day," was to be "cut off from his people, by the special judgment of God, and that because "he had broken God's covenant," Genesis 17:14; it therefore follows that this rite was a constant publication of God's covenant of grace among the descendants of Abraham, and its repetition a continual confirmation of that covenant, on the part of God, to all practising it in that faith of which it was the ostensible expression.

2. As the covenant of grace made with Abraham was bound up with temporal promises and privileges, so circumcision was a sign and seal of the covenant in both its parts,—its spiritual and its temporal, its superior and inferior provisions. The spiritual promises of the covenant continued unrestricted to all the descendants of Abraham, whether by Isaac or by Ishmael; and still lower down, to the descendants of Esau as well as to those of Jacob. Circumcision was practised among them all by virtue of its divine institution at first; and was extended to their foreign servants, and to proselytes, as well as to their children; and wherever the sign of the covenant of grace was by divine appointment, there it was a seal of that covenant, to all who believingly used it; for we read of no restriction of its spiritual blessings, that is, its saving engagements, to one line of descent from Abraham only. But over the temporal branch of the covenant, and the external religious privileges arising out of it, God exercised a rightful sovereignty, and expressly restricted them first to the line of Isaac, and then to that of Jacob, with whose descendants he entered into special covenant by the ministry of Moses. The temporal blessings and external privileges comprised under general expressions in the covenant with Abraham, were explained and enlarged under that of Moses, while the spiritual blessings remained unrestricted as before. This was probably the reason why circumcision was re-enacted under the law of Moses. It was a confirmation of the temporal blessings of the Abrahamic covenant, now, by a covenant of peculiarity, made over to them, while it was still recognized as a consuetudinary rite which had descended to them from their fathers, and as the sign and seal of the covenant of grace, made with Abraham and with all his descendants without exception. This double reference of circumcision, both to the authority of Moses and to that of the patriarchs, is found in the words of our Lord, John 7:22 : "Moses therefore gave unto you circumcision, not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers;" or, as it is better translated by Campbell, "Moses instituted circumcision among you, (not that it is from Moses, but from the patriarchs,) and ye circumcise on the Sabbath. If on the Sabbath a child receive circumcision, that the law of Moses may not be violated," &c.

3. From these observations, the controversy in the Apostolic churches respecting circumcision will derive much elucidation. The covenant with Abraham prescribed circumcision as an act of faith in its promises, and as a pledge to perform its conditions on the part of his descendants. But the object on which this faith rested, was "the Seed of Abraham," in whom the nations of the earth were to be blessed: which Seed, says St. Paul, "is Christ,"—Christ as promised, not yet come. When the Christ had come, so as fully to enter upon his redeeming offices, he could no longer be the object of faith, as still to come; and this leading promise of the covenant being accomplished, the sign and seal of it vanished away. Nor could circumcision be continued in this view by any, without an implied denial that Jesus was the Christ, the expected Seed of Abraham. Circumcision also as an institution of Moses, who continued it as the sign and seal of the Abrahamic covenant both in its spiritual and temporal provisions, but with respect to the latter made it also a sign and seal of the restriction of its temporal blessings and peculiar religious privileges to the descendants of Israel, was terminated by the entrance of our Lord upon his office of Mediator, in which office all nations were to be blessed in him. The Mosaic edition of the covenant not only guaranteed the land of Canaan, but the peculiarity of the Israelites, as the people and visible church of God to the exclusion of others, except by proselytism. But when our Lord commanded the Gospel to be preached to "all nations," and opened the gates of the "common salvation" to all, whether Gentiles or Jews, circumcision, as the sign of a covenant of peculiarity and religious distinction, was also done away. It had not only no reason remaining, but the continuance of the rite involved the recognition of exclusive privileges which had been terminated by Christ. This will explain the views of the Apostle Paul on this great question. He declares that in Christ there is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision; that neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but "faith that worketh by love;" faith in the Seed of Abraham already come and already engaged in his mediatorial and redeeming work; faith, by virtue of which the Gentiles came into the church of Christ on the same terms as the Jews themselves, and were justified and saved. The doctrine of the non-necessity of circumcision, he applies to the Jews as well as to the Gentiles, although he specially resists the attempts of the Judaizers to impose this rite upon the Gentile converts; in which he was supported by the decision of the Holy Spirit when the appeal upon this question was made to the "Apostles and elders at Jerusalem," from the church at Antioch. At the same time it is clear that he takes two different views of the practice of circumcision, as it was continued among many of the first Christians. The first is that strong one which is expressed in Galatians 5:2-4 , "Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing; for I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is made of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law, ye are fallen from grace." The second is that milder view which he himself must have had when he circumcised Timothy to render him more acceptable to the Jews; and which also appears to have led him to abstain from all allusion to this practice when writing his epistle to the believing Hebrews, although many, perhaps most of them, continue to circumcise their children, as did the Jewish Christians for a long time afterward. These different views of circumcision, held by the same person, may be explained by considering the different principles on which circumcision might be practiced after it had become an obsolete ordinance.

(1.) It might be taken in the simple view of its first institution, as the sign and seal of the Abrahamic covenant; and then it was to be condemned as involving a denial that Abraham's Seed, the Christ, had already come, since, upon his coming, every old covenant gave place to the new covenant introduced by him.

(2.) It might be practiced and enjoined as the sign and seal of the Mosaic covenant, which was still the Abrahamic covenant with its spiritual blessings, but with restriction of its temporal promises and special ecclesiastical privileges to the line of Jacob, with a law of observances which was obligatory upon all entering that covenant by circumcision. In that case it involved, in like manner, the notion of the continuance of an old covenant, after the establishment of the new; for thus St. Paul states the case in Galatians 3:19 : "Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed should come." After that therefore it had no effect:—it had waxed old, and had vanished away.

(3.) Again: circumcision might imply an obligation to observe all the ceremonial usages and the moral precepts of the Mosaic law, along with a general belief in the mission of Christ, as necessary to justification before God. This appears to have been the view of those among the Galatian Christians who submitted to circumcision, and of the Jewish teachers who enjoined it upon them; for St. Paul in that epistle constantly joins circumcision with legal observances, and as involving an obligation to do "the whole law," in order to justification.—"I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law; whosoever of you are justified by the law, ye are fallen from grace." "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ," Galatians 2:16 . To all persons therefore practising circumcision in this view it was obvious, that "Christ was become of none effect," the very principle of justification by faith alone in him was renounced even while his divine mission was still admitted.

(4.) But there are two grounds on which circumcision may be conceived to have been innocently, though not wisely, practiced, among the Christian Jews. The first was that of preserving an ancient national distinction on which they valued themselves; and were a converted Jew in the present day disposed to perform that rite upon his children for this purpose only, renouncing in the act all consideration of it as a sign and seal of the old covenants, or as obliging to ceremonial acts in order to justification, no one would censure him with severity. It appears clear that it was under some such view that St. Paul circumcised Timothy, whose mother was a Jewess; he did it because of "the Jews which were in those quarters," that is, because of their national prejudices, "for they knew that his father was a Greek." The second was a lingering notion, that, even in the Christian church, the Jews who believed would still retain some degree of eminence, some superior relation to God; a notion which, however unfounded, was not one which demanded direct rebuke, when it did not proudly refuse spiritual communion with the converted Gentiles, but was held by men who "rejoiced that God had granted to the Gentiles repentance unto life." These considerations may account for the silence of St. Paul on the subject of circumcision in his Epistle to the Hebrews. Some of them continued to practise that rite, but they were probably believers of the class just mentioned; for had he thought that the rite was continued among them on any principle which affected the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, he would no doubt have been equally prompt and fearless in pointing out that apostasy from Christ which was implied in it, as when he wrote to the Galatians.

Not only might circumcision be practised with views so opposite that one might be wholly innocent, although an infirmity of prejudice; the other such as would involve a rejection of the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ; but some other Jewish observances also stood in the same circumstances. St. Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians, a part of his writings from which we obtain the most information on these questions, grounds his "doubts" whether the members of that church were not seeking to be "justified by the law" upon their observing "days, and months, and times, and years." Had he done more than "doubt," he would have expressed himself more positively. He saw their danger on this point; he saw that they were taking steps to this fatal result, by such an observance of these "days," &c, as had a strong leaning and dangerous approach to that dependence upon them for justification, which would destroy their faith in Christ's solely sufficient sacrifice; but his very doubting, not of the fact of their being addicted to these observances, but of the animus with which they regarded them, supposes it possible, however dangerous this Jewish conformity might be, that they might be observed for reasons which would still consist with their entire reliance upon the merits of Christ for salvation. Even he himself, strongly as he resisted the imposition of this conformity to Jewish customs upon the converts to Christianity as a matter of necessity, yet in practice must have conformed to many of them, when no sacrifice of principle was understood; for in order to gain the Jews, he became "as a Jew." See ABRAHAM , and See BAPTISM .

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'CircuMcIsion'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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