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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Circumcision

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The origin of circumcision and its practice by the Jews and other peoples may be studied in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) and Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics . This article is concerned with the difficulties caused in the Apostolic Church by the desire of the Judaizing party to enforce the rite upon the Gentile Christians. The crisis thus brought about is described in Acts 15 and Galatians 2:1-10.

As the work of the Church extended, the problem of the reception of Gentile converts presented itself for solution. Should such converts be compelled to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic Law or not? The answer to this question led to great difference of opinion and threatened to cause serious division in the Church. It must be remembered that the first Christians were Jews, born and brought up in the Law and taught to observe it. To them such rites as circumcision were almost second nature. To abrogate the Law of Moses was to them inconceivable. The idea of the passing away of the Law had not yet penetrated their understanding. The headquarters of those who held these opinions were at Jerusalem, where the Temple services and the whole atmosphere served to strengthen them in this belief. The very name of the party-‘They that were of the circumcision’ (Acts 11:2)-shows how closely they were attached to the observance of this rite. On the other hand, we can trace the gradual growth in the Church of the opposite view: the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch (q.v. [Note: quod vide, which see.] ) by Philip; the admission of Cornelius and his friends by St. Peter; the mission of certain evangelists to the Gentiles at Antioch; and finally the work of St. Paul and St. Barnabas, who turned to the Gentiles and freely admitted them into the fellowship of the Church.

It was obvious that the question must be settled. The Judaizing party were quite definite in their teaching. ‘Certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved’ (Acts 15:1). This was a position which it was impossible for St. Paul and St. Barnabas to admit. It was destructive of their work and of the catholicity of the Church. No wonder that ‘there was no small dissension and disputation.’ An appeal was made to the mother church at Jerusalem; and, among others, St. Paul and St. Barnabas went up. St. Paul’s own statement is, ‘I went up by revelation’ (Galatians 2:2). He also tells us that Titus, an uncircumcised Gentile, accompanied him. They were well received by the church at Jerusalem, but certain of the Pharisees, who were believers, laid it down ‘that it was necessary to circumcise them’ (Acts 15:5), and thus the issue was joined.

The question was so important that it could not be settled at once. There must be an interval for consideration. How this interval was spent we are told in Galatians 2. The Judaizing party found that an uncircumcised Gentile-Titus-had been brought into their midst, and they immediately demanded his circumcision. With this demand St. Paul was not inclined to comply. The principle for which he was contending was at stake. On the other hand, circumcision to him was nothing, and there was the question whether he should yield as a matter of charity. The course which he took has always been a matter of undecided controversy, but the opinion of the majority of authorities is that Titus was not circumcised.* [Note: For the contrary view see R. B. Rackham on Acts 15 (Oxford Com., 1901); and on the vexed chronological and other questions cf. artt. Acts of the Apostles and Galatians, Epistle to.]

After this episode St. Paul had an opportunity of discussing his gospel privately with those of repute, viz. James, Cephas, and John. They were evidently moved by the account of his work among the Gentiles, and recognized the hand of God in it, and they were influenced by the fervour and spirit of the Apostle. They gave to him and St. Barnabas ‘the right hand of fellowship.’ They recognized that their sphere was among the Gentiles, as that of the other apostles was among the Jews. The result of the conference was a compromise: Gentiles were not to be circumcised, but they were to abstain from certain practices which were offensive to their Jewish brethren.

The teaching of St. Paul on circumcision may be further illustrated from his Epistles. In Romans 2:25-29 he shows that circumcision was an outward sign of being one of the chosen people, but that it was of no value unless accompanied by obedience, of which it was the symbol. The uncircumcised keeper of the Law was better than the circumcised breaker of it. The true Jew is he who is circumcised in heart, i.e. he who keeps God’s Law and walks in His ways. In ch. 4 he discusses the case of Abraham, and asks whether the Divine blessing was conferred upon him because he was the head of the chosen race and the first person of that race who was circumcised. He shows that the promise came before circumcision, and therefore not in consequence of it. Circumcision followed as the token or sign of the promise, so that he might be the father of all believers whether they were circumcised or uncircumcised.

In the Epistle to the Philippians, St. Paul utters grave warnings against those who insist on circumcision. He speaks of the rite, when thus insisted on, not as circumcision but as ‘concision’ (κατατομή, Philippians 3:2).* [Note: The paronomasia of κατατομή and περιτομή used by St. Paul here is one of several instances in which he employs that figure of speech: e.g. μηδὲν ἐργαζομένους ἀλλὰ περιεργαζομένους (2 Thessalonians 3:11).] The circumcision which the Judaizers wished to enforce was to Christians a mere mutilation such as was practised by the idolatrous heathen. The verb κατατέμνειν is used in the Septuagint of incisions forbidden by the Mosaic Law: e.g. κατετέμνοντο κατὰ τὸν ἐθισμὸν αὐτῶν (1 Kings 18:28; cf. Leviticus 21:5). In contrast to this, Christians have the true circumcision (Philippians 3:3), not of the flesh but of the heart, purified in Christ from all sin and wickedness. This contrast between circumcision of the flesh and of the spirit occurs in other passages of the Pauline Epistles, e.g. Colossians 2:11, Ephesians 2:11. No doubt the Apostle had certain OT passages in mind which use circumcision as a metaphor for purity, e.g. Leviticus 26:41, Deuteronomy 10:16, Ezekiel 44:7.

Literature.-articles on ‘Circumcision’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) , Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics , Dict. of Christ and the Gospels , and Jewish Encyclopedia, with Literature there cited; the relevant Commentaries, esp. Sanday-Headlam, Romans 5 (International Critical Commentary , 1902); also E. v. Dobschütz, Christian Life in the Primitive Church, Eng. translation , 1904; K. Lake, The Earlier Epistles of St. Paul, 1911; E. B. Redlich, St. Paul and his Companions, 1913; H. Weinel, St. Paul, Eng. translation , 1906; C. v. Weizsäcker, Apostolic Age, i. 2 [1897], ii. [1895].

Morley Stevenson.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Circumcision'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/c/circumcision.html. 1906-1918.

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Wednesday, May 27th, 2020
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