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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(מוּלָה, mulah'; Sept. and N.T. technically περιτομή, which is translated by the Latin circumcisio, i.e. a cutting around), a custom among many Eastern nations of cutting off part of the prepuce, as a religious ceremony. The Jews, through Abraham, received the rite from Jehovah; Moses established it as a national ordinance; and Joshua carried it into effect before the Israelites entered the land of Canaan (see generally Michaelis, Laws of Moses, 4:30 sq.). Males only were subjected to the operation, and it was to be performed on the eighth day of the child's life; foreign slaves also were forced to submit to it on entering an Israelite's family. Those who are unacquainted with other sources of information on the subject besides the Scriptures might easily suppose that the rite was original with Abraham, characteristic of his seed, and practiced among those nations only who had learned it from them. This, however, appears not to have been the case (Celsus, ap. Orig. contra Celsum, 1:17, 250; Julian, ap. Cyril, contra Julian. 10:354; compare Marsham, Canon Chron. p. 73 sq.; Bauer, Gottesdienstl. Verfass. 1, 37 sq.; Jahn, I, 2, 277 sq.; see Borheck, Ist die Beschneidung urspriinglich hebraisch? [Duisb. and Lemgo, 1793]).
I. Pagan Circumcision. — First of all, the Egyptians were a circumcised people. Vonck (Observ. miscell. c. 1, p. 66), followed by Wesseling (ad Herod. 2, 37) and by numerous able writers, alleged that this was not true of the whole nation, but of the priests only; that at least the priests were circumcised is beyond controversy. No one can for a moment imagine that they adopted the rite from the despised shepherds of Goshen; and we are immediately forced to believe that Egyptian circumcision had an independent origin. A great preponderance of argument, however, appears to us to prove that the rite was universal among the old Egyptians, as long as their native institutions flourished, although there is no question that, under Persian and Greek rule, it gradually fell into disuse, and was retained chiefly by the priests, and by those who desired to cultivate ancient wisdom (see Origen, ad Jeremiah 4:19; Ezechiel 31:18; 32:19; and ad. Romans 2:13; Jerome ad Galatians 4, p. 477; Horapoll. Hierogl. .Eg. 1, 14, p. 13, ed. Paun; Clem. Alex. Strom. 1, 130). Herodotus distinctly declares that the Egyptians practiced circumcision; and that he meant to state this of the whole nation is manifest, not only since he always omits to add any restriction, but because, immediately following his first statement of the fact, he annexes this remark: "The priests, moreover, shave their whole body every other day," etc. (Herod. 2:37). It is difficult to suppose that the historian could have been mistaken on this point, considering his personal acquaintance with Egypt. (Artapanus, however, makes a distinction between Jewish and Egyptian circumcision, ap. Eusebius Proep. Ev. 4, 27.)
Further, he informs us that the Colchians were a colony from Egypt, consisting of soldiers from the army of Sesostris. With these he had conversed (2, 104), and he positively declares that they practiced circumcision. Yet if the rite had been confined to the priestly caste of Egypt, it could hardly have been found among the Colchians at all. The same remark will apply to the savage Troglodytes of Africa, every branch of whom except one (the Kolobi), as Diodorus informs us (3, 31), was circumcised, having learned the practice from the Egyptians. The Troglodytes appear to have been widely diffused through Libya, which argues a corresponding diffusion of the rite; yet, from the silence of Diodorus concerning the other savage nations whom he recounts as African Ethiopians, we may infer that it was not practiced by them. The direct testimony of Diodorus (1, 28), Philo (Opp. 2, 310), and Strabo (12, 824; comp. Agatharch. ed. Hudson, 1, 46) is to the same effect as that of Herodotus respecting Egypt; yet this can hardly be called confirmatory, since in their days the rite was no longer universal. Josephus (contra Revelation 2, 13) speaks of it as practiced by the priests only; he, however, reproaches Apion for neglecting the institutions of his country in remaining uncircumcised. Origen, in the passage above referred to, confirms the statement of Josephus. In Kenrick's Herodotus (2, 37), the French commissioners who examined some Egyptian mummies are quoted as establishing from them the fact of Egyptian circumcision. Herodotus, moreover, tells us (2, 104) that the Ethiopians were also circumcised; and he was in doubt whether they had learned the rite from the Egyptians, or the Egyptians from them. By the Ethiopians we must understand him to mean the inhabitants of Meroe or Sennaar. In the present day the Coptic Church continues to practice it, according to C. Niebuhr (quoted by Michaelis); the Abys. sinian Christians do the same (Ludolf. Hist. Ethiop. 1, 19, and Comment. p. 268 sq.); and that it was not introduced among the latter with a Judaical Christianity appears from their performing it upon both sexes. (It is scarcely worth while to invent a new name, recision, or resection, for accuracy's sake.)
Oldendorp describes the rite as widely spread through Western Africa — 16° on each side of the line — even among natives that are not Mohammedan. In later times it has been ascertained that it is practiced by the Kafir nations in South Africa, more properly called Kosa or Amakesa, whom Prichard supposes to form "a great part of the native population of Africa to the southward of the equator." He remarks upon this: "It is scarcely within probability that they borrowed the custom from nations who profess Islam, or we should find among them other proofs of intercourse with people of that class. It is more probable that this practice is a relic of ancient African customs, of which the Egyptians, as it is well known, partook in the remote ages" (Prichard, Physical Hist. of Prayer of Manasseh 1:3 d ed. 2, 287). Traces of the custom have even been observed among the natives of some of the South Sea Islands (Pickering, Races of Men, p. 153, 199, 200, etc.).
How far the rite was extended through the Syro-Arabian races is uncertain (but see Strabo, 16:776; Epiphan. Hoer. 9, 30; Origen ad Genesis 1, 10). In the 9th section of the Epistle of Barnabas (which, whether genuine or not, is very old), the writer comments as follows: "But you will say the Jews were circumcised for a sign. And so are all the Syrians, and the Arabians, and the idolatrous priests; ... and even the Egyptians themselves are circumcised." This language is vague and popular; yet it shows how notorious was the wide diffusion of the custom (see Hug, in the Freib. Zeitschrift. 3. 213). The Philistines, in the days of Saul, were, however, uncircumcised; so also, says Herodotus (2, 104), were all the Phoenicians who had intercourse with the Greeks. That the Canaanites, in the days of Jacob, were not all circumcised, is plain from the affair of Dinah and Shechem. The story of Zipporah (Exodus 4:25), who did not circumcise her son until fear came over her that Jehovah would slay her husband Moses, proves that the family of Jethro, the Midianite, had no fixed rule about it, although the Midianites are generally regarded as children of Abraham by Keturah. On the other hand, we have the distinct testimony of Josephus (Ant. 1, 12, 2) that the Ishmaelite Arabs, inhabiting the district of Nabathaea, were circumcised after their 13th year: this must be connected with the tradition, which no doubt existed among them, of the age at which their forefather Ishmael underwent the rite (Genesis 17:25).
St. Jerome also (quoted by Michaelis) informs us that, to his day, "usque hodie," the tribes dwelling round Judaea and Palestine were circumcised, "especially all the Saracens who dwell in the desert." Elsewhere he says that, "except the Egyptians, Idumaeans, Ammonites, Moabites, and Ishmaelites of the desert, of whom the greater part are circumcised, all other nations in the world are uncircumcised." A negative argument is more or less dangerous; yet there is something striking in the fact that the books of Moses, of Joshua, and of Judges never bestow the epithet uncircumcised as a reproach on any of the seven nations of Canaan, any more than on the Moabites or Ammonites, the Amalekites, the Midianites, or other inland tribes with whom they came into conflict. On the contrary, as soon as the Philistines become prominent in the narrative, after the birth of Samson, this epithet is of rather common occurrence. The fact also of bringing back as a trophy the foreskins of slain enemies never occurs except against the Philistines (1 Samuel 18). We may perhaps infer, at least until other proof or disproof is attained, that while the Philistines, like the Sidonians and the other maritime Syrian nations known to the Greeks, were wholly strangers to the practice, yet among the Canaanites, and all the more inland tribes, it was at least so far common that no general description could be given them from the omission; It appears from Josephus (Ant. 13, 9) that when Hyrcanus subdued the Idumaeans, he forced them to be circumcised on pain of expatriation. This shows that they had at least disused the rite. But that is not wonderful, if it was only a custom, and not a national religious ordinance; for, as Michaelis observes, the disuse of it may have dated from the edict of Antiochus Epiphanes, of which it is said (1 Maccabees 1:41-42), "The king Antiochus wrote to all his kingdom that all should be one people; and that all should keep the ordinances of his country; and all the nations acquiesced according to the word of the king." The rather obscure notices which are found in Jeremiah and Ezekiel of the circumcision of the nations who were in immediate contact with Israel admit of a natural interpretation in conformity with what has been already adduced (Jeremiah 9:25; Ezekiel 31:18; also Ezekiel 32:19, et passim). The difficulty turns on the new moral use made of the term "uncircumcised," to mean simply impure. The passage in Jeremiah is thus translated by Ewald: "Behold, the days come that I visit all the uncircumcised circumcised ones; Egypt and Judah, Edom, and the children of Ammon and Moab; and all the dwellers in the wilderness that are shaven on the temples: for all the heathen are uncircumcised, and so is all the house of Israel uncircumcised in heart." The shaving of the temples appears to be a religious custom of the same kind: Herodotus (3, 8) ascribes it to the Arabs generally, and Josephus rather strangely regards the epithet τροχοκούριδες, in the ancient Greek poet Choerilus (c. Revelation 1, 22), as a description of his own countrymen. Knowing that the Egyptians were circumcised, it no longer remains doubtful how the reproach of Egypt (Joshua 5:9) should be interpreted.
How far the rite of circumcision spread over the south-west of Arabia no definite record subsists. The silence of the Koran confirms the statement of Abulfeda (Histor. Ante-Islamica, p. 180, ed. Fleischer, 1831) that the custom is older than Mohammed, who, it would appear, in no respect regarded it as a religious rite. Nevertheless it has extended itself with the Mohammedan faith, as though it were a positive ordinance. Pococke (Specimen Hist. Arab. p. 309) cites a tradition, which ascribes to Mohammed the words, "Circumcision is an ordinance for men, and honorable in women." This extension of the rite to the other sex might, in itself, satisfy us that it did not come to those nations from Abraham and Ishmael. We have already seen that Abyssinian circumcision has the same peculiarity; so that it is every way probable that Southern Arabia had the rite from the same source or influence as Ethiopia. In fact, the very closest relations are known to have subsisted between the nations on the opposite coasts of the Red Sea. Another passage of Abulfeda (Annales Muslemici. 1, 92) gives specific information on this subject. In the battle of Ohod, in the third year of the Hegira, "Hamza, the uncle of the Prophet, committed great slaughter. When Sabba' ben-Abd-ul-Uzza, whose mother was a circumciser in Mecca, passed by him, Hamza called out, Come on, you son of a she-circumciser [resectricis nympharum]!" The form of the word proves that this was strictly the trade of the old woman, and that the custom, as applied to females, was no innovation of those days. Niebuhr had ocular demonstration of female circumcision in Arabia (Travels, 2, 251).
Pococke quotes the ecclesiastical historian Philostorgius for the fact that the Himyarite Arabs circumcise their children on the eighth day. He adds a passage from Al Gazzali, in which the writer says that the Arabs differ from the Jews as to the time; for they postpone it until the child has teeth, which he thinks safer. Finally, he cites Ibn Athir, who, writing of the times antecedent to Mohammed, says that the Arabs were accustomed to circumcise between the tenth and fifteenth years. The origin of the custom amongst this large section of those Gentiles who follow it is to be found in the Biblical record of the circumcision of Ishmael (Genesis 17:25). Josephus relates that the Arabians circumcise after the thirteenth year, because Ishmael, the founder of their nation, was circumcised at that age (Ant. 1, 12, 2; see Lane's Mod. Eg. ch. 2). Though Mohammed did not enjoin circumcision in the Koran, he was circumcised himself, according to the custom of his country; and circumcision is now as common amongst the Mohammedans as amongst the Jews.
The statement of Philostorgius may receive light from the Arab historians, who relate (Jost, Geschichte der Israeliten, 5, 236 sq.) that about a century before the Christian aera, several Jewish sovereigns reigned in the region called Sheba by the Jews, and Yemen by the moderns, where the Himyarites (or Homeritae) dwelt. The few facts preserved show that they were not close observers of the Mosaic law, and the suspicion might arise that they were called Jews chiefly from their having received Jewish circumcision. We have, however, a collateral evidence of much importance, to prove that the influence acting on them had really come from Judaea; namely, it is well known that in Abyssinia a nation called the Falasha still exists, which has very thoroughly adopted the Jewish religion, insomuch as to have invented legends that allege their descent from the Hebrews. They possess the Old Testament in the Gheez language and character, but their own language is said to be quite alien from the Hebrew; facts which prove that they were really proselyted by the Jews at some early period. (See ABYSSINIA).
At that same time, it is credible, the Hebrew faith met with similar success on the opposite coast of the Red Sea. Jost believes that, during the war of the Maccabees, great numbers of Jews migrated into Arabia; and it is certain that in later times they were very numerous in Yemen, and their influence great. Wherever they were settled proselytes must have been made; and great zeal was doubtless used to induce them to circumcise their children duly according to the Mosaic rite. We can then quite understand Philostorgius's fact, if we are allowed to suppose that he spoke loosely of "the Himyarites" doing that which was done by a great many of them. An interesting story is told by Josephus-the date so late as the reign of the Emperor Claudius (Ant. 20, 2) — how Izates, the young king of Adiabene, and his mother Helena, were converted by Jewish teachers to a belief in the one true God, the God of the Hebrews: and how, when Izates was desirous of being circumcised, and his mother dreaded that it would alienate his subjects, his Jewish Instructor Ananias warmly seconded her views, with a heart like that of Paul; telling him that if he was resolved to imitate Jewish institutions, he could, without being circumcised, adore the true divinity; and that this was far more important than circumcision. At the time he satisfied the young monarch; but afterwards, another Jew, named Eleazar, came from Galitee, and inveighed so strongly on the impiety of his disobedience, that, without more delay, Izates submitted to the rite. It is evident that, in a controversy of this sort, the more narrow-minded teacher had the advantage; and, in consequence, it appears that "proselytes of righteousness" were always circumcised (Judith 14:10, and Tacit. Hist. 5, 5). The facility with which whole nations have adopted the practice from the Mohammedans proves that it is not so serious an obstacle to the spread of a religion as some have thought it (see the Penny Cyclopaedia, s.v.).
II. Jewish Circumcision. —
1. History. — When God announced to Abraham that he would establish his covenant with him, he said to him, "This is my covenant, which ye shall keep between me and you, and thy seed after thee: Every man-child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you" (Genesis 17:10-11). It was also ordained that this should be extended to servants belonging to Abraham and his seed, as well as to their own childern; and that in the case of children it was to be done on the eighth day after birth. This was appointed as an ordinance of perpetual obligation in the Abrahamic family, and the neglect of it entailed the penalty of being cut off from the people (12-14). In compliance with this, Abraham, though then ninety-nine years of age, was himself circumcised and all his household, including Ishmael. On the birth of his son Isaac, the rite was attended to with regard to him (Genesis 21:4); and it continued to be observed by his posterity, and distinctively to characterize them from the people amidst whom they dwelt (Genesis 34:14-15). The usage thus introduced by Abraham was formally enacted as a legal institute by Moses (Leviticus 12:3; comp. John 7:23).
Slaves, whether home-born or purchased, were circumcised (Genesis 17:12-13); and foreigners must have their males circumcised before they could be allowed to partake of the passover (Exodus 12:48), or become Jewish citizens (Judges 14:10. See also Esther 8:17, where for Heb. מִתְיִהֲ — דִים, "became Jews," the Sept. has περιετέμοντο καὶ Ι᾿ουδά Þ ζον ). In short, it was appointed to be observed in relation to all who became proselytes from heathenism to Judaism (comp. Judith 14:10; Maimonides, Issure Biah, c. 13, cited by Lightfoot, Harmonice Evang. sec. 12). The penalty of death for a neglect of this ordinance appears in the case of Moses to have actually been demanded of the father, when the Lord "sought to kill him" because his son was uncircumcised (Exodus 4:24-26). During the passage through the wilderness the practice fell into disuse, so that of those who entered Canaan none had been circumcised. As this was fatal to their title under the covenant to take possession of the land, Joshua, in obedience to God's command, caused all the males to be circumcised (Joshua 5:2-9). The most satisfactory explanation of this neglect appears to be, that the nation, while bearing the punishment of disobedience in its forty years' wandering, was regarded as under a temporary rejection by God, and was therefore prohibited from using the sign of the covenant. This agrees with the mention of their disobedience and its punishment, which immediately follows in the passage in Joshua (Joshua 5:6), and with the words (Joshua 5:9), "This day have I rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you." The "reproach of Egypt" was the threatened taunt of their former masters that God had brought them into-the wilderness to slay them (Exodus 32:12; Numbers 14:13-16; Deuteronomy 9:28), which, so long as they remained uncircumcised and wanderers in the desert for their sin, was in danger of falling upon them. (Other views of the passage are given and discussed in Keil's Commentary on Joshua, p. 129.)
From this time forward it became the pride of the nation to observe this ordinance; on all those people who did not observe it they looked down with contempt, not to say abhorrence (Judges 14:3; Judges 15:18; 1 Samuel 14:6; 1 Samuel 17:26; 2 Samuel 1:20;' Isaiah 52:1; Ezekiel 31:18; Ephesians 2:11, etc.); and so much did it become a rite distinctive of them, that their oppressors sought to prevent their observing it-an attempt to which they refused to submit, though threatened with the last penalties in case of disobedience (1 Maccabees 1:48; 1 Maccabees 1:50; 1 Maccabees 1:60-62). The introduction of Christianity was the signal for the abolition of this rite in the Church of God; as the old covenant had waxed feeble and was passing away, that which was the token of it also ceased to be binding; the rule was proclaimed that "in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision, but a new creature" (Galatians 6:15; Colossians 3:11), though among the Jewish Christians were still found many who clung tenaciously to their ancient distinctive rite, and would have imposed it even on the Gentile converts to Christianity (Acts 15:1; Galatians 6:12, etc.). Our Lord himself was circumcised, because it became him who was of the seed of Abraham according to the flesh to fulfill all righteousness, and because he was "a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers" (Romans 15:8); and Paul caused Timothy to be circumcised to avoid offense to the Jews, his mother being a Jewess; but the spirit of Christianity was averse from such institutions (Acts 15:1-11; Galatians 2:3, etc.) — for the outward carnal circumcision it sought to substitute that of the heart (Romans 2:28-29), "the circumcision not made with hands in putting off the sins of the flesh, even the circumcision of Christ" (Colossians 2:11).
Among the ancient Jews, the rule that circumcision should take place on the eighth day after birth was rigidly followed (Luke 1:59; Luke 2:21; Philippians 3:5), save in such very exceptional cases as those mentioned Exodus 4:25; Joshua 5:6. Even their reverence for the Sabbath did not prevent the Jews from observing it on that day (John 7:22-23); according to the Rabbins circumcision "pellit Sabbatum" (Lightfoot, Hor. Heb. in Joan 7, 22). The operation might be performed by any Israelite, but usually it was performed by the father of the child; in special cases women might perform it (Exodus 4:25). The instrument used in the earlier times was a sharp stone or a knife of flint (Exodus 4:25; Joshua 5:2-3; comp. the λίθος Αἰθιοπικός, used by the Egyptians in preparing bodies for embalming, Herod. 2:86). (See KNIFE).
The operation was a painful one, at least to grown persons (Genesis 34:25; Joshua 5:8), and requires about three days for the inflammation to subside (Arvieux, 3, 146). It was usual to connect the naming of the child with the circumcision (Genesis 21:3-4; Luke 1:59; Luke 2:21), a practice which probably had respect to the fact that it was in connection with the institution of the rite that God gave to the ancestor of the race his name of Abraham (Genesis 17:5). (See NAME).
2. Obliteration by apostate Jews. — Some of the Jews in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, wishing to assimilate themselves to the heathen around them, built a gymnasium (γυμνάσιον ) at Jerusalem, and, that they might not be known to be Jews when they appeared naked in the games, "made themselves uncircumcised" (1 Maccabees 1:15, ἐποίησαν ἑαυτοῖς ἀκροβυστίας; Vulg. fecerunt sibi preeputia; Joseph. Ant. 12, 5, 1, τὴν τῶν αἰδοίων περιτομὴν ἐπικαλύπτειν ). Sometimes this was done by a surgical operation, such as Celsus describes (De Medic. 7, 25; comp. Galen, Meth. Med. 14, 16; Paul AEgin. 6:53; Epiphanius, De pond. et mens. p. 538, ed. Basil. 1544), sometimes by other means (Dioscor. 4:157). The term for this was ἐπισπᾶσθαι (Talm. מָשְִׁעָדְלָה ), i.e. drawing over again, sc. the prepuce (4 Maccabees 7; see Bartholin. Morb. bibl. xxvi). Against having recourse to this practice from an excessive and- Judaistic tendency, the apostle Paul cautions the Corinthians in the words, "Was any one called being circumcised, let him not become uncircumcised" (μὴ ἐπισπάσθω, 1 Corinthians 7:18). See the Essay of Groddeck, De Judceis prceputium attrahentibus (Lips. 1699); also in Schö ttgen's Hor. Hebrews 2; and in Hasaei et Ikenii Nov. Thes. 2, 793 sq.; and in Ugolini Thesaur. 22; Engel, De Judeorum prcep. attrah. (Lips. 1699); Lossius, De epispasmo Judaico (Jen. 1665); also in Schlegeri Diss. rar. (Helmst. 1743, 2:89 sq.); Wedell, Exercitt. med. philol. I, 5, 1 sq.; Ludolf, Comm. in Hist. AEth. p. 270; Lubkert in the Stud. u. Krit. 1835, 3. 657; comp. Fabricii Bibliogr. Antiq. p. 546 sq. (See FORESKIN).
3. Figurative Use of the Term. — The moral meaning of the word "uncircumcised" was a natural result of its having been made legally essential to Hebrew faith. "Uncircumcised in heart and ears" was a metaphor to which a prophet would be carried, as necessarily as a Christian teacher to such phrases as "unbaptized in soul," or "washed by regeneration." It was a well-known and readily understood symbol of purity.
4. Modern Usages. — The ceremony of circumcision, as practiced by the Jews in our own times, is thus: If the eighth day happens to be on the Sabbath, the ceremony must be performed on that day, notwithstanding its sanctity. When a male child is born, the godfather is chosen from amongst his relations or near friends; and if the party is not in circumstances to bear the expenses, which are considerable (for after the ceremony is performed a breakfast is provided, even amongst the poor, in a luxurious manner), it is usual for the poor to get one amongst the richer, who accepts the office, and becomes a godfather. There are also societies formed amongst them for the purpose of defraying the expenses, and every Jew receives the benefit if his child is born in wedlock. The ceremony is performed in the following manner, in general.
The circumcisor being provided with a very sharp instrument, called the circumcising knife (see Quandt, De cultris circumcisoriis Judoeorum, Regiom. 1713), plasters, cummin-seed to dress the wound, proper bandages, etc., the child is brought to the door of the synagogue by the godmother, when the godfather receives it from her and carries it into the synagogue, where a large chair with two seats is placed; the one is for the godfather to sit upon, the other is called the seat of Elijah the prophet, who is called the angel or messenger of the covenant. As soon as the godfather enters with the child, the congregation say, "Blessed is he that cometh to be circumcised, and enter into the covenant on the eighth day." The godfather being seated, and the child placed on a cushion in his lap, the circumciser performs the operation, and, holding the child in his arms, takes a glass of wine into his right hand, and says as follows: "Blessed be those, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine. Blessed art thou, O Lord our God! who hath sanctified his beloved from the womb, and ordained an ordinance for his kindred, and sealed his descendants with the mark of his holy covenant; therefore for the merits of this, O living God! our rock and inheritance, command the deliverance of the beloved of our kindred from the pit, for the sake of the covenant which he hath put in our flesh. Blessed art thou, O Lord, the Maker of the Covenant! Our God, and the God of our fathers! preserve this child to his father and mother, and his name shall be called in Israel, A, the son of B. Let the father rejoice in those that go forth from his loins, and let his mother be glad in the fruit of her womb; as it is written, ‘ Thy father and mother shall rejoice, and they that begat thee shall be glad."'
The father of the child says the following grace: "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe! who hath sanctified us with his commandments, and commanded us to enter into the covenant of our father Abraham." The congregation answer, "As he hath entered into the law, the canopy, and the good and virtuous deeds." (See Buxtorf, Synagoga Judaica, ch. 2.)
III. Design of the Institution. — Herodotus long ago declared that it was adopted by the Egyptians for cleanliness (καθαριότητος εἵνεκα ); and a slight acquaintance with the ideas of the Turks concerning personal defilement will make it easy to believe that an idea of cleanliness continued the practice among nations which had once become habituated to it. In the ancient Egyptians this Turkish spirit was carried to a great height; nor is it wonderful that in hot climates detailed precepts of cleanliness form a very large part of primitive religion. But we can hardly rest in this as a sufficient account of the origin of the rite (see Deyling, Observatt. 2, 38 sq. [also in Ugolini Thesaur. 22]; Buddei Hist. Eccl. V, I, 1, 175 sq.; Meyer, De tempp. et fest. Hebrews 2, 7, p. 512 [Ugolini Thesaur. 1]; Grappii Diss. an circumcisio ab Eg. fuert derivata [Jen. 1722]; Witsii Eeg. 3. 6, p. 233 sq.; Bynaeus, De circumcis. Christi [Amst. 1689], p. 27 sq.; Carpzov, Appar. p. 602 sq.; Sturz, Circumcisio a barbaris gentibus translata [Ger. 1790]). It is more important to state that an adequate physical reason for performing the operation on females of several African races has been fully substantiated. The curious reader will find in Laurence's Lectures (chap. 5) the decisive testimony of Mr. Barrow and Dr. Somerville on this point, with an allusion to the efforts of the Romish missionaries to forbid the practice in Abyssinia, and the unexpected consequences which thwarted them. No positive evidence has yet been obtained that the operation is equally expedient for the males in any of the same races; yet the analogy of the two cases forces us to believe that in both the custom has a physical or medical ground, especially when it is remarked to predominate so much in Africa, where alone (as far as yet appears) such physical peculiarities of structure exist. it was practiced, moreover, by the males of African tribes so savage, and so little addicted to religious ceremonialism, that a broader ground must be sought for it than simple cleanliness. We have already named the Troglodytes. Strabo mentions two other tribes of Africa, whom he calls Kreophagi and Kolobi (16, 4, p. 387-390, 392, ed. Tauch.), who practiced on themselves a yet more shocking mutilation (κολοβοὶ τὰς βαλάνους ), ascribed to the Kolobi by Diodorus also.
The fact, also, that most of these nations performed whatever operation it was, not on infants, but on those who were advancing towards marriageable age, conspires to indicate that some physical inconvenience gradually showed itself (as with the Bushmen females), of which they desired to get rid. Jost looks upon infant circumcision as the distinguishing mark of Judaism; and this may be nearly correct, though we have seen that, according to Abulfeda, some Arabs delayed it only till after teething. In fact, Diodorus (2, 31), when speaking of that branch of the Troglodyte nations which was called Kolobi, declares that they were subjected to the operation in infancy (ἐκνηπίου ). Their unnatural and cruel custom is possibly to be referred to superstition. Some, indeed, have looked on circumcision itself as a softened form of the barbarous rite by which the Galli, or priests of Cybele, were qualified for their office. The Kolobite custom might, on the contrary, be a carrying out of that barbarity to the extremest point possible, short of exterminating the population of a tribe.
Traditionary or superstitious reasons certainly can alone explain the presence of the custom among the Sandwich Islanders (Michaelis, Orient. Biblioth. 14, 50 sq.), and aboriginal Americans (Gumilla, Histoire de l' Oroque, Avign. 1708, 1:183 sq.), for physiological considerations, seem to fail (see Burdach, Physiol. 3. 386). If an independent and human origin has been discovered for Egyptian circumcision, the thought of necessity arises that the Israelites must have had it from the same sources as the nations around them, and it has been discussed (Speneer, De Leg. Heb. I, 4, 4, p. 70 sq.) whether they even borrowed it from the Egyptians. (Movers thinks [Phonic. 1, 362] that the latter borrowed it from the Phoenicians, resting on the myth of Saturn, in Sanchoniatho, Fragm. p. 36.) The idea has naturally given much offense; but, in truth, the question involves no peculiar difficulty; it is only a part of another far wider inquiry. It is notorious that many other ancient nations had various ceremonies and institutions in common with the Jews, and that the Hebrew law is by no means in all points original. That sacrifice pre- existed is on the surface of the Bible history. The same, however, is true of temples, tabernacles, priests, ever-burning fire, oracles, etc. The fact has been often denoted by saying that the Jewish institutions are a selection, revision, and re-enactment of an older patriarchal religion. Other treatises on the Gentile origin of circumcision are by Hofmann (Altdorf, 1771), Rus (Jen. 1707), Zeibich (Ger. 1770), Anton (Lips. 1682).
Circumcision, then, as practiced by the Gentiles, was simply an expedient to promote health, facilitating cleanliness, and preventing certain painful afflictions, such as that of the gonorrhesa spuria (froniphymosis, or stricture), and especially the ἄνθραξ, or "carbuncle," to which, in hot climates, men are subject (Josephus, cont. Apion. 2, 14; Niebuhr, De l'Arabie, ch. 19), or an unusual prolongation of the part in question (Thevenot, 1, 58; Haquet, in Voigt's Magaz. fur Phys. 6, 443; but see Danz, in Baldinger's Magaz. fur Aerzte, 14, 416 sq.). In so far as it served- this end, the Irsaelites had, of course, the benefit of it; but that this formed the reason and design of its appointment by God, though asserted by some men of learning and ability, seems utterly untenable; for, in the first place, this opinion is without the slightest support from Scripture; often as the subject is referred to there, we find no hint as to this being the purpose of the observance; 2dly, This hypothesis is quite opposed to the account given by Moses of the introduction of the rite among the Israelites; 3dly, It is absurd to suppose that a mere prophylactic usage should by God be elevated to the solemnity of a religious ordinance; 4thly, Whatever advantages in a hygienic respect might accrue from the practice, these were confined to individuals; circumcision is not necessary for health to men generally in hot climates (Niebuhr, loc. cit.); and therefore to oblige the whole male community to undergo this process in infancy for purposes of health would have been to act as unwise a part as if it had been enjoined that every one should lose a limb, because it was possible that some one might contract severe disease in that limb if allowed to remain; and, 5thly, If circumcision was a mere hygienic precaution, why should it have been abolished by Christianity? why should the apostles have held it to be so hostile to Christianity? and why should the difficulty of becoming a Christian have been increased by the prohibition to those who embraced Christianity of a necessary condition of their children's health? See Philo, De Circumcis. in Opp. 2, 210 sq.; Ackermann, in Weise's Materialienfir Gottesgelartheit (Gera, 1784), 1:50 sq.; Schulz, Exercitatt. 1, 2; Michaelis, Orient. Bibl. 22, 8 sq.; Rust, Handb. d. Chirurgie, v. 30; Hoffmann, De causa focunditatis gentis circumcises (Lips. 1739); Wolfsheimer, De causisfecunditatis Hebraeor. (Hal. 1742); Vogel, Dubia de usu circumcisionib medico (Gott. 1763); Meiners, De circumcis. origine et causis (in the Comment. Soc. Gott. 14, 207 sq.; and his Krit. Gesch. d. Relig. 2, 473 sq.). On the supposed tendency of the custom to prevent excessive venery (Michaelis in Bertholdt's Journ. 4, 356), especially onanism (Buxtorf, Lex. Chald. col. 112 sq.), see Schneider in Henke's Zeitschriftf. Staatsarzneik. V, 4, 223. For other reasons, see Photius, Ep. 205.
When first appointed by God, circumcision was expressly set forth as a token of the covenant which God had made with Abraham; and the apostle tells us that Abraham received "the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness of that faith which he had, being yet uncircumcised" (Romans 4:11); so that to Abraham it was not only a sign or token of God's covenant, but also an obsignation or certificate that he was in a state of acceptance before he was circumcised. As a Mosaic institution, it was also the sign of the covenant which God made with Israel, which is hence called the "covenant of circumcision" (Acts 7:8). In consequence of this, it became the medium of access to the privileges of the covenant, and entailed on all who received it an obligation to fulfill the duties which the covenant imposed (Romans 2:25; Romans 3:1; Galatians 5:3). In a word, it was the token which assured to Abraham and his descendants the promise of the Messiah (Genesis 17). It was thus made a necessary condition of Jewish nationality. Circumcision served also to separate the people of the Jews from the rest of the nations, as a people set apart to God. These were its uses. As respects its meaning, that was symbolical, and the things which it symbolized were two: 1. Consecration to God; and, 2. Mental and spiritual purification (Exodus 6:12; Leviticus 19:25; Deuteronomy 10:16; Deuteronomy 30:6; Isaiah 52:1; Jeremiah 4:4; Jeremiah 6:10; Romans 2:25-29; Colossians 2:11, etc. Compare Philo, De Circumcisione; Jones, Figurative Language of Scripture, Lecture 5, p. 135). "There was thus involved the concept of consecration, and along with this that of reconciliation, in circumcision; and it was thereby, as Ewald rightly remarks (Alterth. p. 95), an offering of the body to Jehovah, which, according to the true meaning of all the offerings, as fully developed and raised to their true elevation by the prophets, had to be presented to him as an offering of the soul. Only as this inner offering was perfectly presented could the obligation to be a priestly kingdom and a holy people be fulfilled" (Vaihinger in Herzog's Real-Encykl. 2, 110). — Kitto, s.v.
On this subject in general, see Spencer, De Legibus Heb. ritualibus, 1, 5; Michaelis, Commentaries on the Laws of Moses, 3. 58-93; Witsius, De Fwdere, bk. 4:6, 8; Lokevitz, De circumcisione Judeorum (Vitemb. 1769- 80); Smeets, De circumcisione Abrahamo divinitus data (Franec. 1690); Bergson, Beschneidung vom historischen, krit. u. med. Standpunkt (Berlin, 1844); Brescher, Die Beschneidung der Israeliten von der hist., praktisch- operativen u. ritualen Seite (Vienna, 1845); Heymann, Die Beschneidung inpathol. Bedeutung (Magdeb. 1844); M. G. Salomon, Die Beschneidung, hist. u. medicinisch beleuchtet (Braunschw. 1844); S. Salomon, Phimosis nebst Beschneidung (Hamb. 1838); Schmid's ed. of Maimonides, tract מַילָה (Strasb. 1661, 1700); Wolfers, Die Beschneidung der Juden (Lamford. 1831).
IV. Christian Views on the Subject. — "The attitude which Christianity, at its introduction, assumed towards circumcision was one of absolute hostility, so far as the necessity of the rite to salvation, or its possession of any religious or moral worth were concerned (Acts 15; Galatians 5:2). But while the apostles resolutely forbade its imposition by authority on the Gentiles, they made no objection to its practice, as a mere matter of feeling or expediency. Paul, who would by no means consent to the demand for Titus, who was a Greek, to be circumcised (Galatians 2:3-5), on another occasion had Timothy circumcised to conciliate the Jews, and that he might preach to them with more effect as being one of themselves (Acts 16:3). The Abyssinian Christians still practice circumcision as a national custom (see Gibbon, Decline and Fall, N. Y. edition, 4:565). In accordance with the spirit of Christianity, those who ascribed efficacy to the mere outward rite are spoken of in the N.T. almost with contempt as ‘ the concision' or ‘ amputation' (τὴν κατατομήν ); while the claim to be the true circumcision is vindicated for Christians themselves (Philippians 3:2-3). An ethical idea is attached to circumcision in the O.T., where uncircumcised lips (Exodus 6:12; Exodus 6:30), or ears (Jeremiah 6:10), or hearts (Leviticus 26:41) are spoken of, i.e. either stammering or dull, closed as it were with a foreskin, or rather rebellious and unholy (Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4), because circumcision was the symbol of purity (see Isaiah 52:1). Thus the fruit of a tree is called uncircumcised, or, in other words, unclean (Leviticus 19:23). In the N.T. the ethical and spiritual idea of purity and holiness is fully developed (Colossians 2:11; Colossians 2:13; Romans 2:28-29)."
V. Relation to Christian Baptism. —
1. The ethical and spiritual value of circumcision did not depend on its existence or use prior to its adoption by God as a symbol of true religion. The condescension of Christ consecrated and elevated old rites to new spheres, upon the principle that "what God hath cleansed, that call not thou common." On this principle he elected the baptismal purification, and the simple elements of his Supper. When the covenant with Abraham had reached its full development, including all the seminal elements for the future growth of his Church in the world, God ratified it by the seal of circumcision. Whatever was afterwards added to the polity of the Church or nation worked no modification of the great principles involved, but was rather called into being by the exigencies of times and circumstances. This rite, as a symbol, bespoke the consummation of the Abrahamic covenant in all its power and fullness of temporal, as well as eternal and heavenly interests.
2. This ordinance included in its significance, as a fitting and most impressive emblem, deep spiritual truths. The history of circumcision, in its connection with the Abrahamic covenant and religion, clearly exhibits the nature of the things it symbolized by the direction of its figurative applications. In involving and engaging moral and mental purity, through faith and worship towards Abraham's God, it became the token of spiritual blessings to the pious Israelite in whatever foreign regions he might dwell, notwithstanding he might never be permitted to behold Palestine or the holy city. For he alone was a Jew and a real son of Abraham, entitled to the immunities of the Covenant, whose circumcision was "of the heart; in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God" (Romans 2:28-29). Profligacy in the national government, though it might bring afflictions, could not nullify the spiritual law, or make void the seal upon the faithful. "All are not Israel which are of Israel" (Romans 9:6). The Περιτομὴ καρδίας, ἐν Πνεύματι — "Circumcision in heart, in spirit" — was then, as it is now, the only means of union with the Messiah; and, regarding the nation, therein was Abraham's seed an imperium in imperio.
3. The relation, therefore, of CIRCUMCISION to CHRISTIAN BAPTISM is manifest. Both are initiations into peculiar religious privileges and immunities, the emblems of inward cleansing, the signs and seals of consecration to and faith in the God of Abraham. Baptism follows and succeeds to the ancient rite, not because of external likeness, but on account of identity of offices and import, in sealing and imaging the same spiritual truths. For the saving economy of Jehovah has been the same from the beginning; only the instruments, furniture, and external appliances have undergone change. The Zion of the old is the Zion of the newly-arranged Church; the גֹּרֶן — ἄλων has only been purged, its arena enlarged, and the machinery of the garnering process changed from a specific to a general object, from the national to the cosmical. The pious patriarch was a Christian in everything but name and extent of privilege. The longitude of the atonement is for all time, and the existence of the blessed; its latitude the breadth of the race. The change of the symbolic seal adapts it to a wider sphere, yet it is only in the visible form, not in the substance; it becomes a new and more eligible likeness of the same things. "Circumcision and baptism correspond in meaning. They both relate to the renewal of the heart" (Carson, p. 367). It was a mark of distinction made upon those entering into covenant with God for worship and salvation; can baptism be either less or more? Compare Andrew Fuller, Lect. Genesis 17; Dr. L. Chase, Design of Baptism, in Bapt. Tracts for the Times, p. 26.
4. The writers of the N.T. bear testimony to the view here presented. St. Paul uses the very impressive words "buried with him" (Christ) "in baptism" — συνταφέντες αὐτῷ ἐν τῷ βαπτίσματι (Colossians 2:12), as synonymous with and explanatory of ἡ περιτομὴ τοῦ Xριστοῦ, "the circumcision of Christ." Whatever intensity there is in the words "buried with him," it was only the effort of the apostle to show how "baptism into Christ" was like circumcision; it "put off the body of the sins of the flesh." Had such not been the scriptural meaning of circumcision, Paul would never have thus reasoned. What better testimony could be desired to prove the relation of the two rites, and that the one had succeeded the other? Objections from a want of external agreement or circumstances of administration can be of no force. The Greek περιτομή, the Latin circumcisio, are etymological parities, but they are neither of them analogical forms with the Heb. מוּל, employed as a technic in Genesis 17. Yet the idea of the rite is, perhaps, as perfect under the Shemitic as under the European form.
5. The early ecclesiastical writers universally held thee views here given. Their doctrine, made dependent on John 3:5, that βάπτισμα ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος, baptism of water and the Spirit, was equivalent to ἀναγέννησις ἐξ ὔδατος καὶ πνεύματος, regeneration by water and the Spirit, caused them to speak of baptism as ἡ περιτομὴ πνευματική, spiritual circumcision, because the Spirit was always joined with the water in the baptism of an infant, or a converted, believing adult.
6. In Justin Martyr baptism is very frequently alluded to as the "true circumcision," of which the ancient rite was a type (Apol. 1, 61; Dial. c. Trypho. 41). "God commands you to be washed with this purification, and to be circumcised with the true circumcision" (λούσασθαι ὑμῖν τοῦτο τὸ λουτρὸν κελεύει ὁ Θεὸς, καὶ περιτέμνεσθαι τὴν ἀληθινὴν περιτομήν ) (Dial. c. Trypho. § 18). He says that Christians "had not received the fleshly circumcision, but the spiritual one, which Enoch and those like him made use of; and we received it — διὰ τοῦ βαπτίσματος — through baptism," etc. (ib. § 43; comp. § 19). In § 29 of this dialogue he speaks of circumcision under the law as baptism. He says, "What need have I for circumcision who have the testimony of God in my favor?" (Τίς ἐκείνου τοῦ βαππίσματος χρεία ἁγίῳ πνεύματι βεβαπτισμένῳ;) "What need have I of that other baptism, who have been baptized with the Holy Ghost?" This must be esteemed as a remarkable identification of the two rites, for we should not forget that, as the ordinance of baptism was to Justin "the water of life" (Dial. c. Trypho. § 14), so to receive it was to be baptized with the Holy Ghost. From the same point of view Basil asks certain ones who delayed baptism, "Do you put off the circumcision made without handsc — ἀχειροποιήτην περιτομήν — in putting off the flesh, which is performed in baptism?" (ἐν τῷ βαπτίσματι τελειουμένην ), Orat. exhort. ad Bapt. t. 2, ed. Ben. (Par. 1721). Cyprian and his council, Ep. 44, ad Fid., held in the baptism of infants that the analogy then followed of ancient circumcision should not be binding (Nec spiritalem circumcisionem impediri carnali circumcisione debere): "Nor ought the spiritual circumcision" (baptism) "to be hindered by the carnal circumcision." On the principle that Christ was the real baptizer in the Christian rite, Tertullian calls Christ Novoe circumcisionis Purgator, "the PURIFIER of the new circumcision" (adv. Judges 1:3-4; comp. Ambrose, lib. 2, De Abrahamo Patr. c. 11; Irenaeus, Haer. lib. 4, 30).
7. It remains to be observed, briefly, that the objection to circumcision (Acts 15; Galatians 5:2) was not to the rite itself, which was a seal of the covenant of promise, not of law, a
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'CircuMcIsion'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/c/circumcision.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20