Genesis 17:14 says that an uncircumcised man shall be ‘cut off from his people’ but Paul taught that those who accept circumcision are obliged to keep the whole law, and those who want to be justified by the law have cut themselves off from Christ (Galatians 5: 2-4).
Paul confirmed that circumcision was nothing (Galatians 6:15) and Christ was all and in all (Colossians 3:11). Jeremiah had already taught that circumcision in other nations was uncircumcision (Jeremiah 9: 25-26).
Paul advised people to accept their lot in life and not seek circumcision or uncircumcision, or slavery or freedom (1 Corinthians 7:17-24).
Paul condemned people he described as false believers (Galatians 2:4). These people were pressuring Christians to become circumcised. Paul was so incensed by this that he said:
I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!
(Galatians 5: 12, New RSV)
Paul taught that Jesus accepts people as they are and does not ask them to become circumcised or uncircumcised to become Christian (Galatians 5: 6). Paul said, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…’ (Acts 16: 31).
Paul turned against circumcision. At first he gave in to pressure to circumcise Timothy (Acts 16: 1-4). (Timothy’s mother was Jewish, so Timothy was Jewish by Jewish law.) However, Paul absolutely refused to circumcise Titus (Galatians 2:3) and opposed those false believers with fury. He wished they would castrate themselves, accusing them of wanting to make ‘a good showing in the flesh’ and ‘glorying in the flesh’ (Galatians 6: 12-15, RSV). In Philippians he warned believers to beware those who mutilate the flesh (Philippians 3: 2). Finally, in Titus he says that ‘those of the circumcision’ (from Crete) were ‘upsetting’ or ‘ruining’ whole families and were in it for the money (Titus 1: 10-12).
No. Christians were freed from the Law, including circumcision (Acts 15:1-20). It was described as an almost unbearable yoke on the neck (Acts 15: 10). The yoke, of course, was a sign of slavery and Christians were told not to become entangled with ‘a yoke of bondage’ (Galatians 5:1-2).
The Law as we read it contains things that appall us, such as forcing a rapist to marry his victim (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) or rejecting people born out of wedlock and their descendants (Deuteronomy 23:2). However, almost all of us read the Law in translation, which inevitably changes and distorts the text. Even fewer read it with a background of the checks, balances and insights of the Jewish oral and legal tradition. This has contributed to atrocities such as when Christians used Exodus 22:18 to justify the slaughter of ‘witches’ or other verses to justify slavery and the slave trade (e.g., Exodus 21:2-11, 20-21, Leviticus 25:44-46 and Deuteronomy 20:10-15).
Christians must be wary. Many of these laws, including the food laws, were repudiated in the New Testament (Acts 10:1-33). Jesus himself criticized the scribes and their traditions. (e.g., Matthew 15: 1-9, also Isaiah 29 :13). Jeremiah’s assessment of the Law must also be pondered.
How can you say, “We are wise,
and the law of the LORD is with us,”
when in fact, the false pen of the scribes
has made it into a lie?
(Jeremiah 8: 8, New RSV)
There has always been a nasty underside to circumcision. Whether it was Greek authorities killing Jews for circumcising their infant boys (1 Maccabees 1: 60-62), Jewish zealots forcibly circumcising uncircumcised Jewish boys (1 Maccabees 2: 46) or Muslim zealots forcibly circumcising Christian men, women and children in Ambon, Indonesia (Sydney Morning Herald January 27, 2001, page 25), there has always been a powerful undercurrent of violence and sexual abuse associated with circumcision.
The Bible tells us about circumcision as it is. Stories such as the circumcision and slaughter of the Shechemites (Genesis 34) or the 100 foreskin dowry (1 Samuel 18: 25-27) carry an implicit warning that was made explicit by the Apostle Paul when he said:
It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that would compel you to be circumcised…
…they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh.
(Galatians 6:11, 13, Revised Standard Version)
Jesus was also wrapped in swaddling clothes and put in a manger (Luke 2: 7). This doesn’t mean we have to wrap babies tightly in cloth and put them in animal feeding troughs or circumcise them. Jesus also had a crown of thorns forced onto his head and was crucified. (John 19). We don’t do that to our children, either.
It is better to take to heart what Jesus taught about circumcision and circumcisers.
Jesus spoke about circumcision in the Temple in Jerusalem (John 7:14).
Moses therefore gave unto you circumcision; (not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers;) and ye on the sabbath day circumcise a man. If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day? Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.
(John 7:22-24, King James Version)
Or, from a modern version:
…why are you angry with me for making a man whole and complete on a sabbath? (Jerusalem Bible, John 7:23.)
Jesus contrasted circumcision (cutting off foreskins) with his own healing, which made a man ‘whole and complete.’ Jesus’ conclusion, not to judge by appearances, also hit the mark, for his critics rejected those who were not circumcised.
That is what you will read in most modern English translations. However, the Greek expression for making a man completely well could also be translated as making him completely whole. This meaning, with its powerful contrast with circumcision, came over easily in the King James Version. The Jerusalem Bible got this meaning across with ‘making a man whole and complete’. Moffatt did it slightly differently:
…are you enraged at me for curing, not cutting, the entire body of a man upon the sabbath?
(from John 6:23, Moffatt’s translation, 1935)
A note in the Jerusalem and New Jerusalem Bibles claims that the Rabbis argued that circumcision ‘heals’ the penis so they were doing a little healing while Jesus was doing a big healing. The great Jewish sage, Moses Maimondes, rejected this line of argument:
The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable. For if at birth this member has been made to bleed and has had its covering taken away from it, it must indubitably be weakened. (from Moses Maimonides, “The Guide of the Perplexed”, Part III, ch. 49)
Moses Maimondes would have seen and understood the contrast that Jesus made between circumcising a man and making a man completely whole.
Some were saying that Christians must follow the Law of Moses and be circumcised. Peter replied:
Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?
(Acts 15:10, New RSV)
The early church followed Peter, and all were welcome, circumcised or not. The early church rejected the ideas that Christians had to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses.