Only one of the four gospels mentions Jesus' own circumcision, and then in such a roundabout way, it need not have happened:
And when eight days
were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was
called JESUS, who was so named of the angel before he was conceived in
When Jesus might well be expected to mention circumcision, he does not:
Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.
Jesus is reported to have mentioned circumcision only once:
Jesus answered and said to them, "I did one work, and you all marvel.
"Moses therefore gave you
circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you
circumcise a man on the Sabbath.
"If a man receives circumcision
on the Sabbath, so that the law of Moses should not be broken, are you
angry with Me because I made a man completely well on the Sabbath?"
John 7 21-23
What is interesting is that he speaks of circumcision in
the second person, as if it has nothing to do with him, and he
contrasts circumcision with healing, emphasising that it is an injury,
as well as an example of over-zealous law-keeping. (Some have taken the
words of the King James Bible - "made a man every whit whole" - to mean
that Jesus even undid the man's circumcision, but this seems strained.)
The well-known story of
Peter's vision of being invited to kill and eat "unclean" animals comes
just before an obvious parallel, where "uncircumcised" men are baptised.
The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” ...
While Peter was still
speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the
message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were
astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on
Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not
be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he
commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord.
Acts 10 15... 44-6
This clearly indicates that being circumised is not essential to
receiving the "gifts of the spirit" or to being baptised, and hence
was a big issue for the early church, because it meant the difference
between Christianity being just a sect of Judaism or a whole new
religion - and because adult Greeks especially were unwilling to
undergo a painful operation to join the new sect.
And certain men came
down from Judea and taught the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised
according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."...
And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to
them: "Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among
us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel
"So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us,
"And made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
"Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the
neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to
"But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they."...
And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, "Men and Brethren, listen to me:...
...I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God,
But that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by
idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from
They wrote this letter..."to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings.
"Since we have heard that some who went out from us have
troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying 'You must be
circumcised and keep the law' - to whom we gave no such commandment -
"... it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things:
"That you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from
things strangled, and, from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves
from these, you will do well. Farewell."
So when they were sent off, they came to Antioch; and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the letter.
When they had read it, they rejoiced over its encouragement.
Acts 15:1... 7-11... 13...19-20,23-4,28-31
"...which neither our fathers nor we were
able to bear" suggests that Peter and some of his hearers had belonged
to a branch of Judaism that had already abandoned circumcision for at
least a generation.
For circumcision is
indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the
law, your circumcision is counted as uncircumcision.
Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous
requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as
And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the
law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a
transgressor of the law?
For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh;
But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of
the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from
men but from God.
What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision?
Much in every way! Chiefly because to them [the Jews] were committed the oracles of God.
Romans 2:25 -3:2
The reason given refers to the first version of the
question ("What advantage then has the Jew?") far better than to the
second ("what is the profit of circumcision?"). Circumcision is
referred to only as a symbol of Judaism. Paul is convinced that the
oracles of God will still be committed to Christians from now on,
though they are not physically circumcised.
Since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith,
Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.
The use of "through faith" (how the uncircumcised are
justified) makes it clear that Paul believes Christians can establish
the law without circumcising.
"Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin."
Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or
upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to
Abraham for righteousness.
How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised.
And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the
righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that
he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are
uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also.
And the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the
circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our
father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.
For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not
to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the
righteousness of faith.
Was anyone called
while circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Was anyone called
while uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised.
Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters.
I Corinthians 7:18-19
But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.
1 Corinthians 12:18
Then he [Paul] came
to Derbe and Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named
Timothy, the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed, but his father
was a Greek;
... Paul wanted to have him go on with him. And he took him and
circumcised him because of the Jews who were in that region, for they
all knew that his father was Greek.
And perhaps more to the point, the Jews in that region all knew
that Timothy's mother was Jewish. Paul's circumcision of Timothy was
not an endorsement of circumcision in general (as some modern
Christians claim), but purely a tactical move, to make him ritually
acceptable to Jews.
Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and also took Titus with me.
And I went up by revelation, and communicated to them that
gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to those that
were of reputation, lest by any means I might run, or had run, in vain.
Yet not even Titus who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised.
When he was preaching to Gentiles, with a Gentile, he had no use for circumcision.
Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.
Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing.
And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law.
You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justifed by law; you have fallen from grace.
For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.
Brothers, if I am
still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that
case the offense of the cross has been abolished.
I wish that those who are upsetting you [by demanding circumcision] would [go all the way and] castrate themselves!
Galations 5:11-12 (NIV)
As many as desire to
make a good showing in the flesh, these would compel you to be
circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of
For not even those who are circumcised keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.
In him you were also
circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off
the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.
Buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with
Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision
of your flesh, He has made alive together with him, having forgiven you
Having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was
against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it away, having
nailed it to the cross.
Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds,
And have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him,
Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor
uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all
and in all.
In that He says, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
New King James Version
This addresses those who say the earlier Covenant of circumcision is still binding on Christians.
Both the Hebrew and
Greek ("Old" and "New") Testaments make various references to
figurative circumcisions, of the heart or of the lips, where
circumcision is a metaphor for purification. In each case, they
acknowledge, implicitly or explicitly, that physical circumcision does not purify. For example:
Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the
Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve
the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul,
To keep the commandments of the Lord, and his statutes, which I command
thee this day for thy good?
Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens is the Lord's thy God, the
earth also, with all that therein is.
Only the Lord had a delight in thy fathers to love them, and he chose
their seed after them, even you above all people, as it is this day.
Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more
King James Version
"Behold, the days are coming," says the LORD, "that I will punish all who are circumcised with the uncircumcised -
"Egypt, Judah, Edom, the people of Ammon, Moab and all who are in the farthest corners, who who dwell in the wilderness. For all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are unicircumcised in the heart."
New King James Version
Beware of dogs, beware
of evil workers, beware of the mutilators. For we are the circumcision,
who worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no
confidence in the flesh.
King James 2000 Version
The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas
The Gnostic Gospel
of Thomas (Greek fragments and a complete Coptic text dating from the
first or second century CE of 114 sayings supposedly written by the
apostle Thomas earlier than the New Testament) attributes a firm
statement against circumcision to Jesus himself:
His disciples said to Him, "Is circumcision beneficial or not?"
He said to them, "If it were beneficial, their
father would beget them already circumcised from their mother. Rather,
the true circumcision in spirit has become completely profitable."
But the vote of the Jesus Seminar is that Jesus did not say
this. "...it reflects the same position, more or less, found in the
letters of Paul ... This fact prompted the Fellows to assign it to a
later phase of the Christian movement, during which it spread into
predominantly gentile regions." - Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the
Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels (Macmillan, New York, 1993)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons)
The Book of Mormon also attributes the end of any need for circumcision directly to Jesus:
Listen to the words of Christ, your Redeemer, your Lord, and your God.
Behold, I came into the world not to call the
righteous but sinners to repentance; the whole need no physician, but
they that are sick; wherefore, little children are whole, for they are
not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken
from them in me, that it hath no power over them; and the law of
circumcision is done away in me.
Moroni 8: 8
Doctine and Covenants, Section 34 (an offsite link) explains this further.
The Roman Catholic Church
The bruises that [Paul] the Apostle received in the long history of his
passion are the witness of the presence of the Cross of Jesus in St
Paul's body; they are his stigmata. Thus, one can say that it is not
circumcision that saves: these stigmata are the consequence of his
Baptism, the expression of his dying with Jesus, day after day, the sure
sign of his being a new creature (cf. Gal 6: 15).
- Pope Benedict XVI, on the Square outside the Lower Basilica of St Francis, Assisi
June 17, 2007
with Paul, he [St Barnabas] then went to the so-called Council of
Jerusalem where after a profound examination of the question, the
Apostles with the Elders decided to discontinue the practice of
circumcision so that it was no longer a feature of the Christian identity (cf. Acts 15: 1-35). It was only in this way that, in the end, they officially made possible the Church of the Gentiles, a Church without circumcision;
- Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, January 31, 2007
According to the Ecumenical Council of Vienne: "Christians may not be
enticed into Judaism; neither may they be circumcised for any reason."
This was reinforced by the Council of Florence, in the document
"Cantate Domino" (1441) signed by Pope Eugene IV:
The Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes, and teaches that
the matter pertaining to the law of the Old Testament, of the Mosaic
law...although they were suited to the divine worship at that time, ceased,
and the sacraments of the New Testament began; and whoever, even after the
passion, placed hope in these matters of the law and submitted himself to
them as necessary for salvation, as if faith in Christ could not save without
them, sinned mortally...All, therefore, who after that time observe
circumcision and the Sabbath and the other requirements of the law, it
declares alien to the Christian faith and not in the least fit to participate
in eternal salvation, unless some day they recover from these errors."
According to Catholic dogma, the teachings of General Councils
belong to the Deposit of Faith, do not allow for dissent, and can never
be revoked or modified, being protected from error by the Holy Ghost. Therefore it strictly orders all who glory in the
name of Christian, not to practise circumcision either before or after
baptism, since whether or not they place their hope in it, it cannot
possibly be observed without loss of eternal salvation.
Pope Eugene IV, Bull of Union with the Copts
Writing of castration, Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58) decreed that
...the amputation of any part of the human body is never
legal, except when the entire body cannot be saved from destruction by
any other method.
De Synodo dioecesana
This was reinforced by Pope Pius XII in 1952:
3. Religious precepts
(a) Catholic. From a moral point of view, circumcision is permissible if,
in accordance with therapeutic principles, it prevents a disease that
cannot be countered in any other way
Pius XII, Discorsi e messaggi radiodiffusi, t. XIV, Rome 1952, s. 328-329
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Item 2297: Respect for bodily integrity
... Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical
reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations
performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.
From the website of
the Office of the Permanent Diaconate
Roman Catholic Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, USA
|ETHICAL AND RELIGIOUS DIRECTIVES|
FOR CATHOLIC HEALTH CARE SERVICES
Publication No. 5-452 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
29. All persons served by Catholic health care have the right and duty to protect and preserve their bodily and functional integrity.16
The functional integrity of the person may be sacrificed to maintain
the health or life of the person when no other morally permissible
means is available.17
30. The transplantation of organs from living donors is morally
permissible when such a donation will not sacrifice or seriously impair
any essential bodily function and the anticipated benefit to the
recipient is proportionate to the harm done to the donor. Furthermore, the freedom of the prospective donor must be respected, and economic advantages should not accrue to the donor.
31. No one should be the subject of medical or genetic
experimentation, even if it is therapeutic, unless the person or
surrogate first has given free and informed consent. In instances of
non-therapeutic experimentation, the surrogate can give this consent
only if the experiment entails no significant risk to the person's
well-being. Moreover, the greater the person's incompetency and
vulnerability, the greater the reasons must be to perform any medical
experimentation, especially non-therapeutic.
32. While every person is obliged to use ordinary means to
preserve his or her health, no person should be obliged to submit to a
health care procedure that the person has judged, with a free and
informed conscience, not to provide a reasonable hope of benefit
without imposing excessive risks and burdens on the patient or
excessive expense to family or community.18
33. The well-being of the whole person must be taken into
account in deciding about any therapeutic intervention or use of
example, while the donation of a kidney represents loss of biological
integrity, such a donation does not compromise functional integrity
since human beings are capable of functioning with only one kidney.
17. Cf. directive 53.
18. Declaration on Euthanasia, Part IV; cf. also directives 56-57.
spite of this, "Operation Tule" ( mass circumcision) is frequently
organised by Catholic organisations, such as one at the Central School
in San Jose Del Monte, Philippines, on April 29, 2001, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, the Daughters of Mary Immaculate, and the Catholic Women's League.
The Question Box
"The Morality of Circumcision"
by Father John Dietzen
- The Tablet, the official paper
of the Roman Catholic Diocese
30 October 2004, p 33
Q. What is the morality of circumcision?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church
teaches that amputations and mutilations
performed on innocent people without
strictly therapeutic reasons are against
the moral law.
Pope Pius XII taught that circumcision is
morally permissible if it prevents a disease
that cannot be countered any other way.
In spite of these and other church statements
against circumcision through the centuries,
I'm told there is no strict Catholic rule against
the practice today. Why not? No medical
association in the world today any longer
says circumcision is therapeutic. (Ohio)
A. I'm not sure why not, but the fact is male
circumcision generally just doesn't appear
very much on the "radar screen" of Catholic
moral teaching. Many major moral theology
texts don't mention it. A notable except is
"Medical Ethics," by Father Edwin Healy SJ
(Loyal University Press), who holds that since
routine circumcisions are not medically defensible
they are morally objectionable.
A few observations may help explain. The practice
of circumcision arose thousands of years ago and
is prevalent in many cultures around the world.
Nearly always it has religious or social significance,
signifying full membership in the group and establish-
ing one's social position in the society.
The first divine command to the Jews, for example,
was that every male child be circumcised, symbolizing
the covenant between God and Abraham (Gn 17).
After the famous confrontation between Paul and other
leaders of the early church (Acts 15 and Galatians 2),
Christians pretty much rejected the necessity of
circumcision for becoming a believer in Christ.
The idea didn't entirely die, however. The theory that
circumcision still held some spiritual benefits even for
Christians, prompted at least some of the condemnations
you speak of. The Council of Vienna (1311), for example,
decreed that Christians should not be lured into Judaism or
be circumcised for any reason.
The following century, the Council of Florence (1438-1435)
ordered "all who glory in the name of Christian not to practice
circumcision either before or after baptism, since whether or
not they place their hope in it, it cannot possibly be observed
without loss of eternal salvation."
Today, while nontherapeutic male circumcision remains common
in some places, as a general practice it is forbidden in Catholic
teaching for more basic reasons of respect for bodily integrity.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "Except when
performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly
intended amputations, mutilations and sterilizations performed
on innocent persons are against moral law" (N. 2297).
Elective circumcision clearly violates that standard. It is an
amputation and mutilation, and, to my knowledge, and as you
note, no significant medical group in the world defends it as
having any therapeutic value. In 1999 the Council on Scientific
Affairs of the American Medical Association stated that neonatal
circumcision is nontherapeutic because no disease is present and
no therapeutic treatment is required.
Modern Catholic Church documents do not deal explicitly with
the morality of elective circumcision. The above basic principles,
however, clearly render it immoral. It violates the bodily integrity
of infant male children and unnecessarily deprives them of a part
of their body that can protect the glans of the penis during infancy
and serve at least a sexual function for adults.
My understanding from physicians is that circumcision rarely if
ever arises as an ethical consideration. Usually it is requested by
the parents for more social reasons such as, it's always been done
in our family. In that case, the procedure might be carried out in
some places rather routinely, even if it is not what the child needs
and no curative or remedial reason renders it ethical.
The Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Science)
Science is based on Idealism, the belief that Mind is the only reality
(the opposite belief from Materialism), and Matter is a mere concept of
Mind, specifically the Mind of God. Since God is only good, all evil,
including illness, is illusory, "error". This means Christian
Scientists generally reject conventional medical treatments in favour
of prayer and Christian Science healing. One would think that
prophylactic (preventative) medical treatments like circumcision would
then be doubly anathema, since they encourage erroneous belief in
sickness where none was before.
The Church of Christ, Scientist has no official policy
regarding circumcision. Members are encouraged to turn to the Bible and
"Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" by Mary Baker Eddy (who
discovered Christian Science) for guidance in making personal choices,
but they always make their own decisions without needing to seek the
approval of the Church.
Web Response Team
"Science and Health" nowhere refers directly to circumcision,
either as rite or prophylactic surgery. It does refer to rites in
First in the list
of Christian duties [Jesus] taught his followers the healing power of
Truth and Love. He attached no importance to dead ceremonies.
Science and Health p 31, line 12
Whatever materializes worship hinders man's spiritual growth and keeps him from demonstrating his power over error.
Science and Health p 4, line 32
(And what could "materialize worship" more than body modification?)
"Science and Health" refers to conventional medicine only in very general terms, always negatively:
One should never
hold in mind the thought of disease, but should efface from thought all
forms and types of disease, both for one's own sake and for that of the
Science and Health p 396, line 1
Giving drugs to infants,
noticing every symptom of flatulency, and constantly directing the mind
to such signs, - that mind being laden with illusions about disease,
health-laws, and death, - these actions convey mental images to
children's budding thoughts, and often stamp them there, making it
probable at any time that such ills may be reproduced in the very
Science and Health p 417, line 24
How much more so to operate surgically on a healthy baby?
A condensed form of the text above is downloadable as a Word 95 document or in .pdf format (which requires Adobe Acrobat Reader ).
Protestant reformer John Calvin (1548) taught that even Jews should
not practice circumcision. Among Christians, circumcision was virtually
unknown... and unthinkable.
"We refute the error of those who
think that circumcision is still in force among the Jews, as if it were a
peculiar symbol of the nation which never ought to be abrogated ... It
was permitted to them for a time, until the liberty obtained by Christ
should be better known."
~Calvin's commentaries on Genesis 7:13.
Jesus' own circumcision was important in four respects, according to the church fathers:
They were also in no doubt that it was very painful.
- It was - like his baptism - unnecessary
for purifying him: they believed that circumcision took away the stain
of original sin, which Jesus never had. (But they believed he removed
that stain from believers by his crucifixion.)
- It was, however, a sign of his obedience to the law, and necessary for his redemption of us.
- It was voluntary, part
of the burden God as Father took on himself, when he chose to be
incarnated as the Son and as a Jew. The church fathers believed that
circumcision, like crucifixion, was shameful, and it was a mark of
Christ's humility that he endured it.
- They believed it mystically prefigured his death and resurrection, and hence that of us all.
Mary knew the rite of circumcision was to remove original sin, but
she also knew Jesus did not require it. She asked Almighty God if it
should be done. He responded: "My Daughter and my Dove, do not let thy
heart be afflicted because thy Son is to be subjected to the knife and
to the pains of circumcision. I have sent Him in to the world as an
example, that he put an end to the law of Moses by entirely fulfilling
it (Matthew 5:17)...Resign thyself, then, to the shedding of his blood
and willingly yield to Me the first fruits of the eternal salvation of
-The Mystical City of God by Venerable Mother Mary of Agreda, pp432-8