Circumcision in the Bible: Religious Covenant or Cultural Convention?

Circumcision in the Bible: Religious Covenant or Cultural Convention?

To justify circumcision, many religious people refer to the authority of passages on circumcision in the Bible regarding cutting off a male infant’s foreskin. However, we now know that the practice of circumcision is medically unnecessary, and the so-called health benefits of this surgery are negligible. The surgery, which removes the foreskin covering the penis, is classified as cosmetic in the United States. Infants and children on whom this surgery is performed are unable to give their consent to the loss of a natural body part that potentially results in lifelong harm to their sexual health and function. That raises serious ethical questions about the most common pediatric surgery in the United States, especially since only about two percent of circumcisions performed in the U.S. are done for religious reasons. Although only a small percentage of the population practices circumcision as a religious rite, medical professionals actively solicit expectant parents to have their sons circumcised. So, what does the Bible say about circumcision? What is the meaning of circumcision in the Bible? Is biblical circumcision an everlasting covenant or a convention, according to contemporary interpretations?

Judaism and Circumcision in the Bible

When contemporary mainstream Christians, non-Christians, and nonbelievers think of circumcision and the Bible, they usually think of the Jewish ceremony known as Brit Milah, performed by a mohel on the eighth day following the birth of a male child. A celebratory event performed in the presence of family and friends, it marks the covenant between God and Abraham referred to in Genesis 17:10-14:

“And God spoke to Abraham saying: This is my covenant which you shall keep between me and you and thy seed after you — every male child among you shall be circumcised.”

That dictate also applied to every man in Abraham’s household, whether a family member or a slave. Abraham was circumcised at age 100.

At that time (2091 BC) and place (the land of Canaan—modern-day Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, southern Syria, and Lebanon) in biblical history, circumcision was a sign of the covenant that set apart those who believed in God from those who did not. The covenant of circumcision was also a promise of God’s protection, making Abraham and his descendants (the 12 tribes of Israel that comprise the Jewish people) a separate Israelite nation from the Gentiles and giving them land and many blessings.

Abraham in biblical times making the covenant

Circumcision is embedded in the Jewish religion and Jewish culture. The number of self-identifying Jews worldwide in 2023 is about 16 million, representing one or two percent of the 8 billion people populating the earth. The covenant of Abraham does not significantly impact the number of religious circumcisions worldwide. This religious rite is primarily practiced in Israel, where almost all Jews circumcise, and in the United States—the countries with the most practicing Jews. However, since less than two percent of the U.S. population identifies as Jewish by religion, the tradition of circumcision is not driving the high rates of circumcision in American society.

Somewhere around 1.4 million baby boys lose their foreskins to circumcision surgery each year in the United States. Only 4.2 million people (1.7 percent of the U.S population) identify as Jewish by religion, with an additional 1.5 million (O.6 percent) identifying as Jewish but of no religion. Even if …every baby boy born to Jewish parents underwent a ritual brit milah …. the maximum number of circumcisions undertaken in the United States as Jewish rituals in a given year would be 24,000 out of 1.4 million. (Muslims, who make up only 1.7 percent of the U.S. Population, also commonly see to it that their sons are circumcised, with no attendant religious ritual.)

– from This Penis Business: A Memoir by Georganne Chapin, founding executive director of Intact America

What the Bible says about circumcision as a covenant does not explain the fact that the United States has the highest circumcision rate among industrialized countries in the Western world. Statistically, it does not add up. The majority of people in the United States do not know about circumcision’s relationship to the Jewish faith. Yet infant and child male genital cutting, for which practitioners get paid, has become big business in the U.S. where an estimated 65 percent of men and boys are cut. The numbers are likely higher because there is no one source for them.

Invitation: Please submit stories of Jewish parents who decided not to circumcise their sons to our Voices column.

“One mother told me her son was being circumcised because she is a Jew. I asked why he was being circumcised on the third day by a doctor in the hospital and not on the eighth day with a mohel performing the ceremony. ‘Will his circumcision satisfy the covenant?’ I asked.”

– Marilyn Milos, Please Don’t Cut the Baby! (Lucid House Publishing, 2024)

‘What’s the covenant?’ was her response.

“Again, I didn’t judge these mothers because I knew that many religious rituals were cultural rather than religious. But it was disturbing to me that any religion was used as a rationale for infant surgery when those making that decision for a baby’s body did not have a clue about what circumcision stood for in their religious philosophy.”

Christianity and Circumcision in the Bible

Judaism’s “bible,” the Torah, uses only the first five books of the Bible’s Old Testament and none from the New Testament. Christians who believe that Abraham’s circumcision covenant applies to them because Jesus was circumcised may not realize that this was so because Jesus was, in fact, a Jew. But Jesus and his apostles do not promote circumcision in the Bible’s New Testament, where there are over 100 references that do not support the necessity of circumcision to have a relationship with God.

Romans 2:28-29: “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal.”

1 Corinthians 7:19: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.”

The Apostle Paul emphasizes that having faith in Christ is more important than being circumcised. The Book of Acts documents among early Christian leaders that salvation is not dependent on circumcision but on faith, grace, and spiritual transformation—a circumcision of the heart.

Man pondering circumcision in biblical times

Only Coptic, Ethiopian, and Eritrean Orthodox churches, as well as some other African churches, promote circumcision for religious reasons. The Amish do not. Pentecostals do not. Presbyterians do not. Baptists do not. Catholicism specifically condemns anything that mutilates the natural human body.

This doesn’t stop Christians in the United States from being the largest religious group in the country to participate in circumcision—not as a rite or due to a covenant, but due to the cultural convention of conformity. However, A growing number of Christian parents must be choosing not to have their male infants circumcised since the rate of circumcision in the U.S. has been declining. An estimated 58.3% of male newborns and 80.5% of males aged 14-59 years in the United States are circumcised.

Intact America believes that as more information is available about circumcision as medically unnecessary, unethical, and religiously irrelevant, the rate of circumcision will continue to go down.

“Some mothers might justify their decision to circumcise their baby by saying, ‘It’s because we’re Christians.’ – Marilyn Milos, Please Don’t Cut the Baby! (Lucid House Publishing, 2024)

I would ask if they knew there are more than 120 references to circumcision in the New Testament that say circumcision is of no value to Christians. Most didn’t, of course, and some even admitted to never having read the Bible… I couldn’t judge them because neither had I before my interaction with Reverend Zangger [who sent Marilyn more than 120 references to circumcision in the New Testament that say it is not necessary to demonstrate faith].

I’d go on to explain that Christ was meant to be the last blood sacrifice and that, for Christians, it was not outward signs (genital cutting) that mattered, but faith expressed through love.”

Please Don't Cut the Baby, by Marilyn Milos

Was the Apostle Paul the First Intactivist?

Paul, who was once a Pharisee, argues against requiring circumcision for believers and shares his views about the concept of spiritual circumcision in his letters to the Romans and the Colossians, focusing on how the Holy Spirit can transform a person’s heart. This type of circumcision aims to remove one’s sinful tendencies and replace them with a new identity in Jesus Christ. It emphasizes that being saved and becoming righteous happens by believing in Christ, rather than following outward practices. It also shows how the Holy Spirit can change a person’s personality and connection with God. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul strongly opposes those who say that people must be circumcised to be saved. He says this idea goes against the idea that Christ’s sacrifice was enough for salvation. In scripture, Paul explains that the new covenant supersedes the old one based on the Law.

Galatians 6:15: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.”