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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > C > Circumcision


The Hebrew, like the Greek (peritome), and the Latin (circumcisio), signifies a cutting and, specifically, the removal of the prepuce, or foreskin, from the penis. The number and variety of tribes and nations who practised it are surprising; a conservative estimate places the number that practise it in our day at two hundred millions. Herodotus says that the Egyptians, Colchians, and Ethiopians, from very early times, were circumcised; and he mentions other races, the Phoenicians and Syrians of Palestine (the Jews, as Josephus maintains), who say that they learned the use of circumcision from the Egyptians (Herod., II, 104; Jos., C. Ap., I, 22). Even some Christians circumcise their children, the Copts, for instance, and the Abyssinians, in Africa; and among the Filipinos, the same may be said of most of the Tagalos, who are Catholics. To these last, however, it is a mere ceremony without religious import. The Mohammedan Moros may have introduced it into the islands, where it remains, notwithstanding centuries of Christian influence against it (C. N. Barney, see bibliography). The Abyssinians are entirely under Jewish influence, though they profess Christianity: they observe the Jewish Sabbath, circumcise on the eighth day, and observe many other usages. (See Andree, cited below, p. 189.) Andree states also that the custom of circumcising is found in Sumatra (pp. 191, 192), the east coast of New Guinea (p. 197), and among the Samoans, who call Europeans "the uncircumcised". Even in America, circumcision was in use among the Aztec and Maya races (op. cit. 201, 202). The fact of its existence in Australia (Spencer and Gillen, Tribes of Central Australia, p. 218 sq.), and in a great part of the islands of Oceanica, not to speak of America, would seem to throw some doubt on the assertion of Herodotus that it had its origin in Egypt.

It is not easy to assign satisfactory reasons for a usage so general. Those who think it was a tribal mark, like tattooing, or the knocking out of the front teeth, should consider that such marks are usually conspicuous. Was it connected with phallic worship, and thus regarded as an offering to the deity of fertility? or was it, as some think, a substitute for human sacrifice? From the fact that the priests in Egypt were, beyond question, circumcised (G. Rawlinson — Ancient Egypt, vol. I, p. 452), as also from the fact that the upper classes among the Aztec and Celebes tribes made use of it, we may conclude that circumcision was not looked upon as a mark of slavery or subjection, but rather of nobility and superiority. Father Lagrange holds that it had a religious significance, and that, as it is not referred to in Chaldean monuments, it was not a protosemitic practice, but may have had its origin in Arabia (Etudes sur les religions sémitiques, 1903, pp. 239-243).

Merely utilitarian motives have been assigned by many: even Philo (De Circumcisione, II, 211, ed. Mangey) gives cleanliness, freedom from disease, offspring, and purity of heart, this last the only mystical or sacramental one among the four, which Herodotus also mentions as the motive of the Egyptians, kathariotetos eineka (II, 37). Physicians prescribe circumcision in certain cases, for instance, to guard against phimosis, balanitis, and other such evils; further, Rosenzweig recommended its general adoption in the Prussian army (Zur Beschneidungsfrage, 1878). That the ceremony had some relation to initiation into manhood, at the marriageable age, seems to receive support from the custom of certain tribes of being circumcised at the age of puberty; and also from the fact that the Arabic word khatan signifies to circumcise and to be allied by marriage.

It is strange that the universal practice of circumcision among those who profess Mohammedanism is neither based upon, nor sanctioned by, the Koran. Was this silence observed by the Prophet of Islam because there was no need of prescribing what already had the force of law or, perhaps, because it did not seem to him to have any religious significance? However we explain his silence, tradition, by appealing to his authority, soon gave to the practice all the weight of his sanction. The age at which the Arabs were circumcised was, according to Josephus (Ant., I, xii, 2), thirteen years, in imitation of Ismael (Gen. xvii, 25). At present the regular time for circumcising Mohammedan children is between the ages of seven and twelve years. The Bedouin tribes too, though not scrupulous Islamites, have adhered faithfully to this usage of their forefathers. A short description of the ceremony of circumcision among the nomads of the Sinaitic peninsula may be read in the "Palestine Exploration Fund, Quarterly Statement" (Jan., 1906, p. 28). The writer says that the ceremony has "nothing religious" about it: yet, as he states, the beginning of the Koran is recited on the occasion.

The relation, if there be any, between Gentile and Jewish circumcision is an interesting subject. The clear statement of the Bible that circumcision was given to Abraham, as "a sign of the covenant" (Gen. xvii, 11), need not compel us to believe that hitherto it was unknown in the world. Like the law of clean and unclean, in food and daily life, it may be regarded as a practice of venerable antiquity that was adopted and adapted to express what it had not expressed before. The rainbow existed from the first days of rain and sunshine, for it is the result of both, but the Lord gave its future significance to Noah. The same is true of incense, sacrifice, and lustral water, which, though found very early among nations not in touch with revelation, are yet prescribed by Divine ordinance and used in Divine worship. If, therefore, we question the assertion of Herodotus, that circumcision was of Egyptian origin, and was adopted from the Egyptians by surrounding nations, and, among these, by the Syrians. (Jews) of Palestine, it is not because of theological scruples, but rather because of lack of argument. Whatever may be said about Herodotus as a witness in matters that fell under his personal observation, when he argues, his authority is only in proportion to the weight of his arguments, and these are, in many instances, mere conjectures. Artapanus, quoted by Eusebius (Præpar. Evan., IX, xxviii), goes so far as to say that the Egyptians adopted the practice of circumcision from Moses.

The illustration of the ceremony of circumcision pictured on the ruins of Karnak, is probably later than the going down of Israel into Egypt. It is given in Andree's work, pp. 187, 188 (see below); and also in Ebers, "Aegypten etc.", pp. 278-284 (see below), who, moreover, discusses the inferences to be drawn from the finding of a circumcised mummy. We may safely say, however, that up to our time the monuments of antiquity furnish no conclusive proof that circumcision was practised anywhere prior to the Biblical date, at which God made it "a sign of the covenant" between Himself and Abraham (Genesis 17:11). To the Jews it had a sacramental meaning, derived from its Divine institution and sanction. As Isaac, so their children were circumcised on the eighth day, according to the law: "An infant of eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations: he that is born in the house, as well as the bought servant shall be circumcised, and whosoever is not of your stock: And my covenant shall be in your flesh for a perpetual covenant. The male, whose flesh of his foreskin shall not be circumcised, that soul shall be destroyed out of his people: because he hath broken my covenant" (Genesis 17:12-14; 21:4). For some reason, not given in the text, Moses while in Madian neglected to circumcise his son, Eliezer, on which account God "would have killed him", i.e. not Eliezer, as some think, but Moses, as the passage indicates. Sephora, having taken a sharp stone, circumcised her son with it, and said, "a bloody spouse art thou to me"; whereupon the Lord "let him go" (Exodus 4:24-26). The Greek reading, "the blood of my son's circumcision has ceased to flow", is obscure. Sephora very probably meant that by what she had done she had saved the life of her husband and confirmed their marriage by the shedding of blood.

During the sojourn of forty years in the desert the law of circumcision was not observed, as the changes incident to nomadic life, in so large a community, made its observance almost impossible. When, however, the people came into the Land of Promise, the Lord said to Josue: "Make thee knives of stone, and circumcise the second time the children of Israel" (Joshua 5:2). The second time, i.e. renew the practice which had been omitted during the nomadic period. As Sephora used a stone knife, so on this occasion stone knives were used, which is a proof that the events narrated are of great antiquity. The words of the Lord to Josue, "This day have I taken away from you the reproach of Egypt", seem to refer not to circumcision, as some think, but to the disgrace of being slaves to the Egyptians, contrasted with the honour of entering into the true liberty of the children of God. Josephus interprets them in this sense: "Now the place where Joshua pitched his camp was called 'Gilgal', which denotes 'liberty', for since now they had passed over Jordan, they looked upon themselves as freed from the miseries which they had undergone from the Egyptians, and in the wilderness" (Ant., V, i, 11). Many modern scholars, however, translate Gilgal, "a rolling away", "circle" (Gesenius, s.v.), and think that the Heb. text of Josue (v, 9), "I have rolled away from you the reproach of Egypt", refers to the removal of the disgrace of uncircumcision; for at that time, they suppose, most of the Egyptians, and not a few Jews while in Egypt, were uncircumcised. The law was clear and peremptory: "The uncircumcised shall be destroyed out of his people" (Genesis 17:14); and for both Jews and strangers circumcision was a necessary preparation for eating the paschal lamb (Exodus 12:48). Arel, "uncircumcised", is frequently used as a term of reproach, i.e. profane, unclean (Judges 15:18; 1 Kings 14:6, 17:36, 31:4; Isaiah 52:1; Ezekiel 28:10, 32:25, 26, etc.). The school of Shammai, therefore, was conservative, insisting on the rigorous observance of the law, while that of Hillel, was more inclined to leniency, in dealing with proselytes and strangers. Josephus, in the advice of Eleazer and Ananias to Izates, King of Adiabene, gives the views of the rigorists and the laxists in reference to the necessity of circumcision (Ant., XX, ii, 4; cf. Graetz, Geschichte d. Juden, III, pp. 172 sqq.). The rigorous doctrine was adopted by John Hyrcanus, who compelled the Idumeans to be circumcised. They received, moreover, the entire Jewish Law; so that Josephus says "they were hereafter no other than Jews" (Ant., XIII, ix, 1). Therefore, the fact that Herod was an Idumean helped him to the throne. The Itureans also were forced "to live according to the Jewish laws" (Jos., Ant., XIII, xi, 3).

Long before this, many of the Persians were circumcised and "became Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them" (Esther 8:17, Heb. text; Josephus, Ant., XI, 6:13). The Book of Jubilees insists upon he strict observance of the law, and protests against those that "make the members of their body appear like those of the gentiles" (xv, 26, 27). During the period of Greek rule in Palestine, when those that kept the laws of Moses were put to death by the gentile tyrants (1 Maccabees 1:63; 2 Maccabees 6:10), some Jews, under Greek influence, "made themselves prepuces" and turned away from the ways and traditions of their fathers (1 Maccabees 1:15, 16; Joshua Ant., XII, 5:1). To this epispastic operation performed on the athletes to conceal the marks of circumcision St. Paul alludes, me epispastho (1 Corinthians 7:18). Therefore Jewish circumcision, in later times, tears the membrane that remains after circumcision given in the ordinary way, among the Arabs for instance, and thus defeats even the surgeon's skill.

In our day many Jews are not so zealous in keeping the law as their fathers were; nor do they think it necessary to have the "sign of the covenant" in their flesh. The ceremony is considered cruel, nor has it any sacramental import in Jewish national life. The Reform movement at Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1843, considered it an unnecessary element of Judaism. This lax doctrine could find no stronger expression than in the case of Chief Rabbi Einhorn of Mecklenburg, who in 1847 defended his having named and consecrated an uncircumcised child in the synagogue, as a child, even though uncircumcised, born of Jewish parents, enjoys all the privileges and assumes all the obligations of a Jew. (See Jewish Encyl., s. vv. Circumcision, Einhorn.)

Neither place nor minister is designated in the law of circumcision. The mother sometimes, oftener the father, circumcised the child. Later, one skilled in the operation, called a Mohel, usually a surgeon, performed it. In Josephus, Ant., XX, ii, 4, we read that Izates, the King of Adiabene, wishing to live as a Jew, "sent for a surgeon" and was circumcised, evidently at home, as in modern times also the ceremony may take place either at home or usually in the synagogue. The eighth day was prescribed, even should it be the Sabbath (see John 7:22-23). A name was given, as in Luke 1:59 and 2:21, to commemorate the change of the patriarch's name from Abram to Abraham, when God made the covenant with him and made circumcision the sign of it (Genesis 17:5). In the ceremony, the one that holds the child is called Sandek, from the Greek synteknos, equivalent to our godfather in baptism; and as Elias was a zealous champion of the law, for which he suffered much, there is a vacant chair for him at every circumcision.

The Jews were proud of their descent from Abraham, but did not always "do the works of Abraham" (John 8:39). They attached so much importance to the external act, that while attending to the letter they neglected the spirit of the law. Jeremias (iv, 4; ix, 25, 26) calls their attention to the necessity of circumcision of the heart, as all important. Even in Deuteronomy 10:16 and 30:6, this spiritual circumcision is set forth in no uncertain language. As uncircumcision means profane, unclean, imperfect, "I am of uncircumcised lips" (Exodus 6:12), "their ears are uncircumcised" (Jeremiah 6:10), and was applied to inanimate things also, as in Lev., xix, 23, "the fruit that cometh forth shall be unclean [Hebrew uncircumcised] to you", so to circumcise the heart (Romans 2:29) means to reform the inner man, by cutting off the vices and correcting the disorders that make him displeasing in the sight of God. To leave the synagogue was to give up that which more than anything else characterized it (see Galatians 2:7-8). Yet St. Paul, while showing his freedom from the legalities of the Old Dispensation by not circumcising Titus (Galatians 2:3), wished to bury the synagogue with honour by subjecting Timothy to the law of circumcision (Acts 16:3). Even though Christ Himself, as a true son of Abraham, submitted to the law, His followers were to be children of Abraham by faith, and were to "adore the Father in spirit and in truth" (John 4:23). The Council of Jerusalem decided against the necessity of the rite, and St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Galatians, condemns the teachers that wished to make the Church of Christ only a continuation of the synagogue: "Behold, I Paul tell you, that if you be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing" (v, 2). Here he refers to the supposed efficacy and necessity of circumcision, rather than to the mere ceremony; for he did not consider it wrong to circumcise Timothy. It was wrong, however, for the Galatians, having been baptized, and having taken upon themselves the obligations of the law of Christ with all its privileges, to be circumcised as a necessary means of salvation, since, by going for salvation from the Church to the Synagogue, they virtually denied the sufficiency of the merits of Christ (cf. Piconio, "Trip. Exp. in Gal., " v, 2). The Apostle gives the essence of Christianity when he says: "In Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision: but faith that worketh by charity" (Galatians 5:6). In his Epistle to the Romans, iv, he shows that Abraham was justified by faith, before circumcision was given as a sign of the covenant; so that the uncircumcision of the New Law is the continuation of the first ages of faith upon the earth. The gentile church of uncircumcision, according to St. Gregory the Great, is composed of men from the time of Abel the Just to the end of ages (Hom. xix in Evan.). St. Justin also says that as Henoch and the just of old received the spiritual circumcision, so do we receive it in the Sacrament of Baptism (Dialogue with Trypho 43).

St. Thomas holds that circumcision was a figure of baptism: this retrenches and restrains the animal man as that removed a part of his body — which physical act indicated the spiritual effect of the sacrament (De Sac., Summa, III, Q. lxx, a. 1). He gives three reasons why the organ of generation rather than any other was to be circumcised:

According to his teaching, as baptism remits original sin and actual sins committed before its reception, so circumcision remitted both, but ex opere operantis, i.e. by the faith of the recipient, or, in the case of infants, by the faith of the parents. Infants that died before being circumcised could be saved, as were those who lived prior to the institution of circumcision, and as females were even after its institution, by some sign — the parents' prayer, for instance — expressive of faith. Adults did not receive the remission of all the temporal punishment due to sin as in baptism: — "Adulti, quando circumcidebantur, consequebantur remissionem, non solum originalis peccati, sed etiam actualium peccatorum; non tamen ita quod liberarentur ab omni reatu p næ, Sicut in baptismo, in quo confertur copiosior gratia" (III, Q. lxx, a. 4). The main points of the teaching of the Angelic Doctor were commonly held in the Church, even before the days of St. Augustine, who with other Fathers maintained that circumcision was not a mere ceremony, but a sacramental rite. (Cf. City of God XVI.27)


Authorities, Patristic and Scholastic, may be found in DE AUGUSTINIS, De Re Sacram., I, par. i, art. ii, th. iii. ASHER, The Jewish Rite of Circumcision. (London, 1873); SCHECHTER, Studies in Judaism (1896), 288, 89, 343; REMONDINO, History of Circumcision (Phila. and London, 1891); ANDREE, Ethnographische Parallelen und Vergleiche (Leipzig, 1889), Beschneidung, pp. 166-213; BARNEY, Circumcision and Flagellation among the Filipinos (Carlisle, Pa., 1903); ARNOLD, Circumcision in New York Medical Jour. (Feb. 13, 1886); EBERS, Aegypten und die Bücher Moses (Leipzig, 1868); MACALESTER in HASTINGS, Dict. of the Bible, s.v.

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APA citation. Tierney, J. (1908). Circumcision. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Tierney, John. "Circumcision." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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