Brief Overview

History of Circumcision

 

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This section deals with the history of circumcision within religious traditions, paying particular attention to that of the Jewish religion, the Christian religion, and the Islamic religion.  This is done in hope of finding a possible answer as to why circumcision is rampant throughout American culture and society.  

 

Today, many Anthropologists disagree on the origins of circumcision. Some, such as English Egyptologist Sir Elliot Smith, believing that circumcision originated in the 'Heliolithic' culture over 15,000 years ago and was adopted by other cultures, while others believe that circumcision developed independently within separate cultures.  Although the origins of circumcision are uncertain, it is documented that circumcision has been practiced in areas throughout Africa, in the Near East, by Australian Aborigines, and by Muslims in South-East Asia.[1]

 

Circumcision, although having been practiced in
areas throughout the world,
was first documented in art form by
the Egyptians.  Found in an Egyptian
tomb built for Ankhmabor in Saqqara and dating to
around 2400 B.C.,
this image displays an Egyptian circumcision.

 

 

 

medphoto.wellcome.ac.uk

  Jewish Religion

According to author David L. Gollaher in his book, Circumcision:  A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery, the Jewish people borrowed the practice of circumcision from the Egyptians.  Egyptians of the time lived in an intellectually and technically advanced society.  They had a vast understanding of the human body, were respected for their military conquests and great architecture, and were therefore regarded as amazing to their contemporaries.  If the Egyptians performed circumcision, it was considered to be rooted in wisdom.  In Egypt, circumcision was a ritual that transformed the youth into manhood, allowing them into admittance of the divine mysteries.  Although scholars suggest that circumcision was limited to the elite only (priests and pharaohs), others disagree.  Circumcision for the Egyptians was a method of purification; the body’s openings were considered portals through which impure and malignant spirits might penetrate. 

 

Judaism adopted circumcision from the Egyptians through Moses, who left Egypt with the Hebrew slaves.  Moses, who could be considered ‘the father’ of the Jewish tradition, law, rituals, and administrative authority, was not himself circumcised, yet he required all of his followers to be circumcised.  Some rabbis believed that Moses was not admitted into heaven because he was not circumcised.  In the Torah, God says to

Abraham that circumcision was a part of the Covenant, or part of man’s promise to God.  By being circumcised, God ensured the promise of fertility to the Jewish people.  Circumcision also served as a tribal sign; without it, one was banished from the tribe, which was certain death for the Jewish people were desert inhabitants.  The ritual of circumcision was therefore applied to all Jewish males, and because of this, writers began to consider circumcision as a normal step as to how the penis was supposed to function as God intended.   Therefore, many people were led to believe that circumcision was healthy and natural.  References to circumcision are found throughout the Old Testament, but they are vague as to how and at what age the action of circumcision itself was to be performed. 

 

During the time of Moses, flint knives were used to perform circumcision on males who had reached puberty.  The use of flint knives was very important in early Jewish tradition, for Anthropologists state that the stone blade symbolized a connection to the earth and its elements.  As in other cultures, the mixture of blood and stone has been a characteristic of tribal circumcision throughout the world.  After the time of Moses, the tradition of Jewish circumcision was altered from being performed at the stage of male puberty to that of the neonatal stage, typically being performed on the eighth day after birth.  This was done to forcefully conform the male infant into the Jewish community, for circumcision was a distinct symbol of Jewish culture.  In fact, the Jewish practice of neonatal circumcision is a perfect example of hierarchal control over the body, for the infant, who was too young to decide for himself, was subjected to a Jewish hierarchal system and religion, whether he desired to or not.  A modern example of hierarchal control over the body is the United States Armed Forces.  In his book, Culture and the Human Body:  An Anthropological Perspective, John W. Burton provides this example by stating, “Boot camp, or basic training, is at one and the same time a period of teaching and taunting.  Perfectly made beds, perfectly shined shoes, and perfectly controlled bodies are all pieces of the same matrix.  Indeed, it is in the nature of military hierarchy that the individual is totally subsumed by the system…”[2]

 

The hierarchal tradition of circumcision was challenged when Alexander the Great conquered Jewish lands between 334 B.C. and 331 B.C., and as a result, Greek culture swept through Jewish communities.  It was counter to Greek beliefs to violate the natural human form, and this caused young Jewish men to try to appear to be uncircumcised, which greatly annoyed Jewish rabbis.  In response, Jewish rabbis argued that the foreskin was an imperfection that needed to be cut off in order to reveal the correct human male form.  Thereafter, the Jewish hierarchal stance on circumcision was challenged by both practicing Jews and non-Jews.  Throughout the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, Jewish officials continually had to justify the tradition of circumcision, and their success is apparent because circumcision remains an integral part of the Jewish religion to this day.[3]

 

The number of Jewish people residing in the United States today is 5,671,000.[4]  Practicing Jews constitute 2,831,000 in 2001, which accounts for 1.3% of the total population.[5] 

 

 

Christian Religion

 During the early days of Christianity, circumcision was required for all converts, but Evangelist Paul did not require circumcision, for he saw that Christianity would have more appeal to people such as the Greeks and the Romans. 

“Paul expanded and reinterpreted the ancient distinction between physical and spiritual circumcision.  In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul explained that in the process of instituting a new covenant, a fresh basis for the relationship between God and humankind, Jesus Christ subsumed the old covenant between God and Abraham.  Christ, he said, fulfilled the law, and this fulfillment rendered circumcision irrelevant in the eye of God.  ‘In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything.’ [6]

Although Evangelist Paul said that circumcision was unnecessary, for baptism replaced circumcision as a more universal ritual for both men and women alike, there is debate as to how circumcision plays a role in the Christian faith because both the Torah and the Old Testament are still viewed as the word of God and advocate circumcision, yet the new covenant provided by Christ was meant to release the people from such a confining ritual.[7]  Up until the colonization of North America, Europeans knew little about circumcision except for that it was a ritual of Jews and Muslims.[8]  Many Christians did not perform circumcision at this time, for it was a mark of the Jews, and Jews were a people who were despised and segregated.  There is still confusion as to how to interpret the Christian literature today, and therefore, Christian religious sects do not necessarily require infant males to be circumcised.

 

 

The number of practicing Christians account for 151,225,000 in 2001 or 86.2% of the population in the United States.[9]

 

Islamic Religion

Although circumcision is not mentioned in the Koran, the holy text of the Islamic faith, it is nevertheless an essential part of Islamic tradition.  Some even believe that Muhammad himself was born circumcised to be distinguished as ‘the Prophet’ because Allah (God) created circumcision as a form of perfection.[10]  The Islamic religion also considers the Old Testament to be a viable textual authority, therefore, just as the Jews, Muslims should adhere to the covenant God revealed to Abraham, which entails

that the faithful be circumcised.  It is clear that Muhammad meant for the adherents of Islam to be circumcised when he said statements such as: “let him who becomes a Muslim be circumcised even if he is old” and a man cannot make the essential pilgrimage to Mecca “not as long as he is uncircumcised.”[11]  In the contemporary world, Muslim leaders have reaffirmed the practice of circumcision in their religion, justifying it by claiming that Allah does not hear the prayers of the “unclean,” for the uncircumcised foreskin traps the body’s impurities.[12]

 

 

 

 

 

medphoto.wellcome.ac.uk

The number of practicing Muslims residing in the United States today is 527,000, which constitutes 0.5% of the total religious population.[13]

 

 

It is apparent that although religion may play a small part in the role of circumcision in the United States, for the majority of practicing Muslims and Jews do circumcise their infant sons, it does not in any way account  for the 62.8% of the circumcisions done each year.  Therefore, there must be other factors causing the American circumcision. 

 


 

[1] Dunsmuir, W.D. and E.M. Gordon. “The History of Circumcision.” BJU INTERNATIONAL. 83.1 (1999): 1-12.

[2] Burton, John W. Culture and the Human Body:  An Anthropological Perspective. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press Inc., (2001): 34.

[3] Unless otherwise noted, the above information has been gather from the following source. Gollaher, David L. Circumcision:  A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery. New York:  Basic Books, 2001. 1-30. 

[4] “Jew.” Wikipedia. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish#Footnotes.> 15 Dec. 2004.

[5] “Largest Religious Groups in the United States of America.” <http://www.adherents.com/rel_USA.html#religions.> 15 Dec. 2004.

[6] Gollaher. pg. 31.

[7] Gollaher. pg. 34.

[8] Gollaher. pg. 37.

[9] “Largest Religious Groups in the United States of America.” <http://www.adherents.com/rel_USA.html#religions.> 15 Dec. 2004.

[10] Gollaher. pg. 45.

[11] Gollaher. pg. 45.

[12] Gollaher. pg. 46.

[13] “Largest Religious Groups in the United States of America.” <http://www.adherents.com/rel_USA.html#religions.> 15 Dec. 2004

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This site was last updated 12/21/04