A German court ruled on Tuesday that parents may not circumcise their sons at birth for religious reasons, because the procedure violates the child’s right to bodily integrity. Both Muslims and Jews circumcise their male children. Why is Christianity the only Abrahamic religion that doesn’t encourage circumcision?
Because Paul believed faith was more important than foreskin. Shortly after Jesus’ death, his followers had a disagreement over the nature of his message. Some acolytes argued that he offered salvation through Judaism, so gentiles who wanted to join his movement should circumcise themselves like any other Jew. The apostle Paul, however, believed that faith in Jesus was the only requirement for salvation. Paul wrote that Jews who believed in Christ could go on circumcising their children, but he urged gentiles not to circumcise themselves or their sons, because trying to mimic the Jews represented a lack of faith in Christ’s ability to save them. By the time that the Book of Acts was written in the late first or early second century, Paul’s position seems to have become the dominant view of Christian theologians. Gentiles were advised to follow only the limited set of laws—which did not include circumcision—that God gave to Noah after the flood rather than the full panoply of rules followed by the Jews.
Circumcision was uniquely associated with Jews in first-century Rome, even though other ethnic and religious groups practiced it. Romans wrote satirical poems mocking the Jews for taking a day off each week, refusing to eat pork, worshipping a sky god, and removing their sons’ foreskin. It is, therefore, neither surprising that early Christian converts sought advice on whether to adopt the practice of circumcision nor that Paul made it the focus of several of his famous letters.
The early compromise that Paul struck—ethnic Jewish Christians should circumcise, while Jesus’ gentile followers should not—held until Christianity became a legal religion in the fourth century. At that time, the two religions split permanently, and it became something of a heresy to suggest that one could be both Jewish and Christian. As part of the effort to distinguish the two religions, circumcisions became illegal for Christians, and Jews were forbidden from circumcising their slaves.
Although the church officially renounced religious circumcision around 300 years after Jesus’s death, Christians long maintained a fascination with it. In the 600s, Christians began celebrating the day Jesus was circumcised. According to medieval Christian legend, an angel bestowed Jesus’ foreskin upon Emperor Charlemagne in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ was supposedly buried. Coptic Christians and a few other Christian groups in Africa resumed religious circumcisions long after their European colleagues abandoned it.
Circumcision has also been part of Islam since the early days. In fact, societies in North Africa and the Middle East circumcised their sons at least as early as the first century, long before the birth of Islam. Muslim circumcisions, unlike their Jewish counterparts, do not always happen shortly after birth. Some Muslim communities wait for several years or even until puberty.
Historians haven’t worked out exactly why circumcision was so common in the ancient Near East in the first place, although many believe it had something to do with fertility. By one popular theory, the practice was based on an agricultural metaphor—the need to prune a fruit tree to increase the tree’s yield in the following season. Others have suggested that it was a hygienic practice. When circumcision is mentioned in the Islamic Hadith, it often appears alongside other personal care practices, like mustache trimming and nail clipping.
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Explainer thanks Andrew Jacobs of Scripps College, author of Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and Difference, and Matthew Thiessen of the College of Emmanuel and St. Chad, author of Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision, and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity.