Circumcision in Christianity

Updated 1st May 2016

Christianity - The second of the three Abrahamic Religions

Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a common root; all take their origin from the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch in Christian terminology). The extent to which these reflect history is discussed in our page on Judaism.

Christianity nominally began with the Annunciation (the beginning of Mary's pregnancy) on the 25th April 1BC. The birth of Jesus of Nazareth is given as 25th December in the same year. Dionysius Exiguus, the early mediaeval scholar who established our modern calendar, did not dare introduce a year zero (even though he used zero in his own calculations). Zero was a very uncomfortable concept at that date and was not in general use until much later. However, it has long been known that this date is wrong. Exiguus worked back to this date through the reigns of successive Roman emperors (the standard way of reckoning years in those times). However, he neglected (presumably not knowing about) a period of interregnum when there was no emperor. So Christ was born some years earlier than the calendar suggests. This fits with the historical record that Herod the Great (reputed organiser of the Slaughter of the Innocents) most probably died in 8 BC. See the biblical chronology site for the calculations of possible dates.

Detail from Madonna and Child Enthroned, by Fra Fillipo Lippi.

By the time of the Council of Jerusalem (held in the year 50 or 51 AD, accounts differ), circumcision as a religious obligation for Gentile converts to Christianity was a major topic of discussion (see Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 15, in the Christian New Testament). The decision of the Council was that circumcision was not a religious obligation for Christians. This decision may have been a matter of expediency rather than theology; converts would almost certainly have been more difficult to recruit had circumcision been required of non-Jewish adults converting to the new faith.

The theological explanation was that while Judaism took circumcision as a religious duty, Christianity insisted that the Covenant with Abraham had been replaced by Christ’s sacrificial death. The converted, whether Jews or Gentiles, became members of the new Israel simply by being baptised, and accepting the grace of God, through Jesus Christ. Either way, as time passed the number of first-generation converts from Judaism fell and the proportion of Christians born to Christian parents grew, leading to a situation where circumcision ceased to be the norm within Christianity, except in the Coptic Church of North Africa (said to be founded by St Mark in AD 42) which was based in a region where circumcision had long been the norm.

Move on nearly 1,400 years and one finds that within Christianity circumcision is back as a hot topic for debate. Attitudes have polarised. The Ecumenical Council of Florence (1438-1445) was an attempt to re-unite the Catholic Church, based in Rome, with the Coptic Church, based in North Africa. Catholics had long ceased to circumcise, whereas in the 15th century Copts regarded the procedure as an obligation. This was not the original basis of the schism between the churches, which hinged upon the nature of Christ, and took place at the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451. The Bull of Union drawn up by Pope Eugenius IV at the 11th Session, 4th February 1442, included the words...

Therefore [the Holy Roman Church] 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.
Unsurprisingly, the rift between Rome and the Copts was not healed, even though circumcision had nothing to do with the original split! It persists to the present day.

The Coptic Tradition of Circumcision - Why the difference?
An essay by Chris Eley

Jacques de Vitry was a Crusader and Bishop of Acre at the time of the 5th Crusade (1213–1221 AD), which was directed at the Ayyubid state in Egypt. He had some knowledge of the Copts, and met some of them in person. He considered the Copts to be heretics, because they did not recognise the outcome of the theologically complex Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. When he wrote his Historia Orientalis in 1220 AD, he described some of their practices, which he regarded as non-Christian and repugnant. One of the practices that drew his attention was circumcision, about which he wrote: “...most of them practice the circumcision of their newborns of both sexes, in the manner of the Saracens. They do not wait for the grace of baptism to make the circumcision of the flesh unnecessary...”

This is just one piece of evidence that circumcision was practiced in Coptia in the thirteenth century. As we move on to subsequent centuries more evidence emerges that circumcision became almost universal amongst Copts. We have this not just from European travellers to Egypt but also from the Copt Josephus Abudacnus (Yusuf ibn Abu Dhaqn), who wrote in Latin while in Europe in the early 17th century his Historia Jacobitarum Seu Coptorum. In the chapter dealing with Coptic baptism, he touched on circumcision: “Circumcision is diligently observed, and that on the eighth day after birth, and this not only in the principal cities where there is a great concourse of people, but also in villages, and in the country, with the greatest rigour.” To this day, circumcision is practiced within Coptic societies in both Egypt and Sudan, and clearly it is regarded as traditional.

We have here an explanation for the Catholic Pope Eugenius IV’s 1442 reference to “circumcision either before or after baptism”. Whilst Coptic circumcision takes place on the 8th day of life, as in Judaism, baptism is delayed until the 40th day of life. The child is not deemed to be Christian until then. Thus the act of circumcision is not, in the Coptic view, a sinful bodily assault on a fellow Christian because the child is not (yet) Christian.

But it was not always so.

Returning to de Vitry, one finds reliable evidence that circumcision was routine in Coptia of the 13th century. What is unclear is the date when the practice began within Coptic society, the rapidity of its spread and whether it was performed initially on both sexes or on boys only. It is suggested by de Vitry that the Copts started practicing circumcision “Ever since the Enemy sowed discord in them”. At first sight he apparently means ever since the Copts rejected the theology of Chalcedon in 451 AD and in consequence separated from both Rome (the Catholic Church) and Constantinople (the Eastern Orthodox Church) in their interpretation of Christology. But, by adding that the Copts circumcised their children “in the manner of the Saracens (Muslims)”, one is driven to think that he actually meant that the practice began sometime after the Arab occupation of Egypt in 642 AD. If that is what he really meant, he does not pin down the commencement of routine circumcision to any particular period within the five or six centuries that had intervened between the Arab Conquest in the seventh century and the thirteenth century in which he stated his viewpoint. The ambiguity is this: Is the word “enemy” in this context to be interpreted as the spiritual enemy of Beelzebub, the Devil, splitting the Church in 451 AD? Or is de Vitry referring to a more mortal enemy, the armies of the Saracens, and their subsequent Islamic influence on Coptic society? No grounds appear to exist for drawing a firm conclusion either way.

What do Coptic sources say? Unfortunately, Coptic sources are largely silent on this matter, but there is important evidence from the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria that the Copts did not circumcise their children in the ninth century, evidence that has largely been ignored by historians and anthropologists. John II, the biographer of the 52nd Coptic patriarch, Joseph [Yu’sab] I (830–849 AD), tells us an interesting story about the relationship between the Copts and the Abyssinians (Ethiopians) of the time.

The Abyssinians requested the Patriarch to re-appoint a certain Bishop John, who had previously been a representative of the Coptic Church in Abyssinia but had been driven out by war. This pleading led to a supplementary request that Bishop John should be circumcised, so as to conform with the norms of the people who would become his congregation. Apparently in ignorance of what was involoved, Bishop John agreed to be circumcised notwithstanding that it was contrary to the teachings of St.Paul the Apostle, reportedly saying “I will submit to this for the salvation of these souls, of which the Lord has appointed me shepherd without any merit of mine.”
The implication is that Bishop John had not been circumcised as a baby, but the certainty of this is somewhat clouded by the reported conclusion of the story. It seems that, upon being stripped for his circumcision, Bishop John was found to have what is called in medicine “congenital circumcision” – a condition in which an individual is born with a deficient foreskin (prepuce) that gives the impression that the person had been circumcised. What is clear from this account is that the Copts of the time did not accept let alone require circumcision on theological grounds. If circumcision had been the current norm in Coptia, the issue of circumcising Bishop John would never have arisen.

A clue regarding the later adoption of routine circumcision is to be found in the writings of the French author Jacques Tagher entitled What Copts took from Muslims: “Amongst the customs that the Copts took from the Muslims early is the circumcision of children, which had been banned by Christianity and wasn’t practiced in Egypt prior to the Arab invasion”. [Jacques Tagher, Coptes & Musulmans (Le Caire, 1952)]

But, if the Copts did not practice circumcision at least until 866 AD when John II wrote the biography of Joseph I, more than two centuries after the subjugation of Egypt by the Arabs, when exactly did they start performing it? When did it spread widely and become accepted tradition? What social and political changes within Egypt and Coptic society influenced its introduction, first as an optional custom and later as a compulsory matter? Was there any resistance to its introduction? What social and theological debate went on? How can we characterise the adoption of a foreign tradition that ran contrary to Christian teachings? And what about female circumcision? In short, why re-introduce a practice that had been defunct for many centuries?

Dioscorus Boles, a prolific modern writer on the subject of Coptic history and belief, suggests a slow transition commencing in the year 1086 AD, motivated by societal pressure to align with the social norms of the Islamic majority:
So, as one studies the history of Coptia during this period one may conclude that the subject of circumcision was introduced into our nation by some influential clerks who worked in the Muslim administration in al-Qa'hira and Misr sometime in the late eleventh century; and that they did that most probably to promote their own career through making themselves socially acceptable by Muslims as much as possible. Circumcision was not widespread across Coptic communities and social strata. Where it was undertaken it was performed only on boys, with no evidence whatsoever that girls’ circumcision was practised by Copts at that early stage. The Coptic Church in the past took a fundamental Pauline attitude against circumcision; however, as it crept into society in the second half of the Fatimid Period, the Church took a theological stance against it when it was performed after baptism, but assumed a more relaxed, and practical, position about it when it was done before baptism. Circumcision of boys during the first forty days of life was regarded as permissible but remained optional. The regulatory position of the Church, so cleverly devised, was in essence a compromise that allowed influential Copts to adopt a foreign custom previously banned by the Church – and the compromise was seen as consistent with the Pauline theology. What we see here is a regulation of a foreign Muslim tradition with the only objective of putting it in line with the Faith. Circumcision was not discussed as a health or moral issue. The effects of adopting an Islamic custom on the national character of the Copts, and its potential assistance in the gradual Islamic culturalisation of the Copts, was not contemplated. Despite the theological challenge circumcision had posed, all parties in Coptia were very much relaxed about it, most probably because it did not yet represent a huge social phenomenon.
In 1171 AD the Fatimid Dynasty was overthrown by Saladin, who became the first Sultan and ruled until 1193 AD. The despotic rule of Saladin represented a hardening of Muslim attitude towards the Copts. Then, in 1189 AD, the Coptic papacy of John VI of Alexandria began, lasting until 1216 AD. Note that the reign of Saladin partly overlapped with the papacy of John VI. It is John VI who first made circumcision obligatory within the Coptic Church, but whether this was brought about by pressure from Saladin and his successors is unclear. On the face of things, John VI simply and mistakenly believed that circumcision was a centuries-old Coptic tradition that had lapsed and needed revival. Either way, it soon became an excommunicable offence not to circumcise.

Attributing Coptic circumcision rites solely to assimilation of the Islamic norms of the dominant sector of Egyptian society is not without its problems. It fails to explain why Copts rather strictly adhere to circumcision on the eighth day of life, in line with the Jewish tradition, rather than adopting the Islamic norm of circumcision during boyhood. Maybe if one accepts that certain sectors of the population of Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) are descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, the Coptic connection between Egypt and Abyssinia assumes a new significance?

[Adapted from Circumcision and the Copts - A History, in Issue 122 of The Glastonbury Review, July 2012.]

The present editor is happy to present this study, but does not agree with it. Circumcision was the norm in the regions concerned before either Christianity or Islam. If the Copts were copying their Muslim neighbours why would they insist on circumcision on the 8th day, as in the Jewish tradition?

The circumcision of Jesus and the fate of the Holy Prepuce

Painting by Herlin
Circumcision of Christ by Friedrich Herlin (c.1425/30–1500)

The circumcision of Jesus has, down the centuries, attracted the attention of many Christian artists as being a suitable subject matter for them to depict. Few have achieved accuracy in terms of illustrating the Jewish ritual.


At various points in history, relics purporting to be the holy prepuce, the foreskin of Christ, have surfaced and various miraculous powers have been ascribed to them. A number of churches in Europe have claimed to possess Jesus’ foreskin, sometimes at the same time. Perhaps the best known was in the Lateran Basilica in Rome, whose authenticity was supposedly confirmed by a vision of Saint Bridget of Sweden. In its gold reliquary, it was looted in the Sack of Rome in 1527, but eventually recovered.

Most of the alleged Holy Prepuces were lost or destroyed during the Reformation and the French Revolution. The Prepuce of Calcata is noteworthy, as the reliquary supposedly containing the Holy Foreskin was paraded through the streets of this Italian village as recently as 1983 on the Feast of the Circumcision. That Feast Day was formerly marked worldwide by the Roman Catholic Church on January 1st each year, but is now renamed The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. The practice of parading the relic ended when thieves stole the jewel-encrusted case, contents and all. Following this theft, it is unclear whether any purported Holy Prepuces still exist.

Other philosophers contended that with the Ascension of Jesus, all of his body parts – even those no longer attached – ascended as well.

The following resources were used in the preparation of this web page:
Logo Wikipedia
UK Flag Glastonbury Review cover Circumcision and the Copts - A History  in Volume XVI, Issue 122 of The Glastonbury Review, July 2012.
Egypt Flag UK Flag Writings of Dioscorus Boles, historian specialising in Coptic matters.
Wordpress logo Kama Sutra : The Wahhabi Approach, (Downloaded 31st March 2014).

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