The mythical origins of circumcision

In our last issue, Hugh Young looked at the practice of circumcision. But how did such a bizarre tradition ever get started?

Hugh Young’s article on circumcision (Skeptic 86) was excellent but it is worth looking further at the origins of the practice. Some parents claim they have the right to circumcise their sons because it is a necessary part of their religion. But is it?

According to the Old Testament, circumcision started as a Jewish custom. God instructed Abraham, as a mark of a covenant between them, to adopt this practice for all males of his extended family. In this story Abraham had lived in Egypt, he had Egyptian slaves and a half-Egyptian son, Ishmael.

However the story ignores the fact that circumcision had been an Egyptian custom for many centuries. It seems probable that Ishmael’s Egyptian mother (even though she was a slave) would have tried to insist on her son being circumcised according to ancient custom; it seems incredible that she would not have at least mentioned this to the child’s father. How could Abraham (and of course God), have been ignorant that circumcision was an ancient Egyptian practice?

Centuries later, in the story of Moses’ childhood, he is discovered as a baby by an Egyptian princess who instantly recognises he is a Jewish child. Generations of Christians have claimed this is because she saw he was circumcised but this cannot be true. All Egyptian boys were circumcised; it is possible that some Jewish babies were not.

Jesus supposedly said (John 7.22.) “Moses gave you the law of circumcision (not that it originated with Moses but with the patriarchs)”. This reflects an ignorance of the Bible shared by many modern Christians and Jews.

According to Exodus, Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land but it was a slow journey. In this story Moses was entirely opposed to the Egyptian custom of circumcision and while he ruled (for about 40 years) Israelites were not allowed to circumcise male babies. Clearly Moses had no knowledge of any prior agreement with God about circumcision, nor did God enlighten him on the subject although (according to the story) they met more than once. Only after Moses’ death did the Israelites resume the Egyptian practice (Joshua 5). Furthermore Moses refused to circumcise his own sons, which caused some marital disharmony (Exodus 4).

The precedent of Moses is very important when dealing with modern Jews who insist circumcision is necessary for the proper practise of their religion. If uncircumcised boys were good enough for Moses, why are they not good enough for you?

Herodotus writing about 450BC states clearly that the Egyptians and Ethiopians were the first to use circumcision, but it is unknown as to which of them started the practise, while all other nations admit they learned it from the Egyptians either directly or indirectly. The inhabitants of Palestine he calls ‘Syrians’ and ‘Phoenicians’ and both circumcise their sons, (although some Phoenicians under Greek influence had stopped the practice). Did a separate Jewish state exist in the middle of the 5th century BC? If so Herodotus was clearly unaware of it. It is certainly a myth that circumcision distinguished Jews from their neighbours in Palestine.

Jewish ritual circumcision is (or was) odder than one might imagine. Originally it was supposed to have been done with a stone knife, but by Roman times a steel blade was acceptable. The operator was and is called a ‘mohel’ and there are three parts to the operation. The first part, the cutting of the foreskin was called the ‘milah’. In the second phase called the ‘periah’, the mohel used his thumb nail and index finger to separate the inner lining of the foreskin from the glans. The third part is the ‘mesisah’ and until the 19th century this involved the mohel sucking the blood from the wound by taking the penis in his mouth. This raises some interesting questions about the circumcision of adults. According to Acts 16.3, Paul personally circumcised Timothy; however according to his own letters, Paul was vehemently opposed to circumcision. Reading these to get Paul’s opinion on the subject, it is difficult to believe that Paul circumcised anybody. Consider: Philippians 3.1-3 (most but not all Bible scholars accept this letter as authentic): “Beware of those dogs and their malpractices. Beware of those who insist on mutilation – ‘circumcision’ I will not call it; we are the circumcised, whose worship is spiritual”.

Galatians is regarded as authentic by all serious Bible scholars and there Paul wrote: Gal.5.2-3. “… if you receive circumcision, Christ will do you no good at all.” and, “… every man who received circumcision is under obligation to keep the whole law.”

The details of the mesisah sound so strange that it seems almost unbelievable. Indeed open-minded skeptics may imagine it is just another anti-Semitic ‘blood libel’. They can easily check via the internet that these details come from unprejudiced Jewish sources. The Jewish abhorrence about tasting blood may seem to cast doubt on the story, but one should remember that in religion there is a close relationship between sacred and banned practices. A practice may be offensive unless it is involved in a sacred ritual.

There is however an obvious medical explanation. The periah using a nail and finger is obviously so unhygienic that infection would be likely without proper cleaning. Sucking the wound is an excellent mode of cleaning (compared with alternatives available when the custom originated) and we might expect it would have become widely used once it became obvious that it reduced the risk of infection. However once medical hygiene became understood during the 19th century it became permissible to use a swab for the completion of the operation.

As one might expect there are conservative groups of Jews that cling to old custom. Christopher Hitchens in Op-Ed Free Inquiry Feb/March 2006 states that a primitive sect of Hasidic Jews in New York still have mohels who perform circumcision in the traditional manner. The mohel “sucks off the foreskin and spits it out in a mouthful of blood”.

Hitchens also states that the practice has caused several cases of genital herpes and at least two deaths. There has been pressure to outlaw the custom but the New York health authorities have decided to “be neutral”. Hitchens in this article is protesting the views of liberals who justify the health authority action as part of “free exercise of religion”.

Jim Ring is a Nelson skeptic, who says there is nothing like a childhood in the Exclusive Brethren for instilling a deep knowledge of obscure parts of the Bible.