Jesus and Circumcision

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There's almost nothing in the gospels about circumcision. Jesus was circumcised. There's one appearance besides that, I believe, and it's almost a side issue to a much more specific discussion about something else. Jesus didn't seem very interested in it. That's interesting for a number of reasons, but I want to suggest one thing that we should conclude that may not be as obvious.

A number of modern scholars seek to explain most of the material in the gospels, particular Matthew, Luke, and especially John, as later developments in Christian thought that don't trace back to Jesus, with the evangelists placing these words in Jesus' mouth in order to give them more authority. In Matthew in particular, they frequently will find something Jesus is saying as being more about the situations Christians were facing with Pharisees in the post-70 Jewish world without a sacrificial system. The key distinctive of Jews without the sacrificial system was a distinctive beforehand, but it became even more significant after the temple was destroyed. That distinctive is circumcision.

Why do the gospels contain so little about circumcision? If this view of modern scholars is correct, and the gospels are primarily about what Christians and non-Christian Jews were fighting over post-70, then wouldn't circumcision play a great role in the gospels? Or is it rather that the gospels more accurately reflect Jesus' own concerns in his own time, and he just wasn't all that concerned with circumcision? There are many other reasons to reject (or at least be skeptical about) the view that the gospels are really about concerns that came much later, but I think this one alone is almost decisive against it.

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7 Comments

good point.

I think you have some warrant for the specific point you make, however the circumcision issue seems to be the major issue of Paul's day (pre-70AD) and it would seem that if it were present in the gospels it would argue for that period rather than post temple.

Since Jesus did not baptize and doesn't teach very much on that subject either (Matt. 28 a strong exception) one might wonder if that meant that Jesus didn't "seem very interested in it." That's the problem with arguments from silence, conclusions can be a bit iffy.

Actually, I think that's a very good argument that Jesus wasn't much interested in baptism itself but was primarily concerned about what baptism symbolizes. He talked about that all the time but very rarely mentions baptism as a part of such discussions. It's not a very good argument that Jesus wasn't concerned at all with baptism, but it's an excellent argument that it wasn't much of a focus in his teaching and that the deeper reality is what he cared about.

Circumcision was an issue within the church during Paul's time. It was an issue between Christianity and Judaism later on. It was an issue at both those times, just with different groups in mind. One version of the thesis I'm criticizing is that the conflict with the Pharisees over such issues explains not just why the gospel materials were collected as they were but even goes so far as to say that many passages were invented whole hog just to speak to debates with the Pharisees. If that were so, you'd expect more on circumcision.

Anyway, my argument here isn't primarily about what period would be most likely if circumcision were a key issue. It's that you would expect more circumcision if the gospels were formed by later agendas rather than by what Jesus preached about and did. It's not so much an argument about when the gospels were written as it is an argument that the gospels seem less influenced by later agendas and more by Jesus' own life.

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Since His ministry focused so much on bad acts by believers (money changing in the temple, etc...) and the need and the act of forgiving sin (kinda what he was there for?), it is no surprise that many issues weren't discussed.

I believe that since He knew that He was there for such a short time, it is probably a good idea to ponder the significance of what He said and why He said it.

Galatians 5:2-4

2Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.

The bible teaches us in the new testament that Jesus is our circumcision. We are circumcised by Christ in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh. Jesus no doubt did not want to give the Pharisees any ammonition with their doctrine of natural circumcision.

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