We are going to continue the teaching on circumcision. In Acts 15 we have a controversy among the messianic believers. Some Pharisee believers from the school of Shammai were telling the Gentiles who believed that they needed to be circumcised (to become a Jew) to be saved. That was a common belief among the Jews in the first century. However, God had shown from the salvation of Cornelius in Acts 10 and what Paul was experiencing in the Diaspora that Gentiles were being saved and filled with the Ruach Ha Kodesh without being circumcised. This was the main point of contention in the first century, not whether or not Yeshua was the Messiah. Gentiles were coming into the faith with the Nazarenes without being circumcised, and this was unacceptable with many, even believers in Yeshua (Acts 11.1-18). There were some questions that needed to be answered. What does a Gentile do as a believer? Do they need to be circumcised and become Jewish? This is what is being discussed in Acts 15. This was the heart of the issue between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel for years. It has already been established that Jewish believers were to follow the Torah.
The non-Jews who believed were called “God-fearers” or “yiray shamayim” and in Greek they were called the “phoubemenoi.” Another name for the same group was “sebemenoi” meaning “devout, worshippers.” You will see these terms in Greek when you see these believing Gentiles referred to in Acts especially. They observed the Noahide laws and in v 20, the things listed there were associated with idolatry. They also kept the Sabbath and the festivals. There were things that they were doing that was Jewish in context, but it was decided in Acts 15 that the non-Jews who believed in Yeshua did not need to be ritually circumcised to be saved. This question is also the basis for the book of Galatians. Now, remember, this has nothing to do with Abrahamic circumcision. That applied only to a Jewish male, a descendant of Abraham. Paul continued to circumcise any Jewish male that was not circumcised (Timothy-Acts 16.1-3) but did not circumcise Gentiles because it did not apply to them (Titus-Gal 2.3). Ritual circumcision was a man-made regulation that did not apply to anyone. They are two different things. In Acts 15.21 the non-Jews were encouraged to study the whole Torah on Sabbath, even the things that did not apply to them. Deut 4. 1-7 says that one of the purposes for the Torah was to reach the nations.
The Arabic term for bridegroom is related to the word for “circumcision” (Exo 4.24-25). A child is said to be a “bridegroom of the covenant” and marriage is a blood covenant, like circumcision. Circumcision was not a religious practice only, it took on a national character and an expression of Jewishness. Only circumcised males could partake of the Passover lamb (Exo 12.43-49). The uncircumcised male could eat the meal, but not the lamb. He could be circumcised to fulfill the commandment, but not to be a Jew. Israel was circumcised before they entered Canaan (Josh 5.2-9). The Philistines were always called “uncircumcised” and Saul required 200 Philistine foreskins from David in order to marry Michal. The word “uncircumcised” took on an allegorical meaning for a “rebellious heart” in Jer 6.10 and Jer 9.25-26. You will read “Let him who has an ear” and this is an idiom for those who have a “circumcised” ear to remove the barrier that stops up their hearing. Uncircumcised also became synonymous with “forbidden” by God. Lev 19.23-25 says that a tree is “uncircumcised” and cannot be eaten off of for three years, in the fourth year the fruit is “holy” to the Lord. There is a connection between circumcision and fertility. This is a metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel. God “planted” Israel (the olive tree) and it produces or fails to produce. Circumcised and uncircumcised refers to teaching and hearing also. Eschatologically, Israel “produced” Yeshua the Messiah in year 4000 from creation. He expected to find “holy fruit” to the Lord in the fourth year of his ministry but didn’t (Mark 11.11-33). The word also described the lips of a person whose speech was not fluent (Exo 6.12,30). It also refers to the “heart” or the “ear” of a person who will not listen to reason (Jer 6.10, 9.25). To “circumcise” your ears means to “remove the barriers to fruitfulness.” Ezek 32.21,24 is full of contempt for the uncircumcised, whose fate he foretells. A child’s first haircut (traditional halakah) is on Lag B’Omer (day 33 of the “counting of the omer”) of the child’s fourth year, based on Lev 19.23-25. Notice it is on day 33, the age of Yeshua when he was crucified and resurrected (the significance of this is another story).
In Hellenistic times, circumcision was widely neglected (book of Jubilee’s 15.33-34 of the Apocrapha). Many Jews who wanted to participate nude in the Olympic Games in Greece underwent painful operations to hide the signs of circumcision. This operation was called “Epispasm” but even then they were laughed at by the those who they tried to imitate. 1 Macc 1.48 has the first law against circumcision by the Greeks and many mothers suffered martyrdom for circumcising their sons (2 Macc 6.10). John Hyrcanus, a Maccabean king who reigned from 135 to 104 BC, forced the conquered Edomites to undergo circumcision (Josephus in his “Antiquities of the Jews”). Israel was plagued with King Herod as a result because he was an Edomite, and his father Antipater was one of those circumcised by Hyrcanus.
The ritual of circumcision was performed at home in the Talmudic era (the time of Yeshua). In the Gaonic era (6th to 11th century) it was done in the synagogue. The medieval custom (10th century on) required a minyan in the home on the morning of the brit, based on Gen 22 where it says that “Abraham rose early.” The “principles” of the brit are called the “ba’al brit” and include the father, the mohel and wife, the “sandak” (like a godfather) and wife, and the grandparents. The equipment used is a chair for the sandak, a chair for “Elijah” who is the “messenger of the covenant”-Mal 3.1), a kit containing the knife, a small tube, pouch for the foreskin, a guard for the organ, a dressing for the wound, candles and wine. If bleeding cannot be stopped and the child dies, other sons are not circumcised until older at least. If two sisters who lose sons have other sisters, they will not have their son’s circumcised. Circumcision cannot be delayed after the 8th day unless the baby is sick. The ceremony is described in the Hertz Siddur.
A banquet (a Lord’s Supper) follows the brit and grace after the meal included prayers for the occasion. In 1843, Reform Judaism sought to abolish circumcision in Frankfurt, Germany, and this spread to America. They gave 6 reasons why they should abolish circumcision. First, they said that God commanded Abraham to do it, not Moses. However, this is not true because God was going to kill Moses for not circumcising his son (Exo 4). Second, they said it was a practice that was not distinctive to Israel because the Ishmaelites practiced it. But, that’s alright because they are descendants of Abraham, too, with a covenant with God through Ishmael. Third, it is mentioned only once in the Mosaic law, but that is not a reason for not doing it because once is enough. Fourth, they say that Moses did not circumcise his own son, but God was going to kill him for not doing it, and his son was eventually circumcised and Moses recovered. Fifth, generations in the desert were not circumcised, but that is not a reason. They were circumcised before they entered the land of Canaan and the Lord said it was “a reproach” to them. Lastly, they said there was no “initiation” of daughters into Judaism, but the daughters should be happy about that. Today, children are circumcised, often by a physician, with or without prayers.
Circumcision or uncircumcision fades into insignificance when compared with the reality of keeping the commandment. To obey is better than sacrifice (1 Sam 15.22). The book of Romans was written to unbelieving Jews, believing Jews and the God-fearers (phoubemenoi) in the synagogues in Rome. A true “Jew” is one who is physically a Jew, and has a spiritual “circumcision of the heart” (Rom 2.28-29). For example, was Caiaphas a Jew in this sense? No, because even though he was physically circumcised, he did not have the circumcision of the heart (another way of saying “born from above.” The book of Galatians was written to oppose the school of Shammai who said that a Gentile must be circumcised and become Jewish when they believed to be saved. They were taking away from the work of Yeshua by faith and putting it back on works for Gentiles. In Phil 3.2, Paul uses the offensive word “kattatomai” when talking about a Gentile who gets circumcised. The word means a “forbidden heathen practice of mutilation” (Lev 21.5). Enforcement of circumcision on Gentiles was equal to this, a “gashing” of the flesh in a pagan ceremony. However, non-Jews were required to study circumcision, even though it didn’t apply to them (Matt 28.19.20; Acts 15.21). In Part 3, we will pick up here and begin with the woman after childbirth and the redemption of the son, called “Pidyon ha Ben.”