To Circumcise or Not to Circumcise—that is the question
I got a surprise the other day when I tuned into to Radio Talk-back to hear people discussing circumcision. My ears pricked up (pardon the pun), as any serious student of the Bible knows that circumcision is a critical theme in Scripture. The discussion revolved around a recent Sydney study which has found “overwhelming evidence” that circumcision has a number of medical benefits. Supposedly it reduces the risk of infections, cancer and other painful conditions. For example, the risk of urinary tract infection and kidney inflammation is supposedly 10x greater for the uncircumcised. Apparently, the risk of prostate cancer, penile cancer, HIV and STD’s like syphilis is three to eight times greater. Of course the latter problems can be in the main, resolved by maintaining a Judeo-Christian sexual ethic and keeping away from drugs.
Apparently in NZ 10% of boys are circumcised. Unless there are medical reasons, circumcision is self-funded at about $300-1000. The proponents of the study argue that it should mandatory to circumcise new-born boys, and the government should pay. Sounds like Abraham and Moses are back.There have been responses. Some concede there are benefits but baulk at government funding on the basis of other priorities and limited benefit. In 2010 the Royal Australasian College of Physicians decided that the evidence was insufficient to warrant it for all boys. Apparently this represents the medical consensus.
If there are medical benefits, and such studies need to be replicated, then this is very interesting. Circumcision was the defining mark of being a descendent of Abraham, an Israelite (Gen 17). Each baby boy was circumcised on the eighth day. Moses’ life was saved by his being circumcised. Jesus himself went through the procedure. For a Gentile to convert to Judaism to this day—and remember religion in the ancient world was defined by the patriarch—one has to be circumcised. Circumcision became the centre of a storm of controversy in the early church. The question was; do new Gentile converts need to be circumcised? Jewish conservative Christians argued vociferously, yes! Paul led the charge against this and won the day—read Acts 15. The reason, there should be no barrier to a Gentile coming to Christ, for salvation is by faith. Circumcision then is not mandatory. He likely did not know a lot about the medical benefits.Considering the medical question, this gives a deeper edge to the command of God to circumcise. One can imagine that in the ancient world living in hot Middle Eastern environs and where washing was not as easy as in our world of showers and baths, that the medical benefits of circumcision were even greater. Circumcision was likely very important to male health. The law then was for the good of the people, as were most of the laws when one studies them.
This raises the question of whether Paul got it right. He got it right in a salvation sense without a doubt. It is likely that enforcing circumcision would have slowed the growth of Christianity immensely, making it forever a sect of Judaism—indeed, it is likely Christianity would never have gone global as it has. Further, salvation is by grace through faith alone, there is no need to do anything to be saved, other than turn to God in faith—let alone chop off the foreskin.That said, now that Christianity is global, and circumcision is so beneficial, and in an age when male health and prostate cancer etc. are big news, should we Christians endorse the right not on soteriological (salvation) grounds? Should we be now encouraging the circumcision of boys for medical reasons? What an intriguing question.