When we think of the birth of Jesus, we think of the traditional images of Christmas: the shepherds, the angels, the farm animals jostling to see the Christ child, the swift removal of his foreskin a week later.
No? Scratch that last part?
It’s true that the Christmas story is more babe in a manger than bris in the synagogue, but as a Jewish male infant Jesus was circumcised and, chronologically speaking, on the eighth day—and thus before the appearance of any wise men from the east. And yet somehow with all the food, presents, and Santa-fetishizing, the circumcision of Jesus doesn’t get a look in. But as debate about the ethics of circumcising children rages on, perhaps it really should.
The only biblical evidence for Jesus’s circumcision comes from the infancy narrative found in the Gospel of Luke. On the eighth day, we are told, he was circumcised and officially given the name Jesus (although Gabriel had called it at the Anunciation).
There are much later extra-biblical Christian texts, like the 4th-century Syriac text The Cave of Treasures and the monastic writer Epiphanius, who refer to the event. And, as a supporting witness to the cult of relics that boomed in late antique Christianity, the 6th-century Arabic Infancy Gospel of Our Savior claims that a “Hebrew woman” preserved Jesus’s foreskin in an alabaster jar of nard. It’s a story that lays the groundwork for the claims made by certain medieval churches that they possess the holy prepuce (foreskin).
The circumcision of Jesus as described in Luke is performed in accordance with Jewish law, as a fulfillment of the covenant made between Abraham and God. According to Matthew Thiessen, an assistant professor of New Testament at Saint Louis University and the author of two books on circumcision in early Judaism and the New Testament, the purpose of the story is to demonstrate the enormous piety of Jesus’s family.
It’s an interesting detail not only because Christians today are no longer circumcised for religious reasons. It was also a contentious issue for the first followers of Jesus. Thiessen told me that the question of whether or not non-Jewish followers of Jesus should undergo circumcision “was the hot-button topic” among Jesus’s apostles. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, converts believed—how could they gain access to the salvation offered in him unless they became real Jews and were circumcised? The position outlined in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, that gentile converts should not be circumcised, eventually won the day. But the sharpness of Paul’s language (he calls Peter a hypocrite and the Galatians foolish) shows us just how heated the debate was in its own time.
The debate over circumcision is still heated today, albeit in a somewhat different form. Male circumcision is widely practiced in the U.S. for both religious and non-religious (ethical, health) reasons. In the late 19th century, when circumcision was promoted alongside advances in antisepsis and anesthesia, it was seen as a preemptive cure for masturbation. John Harvey Kellogg, a chief proponent of this theory, advocated in Plain Facts for Young and Old (1881) that circumcision should be performed without anesthesia as the pain would have a “salutary effect on the mind.” The argument was that the pain associated with circumcision would further dissuade the boy from touching his genitalia.
Modern proponents of secular infant circumcision have long since abandoned the ethical argument. Instead they argue that the removal of the foreskin helps safeguard against the spread of STDs and reduces the risks of UTIs, prostate cancer, and accidental injury. The World Health Organization, for example, recommends male circumcision as a means of reducing the rate of HIV infection. Majority practice in Western culture even seeps into our aesthetics. In pop culture uncircumcised penises get something of a bad rap, being described as unattractive and undesirable. The confluence of medicine and popular opinion serve to perpetuate the norm.
On the other hand, a growing number sees male circumcision as nothing short of genital mutilation. It is, after all, an unnecessary surgery performed on an individual incapable of providing consent. As such one could argue that it violates the most basic assumptions of medical ethics. It may even have negative consequences. A study by Sorrells, Snyder, and Reiss, published in a 2007 issue of the British Journal of Urology, concluded that circumcised males experienced reduced sensitivity during sex. Although subsequent studies have contested these findings, some argue that if male circumcision hinders sexual enjoyment it is analogous to female genital mutilation. Groups like Doctors Opposing Circumcision continue to advocate for genital integrity and circumcision is on the decline.
New Testament texts are only occasionally invoked in this debate. But what would happen if they were? When I asked Thiessen if he thinks that either Paul or Jesus would have considered circumcision to be a form of mutilation, he said no. Some ancient rabbinic thinking, he added, saw circumcision on the eighth day to be especially humane. God delayed circumcision until then, we are told, out of “compassion,” so that the infant could grow in strength (Deuteronomy Rabbah 6:1). There are, however passages in the New Testament that could speak to the anti-circumcision cause. In Philippians 3:2, Paul labels those who insist on circumcision for non-Jewish converts as “those who mutilate the flesh.” There is, at the end of the day, no religious reason for Christians to circumcise their sons.
Ultimately, the point of the Gospel circumcision story is to emphasize the Jewish identity of Jesus, something that is lost in our celebrations. “Modern Christian depictions of Jesus’s nativity, from Christmas pageants to Christmas hymns, almost always minimize or even erase Jesus’s Jewishness, when the details of the [infancy narratives] ought to serve as a reminder to emphasize this fundamental feature of Jesus’s identity.” Putting the Christ back in Christmas should involved recognizing that Jesus was—from birth to death—a pious Jew.