Baptism and circumcision (in hebrew brit milah “covenant of circumcision” בְּרִית מִילָה ) are nowadays considered by most believers to be a mandatory passage, almost a gateway to access the Kingdom of GOD, but what do the Holy Scriptures really say about it?
Two of the greatest Patriarchs, Adam and Noah, were not circumcised, nor baptized; Abraham, on the other hand, at the age of 99 (Genesis 17, 1-10) was circumcised, while, on his eighth day of life, Jesus (as reported in the Gospel according to Luke Chap. 2), had been removed his Holy Prepuce, and then also baptized at the age of 30 (Mk 1, 9-11; Mt 3, 13-17 and Lk 3, 21-22). The Koran, moreover, does not mention circumcision, nor even baptism, although the Muslim tradition reports that the Prophet Mohammed was born already circumcised. To date this practice (khitan in Arabic) is carried out by almost all believers, making Islam today the largest religious group that practices circumcision.
These two fundamental practices according to the traditions and doctrine of Abramitic Religions (circumcision for Jews and Muslims, and baptism for Christians) are for the most progressive believers often considered as a duty, practiced more as a tradition than a sealing of GOD’s Covenant.
In contemporary confessions, not wanting to circumcise or baptize a newborn child at birth is not only a very difficult position to adopt, but also an hard task for parents since such a decision would mean that they would have to replace the institution whose mission is the education and development of the Faith. This is therefore not an ordinary commitment, which requires a knowledge of religion and a strong faith that can in all circumstances sustain and support the growth of their child in absolute freedom of religious belief.
What has been said, however, does not want to stand against these two important practices, which in any case remain biblical precepts [note a] (even though they refer to Covenants over time that have not been fulfilled by the people of GOD). [note b]
This desire simply originates from attempting to guarantee to newborn babies a proper freedom, the one that every living being should receive by right at birth, a freedom of thought and religious will. Only later on, in adulthood and by now conscious, will the child be able to choose independently which ritual he deems best suited to his personal sanctification: “Be Saints because I, the ETERNAL GOD, am Holy” (Lv 19, 2). In fact, originally, the concept of sacrament to Christians referred to that: “being Sacred” (or “to be Saints”), which means trying to imitate GOD, committing to be similar to the CREATOR in love, compassion and mercy. Only after being instructed can the believer decide whether to receive circumcision, baptism, or both if one wishes to. This will give a freedom to our children who, even though they know they could make mistakes, they still have the great privilege of being able to decide for themselves about something of such great significance.
Circumcision was already practiced in the Arabian peninsula since the 4th millennium BC, when the Sumerians and the Semites moved to the area of today’s Iraq. The first historical testimony of circumcision comes from Egypt: it is an image carved in the tomb of Ankh-Mahor in Saqqara and dating back to around 2400 BC, which depicts this practice performed on an adult. Circumcision was practiced by the Egyptians probably both for hygienic reasons (since it was more difficult for men at the time in such hot and sandy climates to maintain good intimate hygiene), but also partly due to their obsession with purity being associated with spiritual development and intellectual of the believer.
But it is in the Torah (Book of Genesis in chapter 17) that we find testimony of the first known individual to have undergone this procedure: Abraham. For him, circumcision was not so much a spiritual act, but a physical and tangible sign of the Covenant (בְּרִית berith) with YHWH. In addition to him his family members, male slaves, were circumcised and to follow all the male descendants of the prophet:
11 and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.
12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant.
(Genesis 17, 11-12)
Also, the Book of Leviticus (Chap. 12, 3) states that “On the eighth day the flesh of the child’s foreskin will be circumcised.” According to the Scriptures moreover it was a “dishonor” for an Israelite not to be circumcised (Joshua 5, 9), and the term arelim (“uncircumcised” [plural]) is often infamous, indicating the Philistines and other non-Israelites that doesn’t believe in GOD (1Samuel 14, 6; 1Samuel 31, 4 ; 2Samuel 1, 20) and used together with tameh (unclean) for the pagans (Isaiah 52, 1). The word arel (“uncircumcised” [in the singular]) is also used to indicate a soul (a heart) difficult to change (Leviticus 26, 41, “their uncircumcised hearts”; see also Jeremiah 9, 24-25; Ezekiel 44, 7-9). And it is precisely referring to this circumcision of the heart, and not of the body, that Saul of Tarsus absolves Christian believers from this bond with the words:
25 For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the Law [Torah in Hebrew]; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.
26 Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision?
(Letter to Romans 2, 25-26)
4 You have become estranged from [the doctrine of] Christ, you who attempt to be justified by the Law; you have fallen from grace.
5 For we through the Spirit [of GOD] eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.
6 For in [the doctrine of] Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through Love.
(Letter to Galatians 5, 4-6)
Jesus the Master of Christians, and consequently also of Paul of Tarsus, was circumcised on the eighth day as confirmed by the Scriptures of the New Testament (Lk 2, 21). But the Judeo-Christians gradually began to abolish this practice, and the message they sent to the whole world was immediately clear: the Good News (the Gospel) was the New Covenant with GOD. [note c] A new agreement, respecting and not destroing the Law (Mt 5, 17-19), but of course beginning first with the observance of fundamental precepts, and evidently circumcision was not considered as such.
The Covenants have always undergone changes over the centuries, Adam and Eve broke the first and simple Covenant:
16 And the LORD GOD commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat;
17 but of the tree of the Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
(Genesis 2, 16-17)
Later GOD changed this first Covenant, and imposed a new one on Noah after the flood (Gen 9, 14-15), followed by sealing another Covenant with Abraham, and a further one with David and Solomon, imposing a renewed based on the construction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Dwelling and eternal testimony (“My Eyes and My Heart will be here forever” 1 Kings 9, 3-9) of the LORD on Earth. So it is obvious that if circumcision is deemed by some people to be an obligation, why should the sacrifices and restoration of the Temple’s services not be? There is also an infraction of the Covenant here, and if this Holy place is destroyed, it is not a justification for not fulfilling the old Covenant, but rather it aggravates the blame of believers because we are not even able to ” bring peace ” in a place so beloved by the CREATOR, but we selfishly demand it for our houses and our nations.
The word derives from the Greek (βάπτισμα, βαπτίζειν), where the corresponding root indicates “immersion in water” (“ablution” “purification”), and in fact baptism, by the very complete immersion of the believer in water, symbolizes the burial of the “old” man (unbeliever or sinner) towards a new life through Faith.
The Tanakh (the Old Testament for Christians) declares water numerous times as a natural purifying force (Ez 36, 25 ; Lv 15, 11-14 ; Ps 26, 6 ; Is 43, 2 ), and still today both in Judaism and Islam there are ablution rituals (wuḍūʾ in Arabic ﻭﺿﻮء and in Hebrew tevilah טְבִילָה and netilat yadayim נטילת ידיים). A tradition that seems to have gradually disappeared for the Christian doctrine that still keeps water as an important element in the practice (baptism, foot washing and holy water).
The prophet in Jesus’ time who used the purifying element of water for souls was John the Baptist one of the most important personalities in the Gospels. Close relative of Jesus (the mothers Mary and Elizabeth were cousins Lk 1, 5-36) and one of the greatest prophets who had preceded Muhammad, present in the Quran with the name of Yaḥyā. An ascetic dwelling in the desert, calling faithful and non-believers to redeem themselves from their sins and change their conduct of living through the rite of purification of the Baptism by immersing them in the water of the Jordan River.
From there the Christian tradition takes its cue that only centuries after the death of both prophets (Jesus and John the son of Zechariah), he obliged believers to this rite claiming that this sacrament conferred entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.
But the sacraments (which derive from the Hebrew term qadosh “sacred”) actually have gradually established themself inside the Christian doctrine over the centuries along with the growth of Christianity and the Church as a religious, political and social institution. As a result of a need, to feel closer to the Divinity, a tangible proof of their faith, and a desire to “touch” (the confirmation of having reached this state of salvation) as the apostle Thomas teaches.
In the first centuries of Christianity, therefore, with “sacrament” was indicated the set of sacred signs and gestures that had the purpose of placing the faithful in mystical communion with GOD. Subsequently, the meaning (and the number of sacraments) has been defined, and today it is very different in the various Christian denominations. Augustine of Hippo affirmed that the Church lives of many sacraments, and among these he cites the holy water, the marriage, the Eucharist and the funeral, and in other cases the term “sacrament” is used in abstract expressions to indicate the mysterious union between the Work of GOD and the work of man.
In Protestantism only two sacraments are recognized on the basis of what Jesus affirms to the apostles in the Gospels, “Go therefore and make all my people baptize my disciples” (Mt 28, 19) and “Do this [Eucharist] in memory of me” (Lc 22, 19), the other five are considered only ecclesiastical rites.
As we have been previously investigating, on the matter of circumcision and baptism there are debates that have been open for thousands of years and not yet solved, the belief in not wanting to circumcise or baptize a newborn child is originated by this great confusion. GOD’s fundamental Laws of God are very clear and often repeated several times within the scriptures (not to worship other gods, not to kill, not to steal, etc.), comprehensible even to a child. Those necessary for an operative and active faith are easily easily summarized in few simple words, everything else remains secondary, and in any case it is not fair to impose it, especially on an unconscious newborn child. Moreover, if according to the Jewish tradition the Biblical precepts are 613, why today only some of them can be put into practice? Surely because they referred to Covenants of the past (such as the sacrifices that were offered in the Temple of the LORD mentioned before).
Nowadays to advance the Faith and improve it, not we can blindly stick to the traditions of religious institutions thinking we are so safe. Surely as believers we have the obligation to know and respect the traditions, also because it is precisely through these rites that we have been able to preserve and increase (however absolutely imperfect it will always be) over the centuries the knowledge of GOD.
Furthermore, it must be emphasised how important it was, and it is still today, the social aspect of circumcision and baptism. A goodwill, and an intruding to the faith that, willy-nilly, will allow the children of believers to become part of a community, a religious group that will assist them in any way during their growth.
Not everyone has the possibility, time and sufficient resources to undertake this “journey into the faith” in a personal and independent free way, and it is exactly for this reason that in such cases the convensional path of the institutions remains a wise choice. Even if in the midst of a people of different religious faiths, we remain in constant growth towards a cultural unity, without forced imposition of beliefs, and for this we must be truly grateful to GOD.
What is venerated by all, it is right to consider it one and the same Being. We look at the same stars, the sky is common to all, the same universe surrounds us: what is the importance of the philosophy through which every man seeks the truth?
We cannot reach such a great mystery through a single road.
(Quintus Aurelius Symmachus)
We have to learn how to discern between the teachings of GOD and those of men, having the obligation, as believers, first of all to work in the present (tikkun olam “to repair the World”), to study the history and the background of faith to guarantee a future and an even better religion for our children. That’s why it’s good that everyone can decide for himself, at a conscious age, what is the best path to undertake for his Faith, avoiding to impose “ways” made mainly out of conventions. This receiving in the flesh of one’s own body (foreskin) an indelible cut, as a testimony of being in Covenant with GOD, cannot give the certainty of entering the Kingdom, since these old “agreements” have already been repeatedly broken over the centuries. To this day, the only things that really count for believers are: Love for GOD (and therefore towards His creatures and creation), and the works that man and woman perform in accordance with the Commandments.
[note a] Objectively we could consider circumcision more a Biblical precept (Genesis 17, 10) than baptism (Mt 28, 19) since in Genesis the words of GOD: “This is My covenant which you will observe, among Me and you, and your descendants after you: every male among you will be circumcised. “ they are much more imposing than those of the Son of GOD: “Go therefore, and make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them in the name of the FATHER and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.
[note b] This only if someone belief in the New Covenant (in hebrew berit hadashah ברית חדשה) that have to come. This biblical interpretation originally derived from a phrase in the Book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31, 31-34), in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament in Christian Bible) often thought of as an eschatological (ultimate destiny of humanity) Messianic Age or world to come, related to the biblical concept of the Kingdom of GOD.
[note c] Old English godspel “glad tidings announced” literally “good spell,” from god “good” (not refering to GOD) + spel “story, message”. A translation of Latin bona adnuntiatio, itself a translation of Greek euangelion “reward for bringing good news” (see evangel). The first element of the Old English word originally had a long “o,” but it shifted under mistaken association with GOD, as if “GOD-story”.
- (EN) D. A. Bolnick et al., Surgical Guide to Circumcision, Springer-Verlag Gmbh, 2012, ISBN 978-1-4471-2857-1.
- M. Chebel, La circoncisione: dalle origini ai nostri giorni, Catania, De Martinis, 1993, ISBN 88-8014-004-3.
- W. L.Countryman, Sesso e morale nella Bibbia, Torino, Claudiana, 1998, ISBN 88-7016-283-4.
- (EN) D. Gollaher, Circumcision: A History Of The World’s Most Controversial Surgery, 2001, ISBN 978-0-465-02653-1.
- (EN) Muhammad Lutfi al-Sabbagh, Islamic ruling on male and female circumcision, Alexandria, World Health Organization, Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean, 1996, ISBN 92-9021-216-0.
- (EN) WHO – UNAIDS, Male circumcision: Global trends and determinants of prevalence, safety and acceptability (PDF), World Health Organization, 2007, ISBN 978-92-4-159616-9.
- (EN) Wolter C. e Dmochowski R., Circumcision, in Handbook of Office Urological Procedures, Springer, 2008, ISBN 978-1-84628-523-3.
- (EN) Circumcision, in Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2ª ed., USA, Macmillan Reference, 2006, ISBN 978-0-02-865928-2.
- Catechismo della Chiesa Cattolica. Il sacramento del battesimo, Città del Vaticano, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1992, ISBN 88-209-1888-9.
- Marina Caffiero, Battesimi forzati. Storie di ebrei, cristiani e convertiti nella Roma dei papi, Roma, Viella, 2004, ISBN 88-8334-136-8.
- Raffaele Carcano, Adele Orioli, Uscire dal gregge. Storie di conversioni, battesimi, apostasie e sbattezzi, Roma, Luca Sossella Editore, 2008, ISBN 88-89829-64-8.
- Pierpaolo Caspani – Paolo Sartor, Iniziazione cristiana. L’itinerario e i sacramenti, EDB, Bologna 2008.
- Paolo Ricca- Dal battesimo allo ” sbattezzo “: la storia tormentata del battesimo cristiano, ed. Claudiana, 2015