Why This Study?
Many denominations of Christianity equate the practice of baptism with that of circumcision, often putting the two in the same role. Although most who make this equation hold to a covenant theology system, not all do.
So the question that we must answer is not whether these people are right or wrong, but what was the understanding of baptism in the early church.
For the time being, we have set aside the topic of modes of baptism. The arguments of whether immersion is normative or not can be considered at a later time. For now, let us content ourselves with looking first into the idea of circumcision and then into baptism and see if the two are indeed two symbols that serve the same purpose or if they are meant to be interpreted separately.
The Origins of Circumcision
Before looking to baptism, we must look to the much older practice of circumcision. Although it first appears in the story of Abraham (Genesis 17), the practice is known to predate the time of the patriarchs by a significant amount of time. As long as there has been human civilization, there have been people willing to mutilate the body.
The oldest known reference to circumcision comes from an Egyptian inscription dating from 2300 BCE. There is actually a graphic depiction from Egypt [shown to the right] that dates about a hundred years earlier.
Clearly, circumcision was practiced long before Abraham received it as a covenant sign between him and his God. It was practiced by pagans – but why? Was it a sign of identification, and if so, why was the foreskin chosen since that particular piece of the anatomy is not normally exposed. Even the Egyptians kept their kilts on most of the time.
The Biblical account records that sign is “between me [YHWH] and you [Abraham]” (Genesis 17:11), so perhaps it was meant as an unseen, private reminder of loyalty to YHWH. But this may be projecting modern individualism on ancient religious practices. The indication of the rest of the passage seems to be that the sign is for other people, not just for Abraham. There also seems to have been a way to check it.
One possible theory that has not been put forward yet is that perhaps circumcision was a way of ensuring that children were born to men of the proper heritage. Since marriage requires a sexual relationship, a woman could verify if a man was truly of her people or not. In the biblical context, the Canaanites were not to be permitted into the assembly of the people, so they could not be allowed to marry Israelite women. Perhaps circumcision served as an identifier in these rather intimate circumstances.
Or perhaps it had significance apart from this corporate identity. Another theory is that in having the foreskin removed, the male prepared himself to have his penis “re-covered” by his wife’s vagina. In this way, it was a sign of physical maturity and may have been originally performed at puberty.
Who Practiced it?
The biblical record seems to indicate that circumcision was not practiced by the Canaanites who inhabited present day Palestine. (Genesis 34) The Philistines, late arrivals to the region, also seem to have not practiced circumcision. (Judges 14:3)
Archaeology has uncovered evidence of circumcision in Egypt, as cited above, but also in a number of the Semitic cultures of the Levant. The shasu, a semi-nomadic people who were probably absorbed into Israel, practiced circumcision. They are depicted on 13th-12th century inscription which was uncovered in Megiddo [pictured to the left].
William H. C. Propp, the professor of ancient history and Judaica at the University of California, San Diego, has concluded that in ancient cultures like Israel, circumcision was a rite of passage for boys becoming men. He extends his thesis to propose that it was shifted to a near-birth practice somewhere in the 8th century BCE, as Israel was detribalizing and settling into its national identities in the divided kingdom.
Interestingly (and in line with Propp’s theory), the Israelites do not seem to have practiced the ritual of infant circumcision until later in their history. It seems to have been a communal thing, done at certain times with large groups of men. The appearance is that the men of Israel were circumcised on the first Passover, which was in Egypt and then again, right before the first Passover in Canaan, at Gilgal (Joshua 5:2-10)
The MANDATE OF TORAH
Now, having considered things from a historical point-of-view, we can go to Torah and see the Biblical proposition of circumcision. According to Torah, circumcision was given to Abraham as a sign of the covenant between his god (YHWH) and himself. It is part of the third covenant between YHWH and Abraham and accompanies the changing of his name from Abram.
In the following verses of Genesis 17, YHWH lays out the significance of the circumcision:
This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” [Genesis 17:10-14, ESV]
Clearly, there is a difference between what appears here in the text and what was the practice in Israel – both when they were in Egypt and when they were in the wilderness. Although, by the time of Samson and the subsequent chiefdom of Saul, circumcision seems to have become much more prevalent.
What is interesting is that circumcision is the only demand that YHWH places on Abraham and his descendants. Nothing else is expected of them in order for God to keep this covenant. This is significant because circumcision was not a sign of the covenant. According to Torah, it is THE sign of the covenant.
After Abraham obeys YHWH and circumcised those in his house and his son Isaac, the practice of circumcision appears only a few other times in Torah.
- Simeon and Levi have the men of Shechem circumcised and while they are recovering, Simeon and Levi massacre them (Genesis 34)
- Zipporah circumcises her son because Moses did not do it (Exodus 4:24-26).
The next time we see circumcision is in the Passover instructions concerning foreigners (Exodus 12:44-50). This instruction is quite inclusive, noting that both the native and the foreigner must be circumcised in order to receive the Passover. Again, it is interesting that there is no mention of the age for circumcision.
It is not until mid-way through the Levitical law that we encounter infant circumcision, and the command is inserted in a passage dealing with female cleanliness. (Leviticus 12:1-8) It is not as broad as the Abrahamic passage or the Passover instructions. It almost seems out of place. In fact, the entire chapter seems out of place since it is sandwiched between dietary laws and laws concerning skin infections.
Interestingly, physical circumcision does not appear in the Deuteronomy, which was probably prepared as a re-presentation of Torah during the reign of Josiah (mid-7th century BCE). It is considered a given, and it circumcision is used as a figure of speech in comparing Israel to the nations around them.
In fact, according to Ezekiel, circumcision seems to have fallen out of practice in the regions around Israel during the 7th century BCE. Ezekiel names the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Elamites, and Edomites as uncircumcised, (Ezekiel 32) so clearly there had been some kind of cultural shift away from the practice during the Israelite kingdom. The usage in Deuteronomy is more in line with Ezekiel than it is with the rest of Torah.
Circumcision in the Rest of the Hebrew Scriptures
By the time of the return from exile (briefly after Ezekiel’s ministry), circumcision would have truly become the sign that we see in the Torah. This has lent to some interpretations that infant circumcision was instituted at a later date, as late as the Hellenic period or possibly even the Second Temple Period.
But it is clear in the history books, particularly those leading up to David’s reign, that circumcision was a symbol of identification with YHWH and Israel. Joshua, Judges and 1 Samuel all have prominent references to Israel as the circumcised and everyone else as uncircumcised.
One particular story of note is the occasion of David’s engagement to Saul’s daughter Michal. Saul demands a bride price of one hundred Philistine foreskins. David responds by killing two hundred Philistines and circumcising them post-mortem. The act creates the state of war which will ultimately catapult David into power, but for our purposes here, it illustrates how circumcision was viewed in David’s time since this record would have been put down by David’s scribes. (1 Samuel 18:25-30)
As already noted, Deuteronomy, Jeremiah and Ezekiel mention circumcision. They are all from the Late Monarchy, during and after the reign of Josiah, the last king to revive the Passover observance. The book of Isaiah also makes mention of circumcision, and it was written during the revivals of king Hezekiah. We have indications that circumcision seems to have been in vogue during these revivals when Passover and the other feasts were observed.
The final parting shot from YHWH comes from the lips of Habakkuk:
You will have your fill of shame instead of glory. Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory! [Habakkuk 2:16, ESV]
This phrase “show your uncircumcision” seems to have been a common idiom of the time, meaning basically that you get so drunk you spin and expose what is under your kilt. It may have been such a common practice not to be circumcised in Habakkuk’s day that it had become a joke.
The Early Christian View of Circumcision
Since Christianity emerged from the Judaism of the Second Temple Period, the church’s interpretation of circumcision has tremendous bearing on our discussion. Understanding how they viewed it first as Jews and then as Christians illuminates their understanding of circumcision in relationship to baptism.
Jesus’ circumcision on the eighth day after his birth (in keeping with Leviticus 12) is recorded in Luke’s gospel. (Like 1:59, 2:21). Other than that however, circumcision is largely absent from Jesus’ teachings. In fact, this only mention is a cursory one to illustrate that good works may be done on the Sabbath (John 7:21-24).
Stephen mentions “the covenant of circumcision” in relating the history of Israel and the story of Jesus, but his mention says nothing that Genesis 17 did not say. It is a statement of near-irony as he speaks to the supposed successors of Moses about Moses’ God and calls them uncircumcised. (Acts 7:8, 51)
Not surprisingly, the next time we see circumcision is in contrast to the goyim, the Gentile believers. In fact, every other occurrence of circumcision in the book of Acts is contrasting believing Jews (circumcision) with believing Gentiles. (The frustrations of this distinction would later boil over in Paul’s play on the Greek word for circumcision, περιτομή, in creating the word translated as concision in the KJV, κατατομή. (Philippians 3:2-3))
Paul’s View of Circumcision
In fact, it is in Paul’s writings that we get the best glimpse of the Christian usage of circumcision. He uses either circumcision or uncircumcision fifty times in his epistles, mostly in Romans and Galatians.
Ironically, his most telling statement about circumcision does not appear in either of those letters but in his first letter to the troubled Corinthians:
Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. [1 Corinthians 7:18-19, ESV]
Paul makes it very clear to the Corinthians that outward signs are of little significance to inward righteousness. His statement is an extension on Jesus’ teachings of the things inside a man defiling him. (Mark 7:15)
In Romans, Paul views circumcision in the same way. He, being a Jew, had been circumcised as an infant and yet he sees that it does nothing for him. In fact, he maintains that a man’s unrighteousness makes his circumcision into uncircumcision and since circumcision only has value if you keep the Torah and we all violate Torah, then circumcision is really uncircumcision. (Romans 2:25-3:1)
He follows this then by a statement that God justifies all men, regardless of circumcision. This reflects his belief that salvation has no “sign” barriers and that God has chosen the weak things of this world to confound the strong (see 1 Corinthians). He even uses Abraham as an illustration of righteousness that was found in uncircumcision although he notes that circumcision was the seal (Gk. σφραγίς, literally “physical stamp”) of God’s imputation but then immediately makes it clear that righteousness comes through faith and predates circumcsion. (Romans 4)
Why does Paul go to such lengths to prove circumcision is invalid? He holds to a belief that salvation is bigger than Israel, bigger than signs and symbols. Paul’s belief in redemption extends back to Adam and to all creation, and he does not want it limited by exclusive language or rites. This is really the thrust of the entire epistle, and it opens doors to tremendous freedom.
In Galatians, Paul deals with circumcision in much the same way. He uses Titus’ uncircumcision to show how the Jewish believers had been looking beyond such outward signs, and then flips it to show that anyone who would compel a Gentile to be circumcised is preaching salvation by Torah and not by Jesus.
It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. [Galatians 6:12-15, ESV]
In Paul’s letters to the Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians and Titus, he speaks of a slightly different circumcision. He does not use it to contrast Jew with Gentile (except where he notes there is no difference between the two in Colossians 3:11). Instead, he speaks of a circumcision of the heart, of a circumcision not of the hands.
The only place that Paul compares circumcision to baptism is in Colossians 2:
Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,
- and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.
- In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands,
- by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,
- having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. [Colossians 2:6-15, ESV]
What did Paul mean when he talked about the circumcision of Christ? Paul makes a distinction between this circumcision and baptism. And to understand what he means, I think we need to look back to Deuteronomy – a book that Paul was very familiar with. In Deuteronomy, Moses calls Israel to a circumcision of the heart
Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. [Deuteronomy 10:16, ESV]
The commandment is clear. A circumcision of the heart (which, by the way cannot be performed by the hands) is a commitment to love the LORD, as the shema called Israel to do and they failed to do. It is not physical circumcision, but it is distinct from baptism. It is what we would call conversion (as distinguished from regeneration, which is God’s work along). It is our commitment to clear the crap out of the way so our hearts are open to what God has for us.
Circumcision existed long before it was given to Abraham as a sign. It was not practiced as widely as we would be led to believe, nor was it even necessarily practiced on infants until the Late Monarchy or the Exile – possibly as late as the early Talmudic Period. Even among adults, it seems to have experienced times of popularity, particularly around revivalist observances of Passover. It was probably originally a coming of age ritual and it was shifted to shortly after birth for a number of possible reasons.
The early Christians generally used the word circumcision for the Jews, as opposed to the Gentiles. Paul treated circumcision as an illustration of conversion, of removing the things that make us stubborn against God.
Baptism in Christian Practice
John the Baptizer practiced baptism as such a prominent element of his message that he was named for it. What is the origin of the practice?
Was baptism unique to the church and its direct forerunner or did it co-exist with circumcision? Was it a replacement for circumcision in the minds of the early church?
Baptism in the Judaism of the Second Temple
Historically, the Jews practiced rites of cleansing using the mikvah or immersive bath. Although not specifically commanded by Torah, most Jewish sects of the Second Temple Period used the mikvah.
Originally these ritual cleansings were practiced in running water. This was not always possible so over time the Jewish communities developed baptismal pools that became known as mikva’ot.
The ritual immersion became a part of the conversion ceremony sometime before the Talmudic period. We know this because the Talmud articulates that a male proselyte had to complete three witnessed rituals (Keritot 8b):
- Brit Milah – circumcision of the foreskin
- Tevilah – immersion in the mikvah
- Korban – an offering at the Temple in Jerusalem
It is quite likely that these standards were in place during Jesus’ time, although we cannot speak with certainty. Archaeologists have uncovered mikva’ot in the Qumran communities, which seems to indicate it was present in at least some Jewish communities.
John the Baptizer
When the Jewish zealot Yohanan, known as John the Baptizer in English, appeared in the first century, he was not doing something unorthodox or altogether different from what other zealot teachers of his day did. The difference was not his baptism but what he baptized for. John’s message was simple: repent. (Matthew 3:11)
Since the tevilah was considered an act of purification, it was not uncommon for people to use it as a method of conversion from one sect of Judaism to another. Such a change was often referred to as repentance, so it is not surprising that hearing of the effectiveness of John’s baptism , the Pharisees came to be baptized by him. What is surprising is that he rejected them. He meant something different by repentance – not just a physical identification but a spiritual preparation. He was baptizing his believers into an expectation of the coming of Messiah.
This idea is stated quite clearly in Luke’s gospel:
(When all the people heard this [Jesus’ statement of his ministry], and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.) [Luke 7:29-30, ESV]
The people who received John’s baptism received Jesus’ message. Those who did not receive John’s baptism (a symbol of their repentance) did not receive Jesus’ message.
What Did Jesus have to Say about Baptism?
Baptism appears to be absent from Jesus’ personal ministry after John the Baptist’s death. After his own baptism, John the Evangelist remembered that Jesus was baptizing. (John 3:22) Later we do find out that Jesus himself was not baptizing. His disciples were. (John 4:1-2)
But after John the Baptist was killed, there is no mention of the practice until the end of Jesus’ time on earth. Jesus’ followers baptized early on, when his ministry was still more or less an extension of John’s but once Jesus’ ministry took on its full intent, his followers appear not to have baptized.
Not surprising then, Jesus says little about baptism in the gospels.
And yet, after Jesus commissioned them to baptize, his disciples seem to have adopted the practice with almost an abandon. It figures prominently in virtually every message recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Thousands in Jerusalem received it after Pentecost, and Philip seems to have baptized a number of Samaritans very early on in the church. In fact by the time of Paul, it is pretty much a given in the churches – although he himself seems to have been very selective in whom he baptized personally.
This is a strange paradox, isn’t it? The founder of the religion that reveres baptism never practiced it himself? Why did he appear to encourage the baptism of John’s ministry and then not use it in his own ministry until he commands it after the resurrection?
The First Baptism of Early Believers
Jesus gave baptism to the apostles as part of the act of making disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). It was part of the extension of his authority (Gk. εξουσια) to baptize people as His followers.
There is no doubt about what this baptism meant to Simon Peter, who had been a disciple of John and had embraced the way of Jesus since the beginning (albeit haltingly). At Pentecost, he sees that his hearers have been drawn by the Holy Spirit’s work and he calls them to:
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” [Acts 2:38-39, ESV]
Repentance, to Peter, goes hand-in-hand with being baptized. But this baptism is in Jesus’ name for the forgiveness of sins. This is different from John’s baptism because it is a baptism into Jesus. The response is tremendous.
And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. [Acts 2:40-41, ESV]
Some proponents of child baptism use the statement that “the promise is for your and for your children” to justify baptizing children. The problem is that the baptism is also for “all who are far off.” None of us would say you could baptize an adult for them, involuntarily. We cannot determine their choice to be baptized. Logically and grammatically then the promise is to all three, and it is something that all three must accept separately.
The Development of Baptism in the Early Church
This approach to baptism seems to have been the common theme as long as the church was confined to the Jewish people, but once it began to expand beyond the Jewish boundaries baptism became more than just a symbol of repentance.
- The Christian creed became a little more organized, and baptism became associated with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. It became didactic as well as symbolic. (Romans 6:1-4, Colossians 2:12)
- It also became instructive for unity, as the believers were baptized into Christ and Christ was one (perhaps a reflection of the shema?), they too should be one (1 Corinthians 1:13-17, 12:13; Galatians 3:27, Ephesians 4:1-7)
SIDE NOTE #1 – Was the Baptism of John and Jesus the Same?
The difference between John’s baptism and the early church’s is best illustrated in the episodes in Acts which involve the Jewish preacher Apollos. When Apollos preached in Ephesus, he preached the baptism of repentance that John had preached. Perhaps Apollos had been in Jerusalem during John’s ministry and received his baptism, and hearing of John’s death, he had taken the message into Asia Minor. We really do not know. But Apollos was preaching the message of John the Baptist.
After Aquila and Prisca corrected Apollos and told him about Jesus as the Messiah, Apollos became a dynamic leader in the church. But while Apollos was away in Corinth Paul encountered some Jewish believers in Ephesus who had received Apollos’ message and baptism, but had not heard of Jesus. These men then believed in Jesus and were baptized by Paul. This seems to distinguish between John’s baptism – which was one of preparation – and baptism in Jesus’ name – which was done based on belief and confession. (Acts 18:24-19:7)
SIDE NOTE #2 – Hebrews 6:2
Some commentators may notice the presence of the word baptism in the King James Version of the Bible in Hebrews 6:2. The texts seems to treat baptism as a bit of a simple thing, something to be set aside.
In reality, the word here is βαπτσμός and it does not mean “baptism” but rather “washing” as it appears in most modern translations (NASB, ESV). This may still be a reference to baptism, but it seems to be a reference to ritual purification of some kind, distinct from baptism.
Baptism then began as a symbol of repentance. It was a physical representation of cleansing of a previous belief structure (originally a conversion to Judaism) and the acceptance of another. As it was practiced in the church, new symbolism was added to it because it depicted so well so many things.
We can see time and time again that it was entered into voluntarily by a person who may or may not have been circumcised. (Jesus was both circumcised and baptized when he needed either, but that’s a side note.)
Is Baptism the New Circumcision?
The entire purpose for doing this study was to ask the question: is baptism the new circumcision? Are they equal?
We have presented a large amount of historical and textual evidence, but we must confess that there is a tremendous wealth of biblical interpreters who hold that they are equal. There is an equally large group who hold that they are not.
Any interpretational study is subject to the influences on and the limitations of the researcher. To the best of my ability, I have tried to remain faithful to the text and context of the many passages dealing with circumcision and baptism.
There are certainly some similarities.
- Both are outward, physical signs of covenants.
- Both are rituals with significant meaning.
- Both have an aspect of cleansing to their meaning.
- Both served to distinguish people – Jew vs. Gentile, disciple vs. sinner.
But there are also some differences I have observed in the texts.
While both were pre-existing practices that God claimed, they represented different things.
- Circumcision represented a coming of age and ultimately an identification with Abraham.
- Baptism does neither. Both the baptism of John and the baptism into Jesus are acts of repentance.
Secondly, they were given for different reasons in different capacities. Circumcision is done TO the chosen. Baptism is done BY the chosen.
- Circumcision was a way for adults to mark themselves (and later their children) as part of Israel. It was ultimately involuntary.
- Baptism is the way the church marks those who accept the way of Jesus (as demonstrated by Paul’s baptism of Apollos’ followers). It is always represented as being voluntary, upon repentance.
In conclusion, it seems good to conclude that they are distinct. While Paul does use circumcision in juxtaposition with baptism once (Colossians 2), it seems grammatically distinct. I must conclude, based on the study of the texts that they are not flipsides of the same concept. Circumcision was not Old Testament baptism, and baptism is not New Testament circumcision.