1 Cor 7:18a:

περιτετμημένος τις ἐκλήθη, μὴ ἐπισπάσθω·
Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. (ESV)

It's not hard to find evidence that circumcision was disdained* (pathologized, even) in Greco-Roman culture and that disaffected Jews sometimes chose to undergo a variety of procedures in an attempt to reverse their circumcision with the goal of achieving a higher status in society. (The fact that there was a word for it - ἐπισπάω (used only here in the NT) - seems telling.)

The context of 1 Corinthians 7 (especially v. 19), though, seems to suggest that Paul was addressing Christians who might feel a moral obligation to undo their circumcision to demonstrate that they were no longer bound by this obligation. I haven’t been able to find much about whether this was a common practice.

  • Was Paul referring to the anatomical procedure now known as epispasm, or was he using ἐπισπάω in a metaphorical sense (e.g. despising the Abrahamic covenant)?
  • What group/motivation was Paul attempting to counter with this injunction?
  • Is there any information available about how common this practice was (for whatever motivation) within the early church?

*Hodges, Frederick. The Bulletin of the History of Medicine. Volume 75: Pages 375–405. See especially subsections: Greco-Roman Views on Alien Rites of Preputial Ablation and The Identity of Lipodermic Patients - Hebrews.

  • 3
    Perhaps some help here: Matthew Thiessen, Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision, and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity (OUP, 2011). Older, different focus: Robert G. Hall, "Epispasm and the Dating of Ancient Jewish Writings", Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 1/2 (1988): 71-8.
    – Dɑvïd
    Mar 17 '15 at 11:46
  • @Susan A couple of presuppositions here: 1) Did ostensibly pagan cultures practice circumcision? I would think not, as such a procedure would incapacitate men(Gen. 34:15), leaving them vulnerable to attack. Circumcision on an 8 day old baby is relatively simple-not even requiring a local anesthesia. 2)Of what purpose would a circumcision(or reversal) accomplish? Circumcision is a sign of the Blood Covenant God made with Abraham; the idea of male cleanliness(a 19-20th Century phenomenon) didn't exist then, and wasn't enough 'motivation' for being circumcised.
    – Tau
    Mar 17 '15 at 14:25
  • @Tau I’m not sure I understand how your comments are related to the question (honestly - not trying to be critical). Are these suggestions about presuppositions I should remove from the question?
    – Susan
    Mar 17 '15 at 14:32
  • 2
    See also 1 Macc 1:15. Agreed, probably not so effective. Hence, “an attempt to reverse their circumcision.” I will now add quotes to the title as well, in your honor. ;-)
    – Susan
    Mar 17 '15 at 15:04
  • 1
    @Tau I am merely pointing out that the procedure did exist and people did undergo it - I am not intending to comment if Paul was referring to it in the comments section :-D Mar 18 '15 at 14:49

Since the previous answer quoted Josephus, I would like to draw on this reference also: (Book XII, Chapt. 5:1 (Loeb 12:241) Antiquities of the Jews)

And the sons of Tobias took the part of Menelaus, but the greater part of the people assisted Jason; and by that means Menelaus and the sons of Tobias were distressed, and retired to Antiochus, and informed him that they were desirous to leave the laws of their country, and the Jewish way of living according to them, and to follow the king's laws, and the Grecian way of living. Wherefore they desired his permission to build them a Gymnasium at Jerusalem. (15) And when he had given them leave, they also hid the circumcision of their genitals, that even when they were naked they might appear to be Greeks. Accordingly, they left off all the customs that belonged to their own country, and imitated the practices of the other nations.

This is the procedure best described as "καὶ (and) ἐποίησαν (they-DO/MAKE-ed) ἑαυτοῖς (selves) (dat) ἀκροβυστίας (foreskins) (acc)" which is quoted from 1 Maccabees 1:15 (KJV):

And made themselves uncircumcised, and forsook the holy covenant, and joined themselves to the heathen, and were sold to do mischief.

This is very important distinction: it is one thing to 'hide' one's circumcision with a suturing procedure, versus an "epispasm", to which if we follow the links, requires the 'tissue' removed at circumcision to be replaced; something that was medically impossible until the 20th century.

What one must derive from the meaning of Paul's statement is

"περιτετμημένος τις ἐκλήθη μὴ ἐπισπάσθω"(Having been circumcised-anyone was called, not, let him be uncircumcised)

The key to Paul's understanding is the following sentence,(vs 19)

"Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God."

If one, by faith in keeping with their Jewish heritage, becomes circumcised, then keeps the Law, his circumcision is in obedience to God. Rom. 2:25 states,

"For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision."

Therefore, according to Paul, not to obey the Law is the same thing as being uncircumcised.

Contrariwise,(vs 26)

Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision?

We don't need to ask someone to drop their trousers to tell if they are circumcised or not; those that obey the Law, according to Paul, are "circumcised", whereas those who act unrighteously and disobey the Law are not.

Since the "Hellenizing" period of 170-145BC, when the Hasmonean Priesthood established their Dynasty; there has not been a widespread movement to 'hide' one's circumcision, in fact the Zealots along with the Essenes re-established the practices of the Law, and punishment for those who disobeyed it. (Taken from Wikipedia.) Therefore, given the context of Paul's statements, along with the rest of his writings concerning circumcision, it must be understood that:

1) You would have to wait until the 20th century to be 'uncircumcised', the best you could do was to 'hide' your circumcision.

2) Paul's understanding, communicated from the particular passage and various other passages was that "circumcision" was obeying the Law. To be "uncircumcised" was to not obey the Law, regardless if one were circumcised or not.

  • 2
    We must be careful applying modern meanings onto ancient ways. Just because a "true" uncircumcision was not possible until the 20th century does not mean that the epispasm procedure would not be considered uncircumcision back then. One reason it was practiced was because of Greek gymnasiums. In them, the workout areas were clothing free. Anyone could tell circumcision with a glance by the absence of skin. If there was skin, you'd have to get closer to determine if the skin was original or from an epispasm.
    – Frank Luke
    Mar 23 '15 at 21:18
  • @FrankLuke True...,but..an epispasm(20th century term-meaning circumcision reversal, only available through skin grafts) is not the same as 'hiding' one's circumcision. Calling 'epispasm' "hiding" is anachronistic(IMO) as it attempts to re-define a modern surgical procedure into ancient practice, in order to preserve a 'dubious' meaning of 1Cor 7:19. The obvious next question is, "Then why did the translators of the ESV call it "marks of circumcision" when the KJV (and others) simply say "uncircumcision". Are they imputing meaning not derived from the text? It's been done before.....
    – Tau
    Mar 25 '15 at 6:34
  • @FrankLuke Finally, did Peter in Gal. 2:11-12, get 'reversed', only to withdraw and get re-reversed? You see what happens when you take a plain truth and get 'scientific' about it?
    – Tau
    Mar 25 '15 at 6:42
  • 2
    @Tau, Gal 2 says nothing about Peter being uncirc. It says that he lived like a gentile until men from James came. He feared the party of the circumcision. In Acts, we see that the party of circumcision was a group that argued gentiles must be circumcised to be Christians. Paul and Peter both argued against this. Paul had Timothy circumcised because T's mother was Jewish. However, he refused to let Titus be circumcised because Titus was gentile on both sides. Clearly, Paul uses circumcised to mean the operation at times. We can't blanket say it always means living by the law.
    – Frank Luke
    Mar 25 '15 at 14:38
  • @FrankLuke The point being; living like a Gentile doesn;t necessarily mean you had an operation to reverse your circumcision, neither does living under the "Law" mean your circumcision gets restored. Verse 19 says it all. When Paul mentions the specific act of circumcision, he mentions it in context of an individual. The argument against the Gentiles being circumcised wasn't the 'physical part', it was the keeping of the whole Law,(Acts 15:14). Therefore, "remaining in the state you are in" means obeying the Law, if you are a Jew, and being under grace, not the Law if you are a Gentile.
    – Tau
    Mar 25 '15 at 20:25

Josephus attests that Hellenized Jews were undergoing such procedures because they wanted to participate in the nude athletics of the Greeks. Since circumcision was a physical operation on males, and Jews were undergoing this operation, "removing the marks" could not have had a metaphorical meaning intended by Paul. Paul was really preaching against Judaizers among the Christians who were insisting that gentiles had to be circumcised. There is no evidence the other way, that Jewish Christians were wanting to remove their circumcision. Paul is just covering that base because he is arguing that circumcision in Christianity means nothing. He who is already circumcised should not try to undo what has been done. In the same way, he who was never circumcised should not undergo circumcision.

  • Hi, thank you for your answer. Could you please add references to back this up? In particular, it would be helpful to have a specific citation for where Josephus made this argument as well as something to back up your other claims such as "there is not evidence...that Jewish Christians were wanting to remove their circumcision." If true, this is interesting and goes a long way to answering the question, but I would need some reliable source to feel comfortable with this conclusion. Thank you.
    – Susan
    Mar 18 '15 at 21:49

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