The more mature I get in my faith, the more I realize love and faith matter above all else, and the works that are the product of true faith are good: too to feed the poor and visit the orphans and widows. Yet I also recognize that words matter and our understanding of the Bible matters. God gave us His word and we should be most faithful to it.

I'm not at all suggesting there has been unfaithfulness in the following but I am curious about the rendering of a certain word, in the several comparative translations I see online through a popular bible website, and I'll explain why I feel that way. It is a minor issue but it interests me as a case study and I think its implications could also be culturally significant. I feel I am mature enough to start forming opinions on key word translations on my own and we really do live in the age of information and increasing knowledge that our forefathers could only dream about. I understand that no translation may be perfect, and to get perfection you have to understand the text in its originally inspired language.

To be clear, this is strictly a translation question, not a doctrine question.

The Greek prefix α means "not" - for example, a-theist means someone who is not a theist, much like 'un' means 'not' in English. Therefore we read of circumcision and uncircumcision side by side, for instance in this interlinear passage of Galatians 6:15, we think or assume that in the Greek they are of the same root. They are not, with one just having a prefix like in English, but it is actually not the case. The Greek uses a different construct for circumcision (περιτομή) than uncircumcision (ἀκροβυστία), that per Strong's means foreskin or prepuce as in:

Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.

All translations translate Strong's 203 ἀκροβυστία as uncircumcision when that is the third definition on their list.

Strong's entry

Definition: the prepuce, foreskin, uncircumcision.

The word itself has an etymology.

ἄκρον (Akron) means highest or extreme source as in words like Akropolis (highest city). It was suggested elsewhere that the 'bustia' part is of Hebrew origin. Incidentally, I think that Help's word study at that same at BibleHub link gets it wrong when they say:

[203 /akrobystía literally means "what covers the extreme end," referring to the part of the male foreskin not removed by circumcision. [Italics theirs]

It makes more sense to me if they meant to say, or ought to have said that it is the part that is removed by circumcision but that's a side question.

Essentially, ἀκροβυστία literally means foreskin or prepuce. Even the word 'foreskin' can have multiple meanings, in terms of whether one means the part of the organ that is 'fore' of the tip, hanging over, which I think was its original and Greek meaning- the akro portion, or whether one means the entire prepuce as understood in early 21st century Western civilization. Anyway, it therefore surprises me that not one translation on this list of most common translations (including Young's literal) translates it as foreskin or prepuce.

"Uncircumcision" works just as well for most bible study use cases, but I for one would have liked to see foreskin or prepuce used in at least a few translations, especially in the more literal translations. It would add a depth of imagery and understanding that people often miss. I think it would

  1. contrast more clearly the Greek vs the Jewish mindset and culture
  2. remind people that the foreskin is an actual organ with an actual visible appearance as opposed to a state of being one way or another
  3. serve as a literal rendering of God's word, giving literal value, and
  4. notify grammarians and Greek learners and other folks that these are not the same words just with a different prefix but are from different root words

I guess I'm wondering, given what I've shared

  1. How do other people judge or regard these heuristics
  2. Whether I have a point
  3. Whether I am missing anything- whether I lack specific insight on the use, that would favor the existing translation

I'm not against it ever being used, as I've said above, but unanimous consent sometimes scares me in places where you wouldn't expect it.

I know there are two mutually exclusive approaches to translating the bible - literally vs idiomatically. I know also that one can also strive to make a text as accessible as possible at the expense of detail (accessibility vs sophistication). Each of these approaches has its use cases and brings unique value, which is why it is great that we have multiple translations but when I see such uniformity in anything I tend to think there is an invisible force at play governing how things are done- whether that force is cultural or whatever. I've always liked to be rational and courageous and not stick to culture when I think there is a better way, but follow culture when I think it is best or just as good as any other way. That's always been how I have tried to live life.

I'll be honest- while this is not the most important thing in life or in Christianity, as I have said above, I think it may tell us something. I think the English-speaking world in the 20th and 21st centuries has been extremely phobic of the foreskin, ignorant of it and its function, and quite superstitious about it as well, and this has possibly affected the choice of translation. Whether the English-speaking world has violated the commandments of God for traditions of men (in that ancient form was a smaller cut, which I think is the case), or whether they have just chosen to ignore the suggestions of Paul on the subject, who I know was speaking in terms of its theological value- yet who I don't think could ever conceive of people getting cut for non-religious 'medical' or 'aesthetic' reasons, let alone with the fervor and zeal of today- these are questions for elsewhere, but I think the English speaking world's ignorance and phobia in this subject matter, which I think exists, has bled into our English NT translations (no pun intended).

In general, I'm seeing that translators have to in many cases be courageous and bold and cannot be captured by a culture, not just here but in translations of words like hades or Gehenna for hell or αἰῶνας as age vs forever- not that our beliefs should change, but just that we should have access to the actual words without needing dictionaries for everything and read everything from our trusted translations with a grain of salt, especially when things are so universally translated thus in every version John Smith finds for sale on the shelf. Do I have a basis for this? I guess that scribes, who Jesus talked a lot about, although I know I may be using the word anachronistically, nonetheless have a grave responsibility and I feel like my level of trust in translations generally is sinking, as it's a work done by mere mortals, fallible, non-all-knowing men, who moreover have mouths to feed, products of their times, under earthly authorities. I feel like we have to be detectives if we really want to understand God's word, almost to the point of doing original work. I especially don't like when things are given to us dumbed-down. I guess I'm wondering, does anything I say get the stamp of approval from this community, and is there anything people would like to add, amend or suggest me to consider?

I hope you consider what I have said and I hope the Holy Spirit guides us in truth. I know that stack overflow can be brutal in its feedback. I did not mean to use this as a soapbox or pulpit, but I feel this post has some original material that I hope will be useful for future thinkers, scholars, and Christians who are asking these same questions.

2 Answers 2


You appear to have done your research on this question fairly thoroughly, and may be more knowledgeable on this particular Greek wording than most participants here. I've completed only one course in Greek so far, and my knowledge is limited with respect to the meanings of those Greek terms.

However, I do know something about translation.

I've been involved in multiple Bible translation projects, and have faced the challenges associated with differences in grammar and vocabulary. At the time the Bible was first translated into English (which, whether we like it or not, shaped the language and set many precedents for future translations), were those words "prepuce" or "foreskin" in common use? If so, were they considered vulgar or simply unmentionable? In traditional Thai culture, for example, women may talk somewhat openly about their periods, but for anyone to mention "feet" in public is embarrassing--almost taboo (this culture is changing due to the influx of English, e.g. Hollywood). The words we use are culturally relevant.

To use a Biblical example, even though the word "pregnant" exists in Hebrew and in Greek, it is never used in the KJV translation. It was considered, in that era, to be an embarrassment. The more polite, and formal, way to express the concept was to say "with child." So even though the Hebrew and Greek do not use the word "child" nor reference the fetus directly in any way when speaking of pregnancy, the English translation added that concept to the text for the sake of the propriety of the times.

I would suggest that "foreskin," which is found 14 times in the KJV--all in the Old Testament, may have been been a word that translators preferred to avoid if at all possible. Coming from the Hebrew, it was simply unavoidable, because it was not addressing a concept so much as a body part. But in the Greek, Paul is addressing it on a more philosophical level, and the translators chose what to them seemed a more polite expression.

In some of the Bible translations that I have been working on, the word "foreskin" doesn't even exist in the language. For "circumcision" or "circumcise" we have to substitute a wording like "cutting ceremony" (and make appropriate grammatical adjustments so that this will even fit). I cringe at this sort of change, but what can be done? The word is not in the language.

I realize that this is not a precise answer, but I expect it will help to put the issue into perspective.


Latin Vulgate version has praeputium (for prepuce) and Wycliffe which was translated from Latin has prepuce. I copied the references only for "circumcision from blueletterbible and checked on biblegateway.

Acts 11:3 Why enteredest thou to men that have prepuce, and hast eaten with them?
Rom 2:26 Therefore if prepuce keep the rightwiseness of the law, whether his prepuce shall not be areckoned [shall not be reckoned] into circumcision?
Rom 3:30 For there is one God, that justifieth circumcision by faith, and prepuce by faith. 4:9 Then whether dwelleth this blessedness only in circumcision, or also in prepuce?
Col 3:11 where is not male and female, heathen man and Jew, circumcision and prepuce
1 Cor 7:18 A man circumcised is called, bring he not to prepuce. A man is called in prepuce, be he not circumcised.
NHEB Was anyone called having been circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised.

And the Jubilee Bible only in this passage.

Romans 2:25-27 Jubilee Bible 2000
25 For circumcision verily profits if thou keep the law, but if thou art a rebel to the law, thy circumcision is made into a foreskin. 26 Therefore if the uncircumcised keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his foreskin be counted for circumcision? 27 And that which is by nature foreskin, but keeps the law perfectly, shall judge thee who with the letter and with the circumcision art rebellious to the law.

We see how awkward prepuce and foreskin in English. Rather than using 'people of prepuce', or simply prepuce, the adjective uncircumcised is better for concise. Those nouns also seem very crass in our culture; you can imagine if so many words and phrases are considered racist to the modern people (Cretans being always liars; or the references of calling others evil) then using foreskin for the heathen, gentiles would be too unusual and difficult to understand by common people.

For the first century people in Jews and non-Jews, two metonyms circumcision and foreskin must have denoted a clear meaning of identification. The translators have to be careful about current culture and language, using euphemism to substitute the embarrassing words. The word doesn't exist in the majority of languages anyway (even if some may have, it is unrecognizable to common ears), and I don't think there is any special significance to maintain a literal translation for it. Even the meyonym flesh is different to understand and translate in modern languages.

The reason it is used in the OT is that it is describing the process of circumcision, hence there is nothing awkward in using the natural language. It is necessary to avoid the literal word for the purpose of cultural propriety and for the sake of clarity. See this reference from Jewish Cultural Encounters in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern World, 2017

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