Reading Time: 8 minutes


Photo credit: shira gal via CC by 2.0
Photo credit: Shira Gal via CC by 2.0, cropped

As a teenager who loved Jesus, I was confident in my ability to defend any criticism of how Christians interpret the Bible. But there was one question I hoped no one would ever ask me: Why does every Christian boy I know have a circumcised penis?

I knew exactly one boy whose family identified as Jewish, and the Bible made it clear circumcision was not practiced by or even necessary for the rest of the population. The Apostle Paul, in particular, seemed against the practice for Christians. So how did this happen? 

Growing up in the American Midwest, I had no idea I was living in the circumcision capital of the Western world. We should probably build a monument or something. According to The Circumcision Resource Center, “Circumcision is nearly universal among Muslims who do it for cultural or religious reasons. Aside from Muslims, only about 10% of the world’s males are circumcised.”

Their website also mentions, “Routine infant circumcision started in the U.S. in the 1870’s when it was promoted as a preventive cure for masturbation.” But there has to be more to it than that, right? I’m sure Americans living in the Victorian era considered it a definite bonus to avoid masturbation, but that couldn’t have been enough to convince Christians to change their minds about a practice that for centuries had been viewed with horror and contempt.

Why Did We Ever Start Doing This in the First Place? 

Then God said to Abraham, As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come.  This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant. (Genesis 17:9-14)

Have you ever wondered why it had to be done on the eighth day? Believers might tell you it’s because God, with his vast medical knowledge, knew that a newborn’s vitamin K levels are at their highest on the eighth day, which aids in clotting. Isn’t God amazing? But Leviticus 12 gives us the real story:

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised.”

So that’s the logic we are working with. But here’s where it gets confusing for Christians:

Look out for the dogs, look out for the evil-workers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh. (Philippians 3:2)

Among the first Christian missionaries, Paul often stood alone in his understanding of how the coming of the one true messiah affected the old law. Or perhaps he was simply a smart guy who knew a marketing opportunity when he saw one. Most Jews were resistant to accepting Jesus as their long-awaited messiah, but Gentiles seemed very interested in adopting this new religion. Whole libraries have been written on how Christianity impacted non-Jewish culture during this time period, and most of the story is steeped in sex (and avoidance of sex). But the overall Christian message found appeal among a wide variety of lifestyles.

Still, Christianity was a Jewish religion. Diet restrictions were one thing, but few Gentile men were keen on taking a knife to their penis— apocalypse or not. So while the other apostles asked, “If Jesus is our messiah, how can anyone be a follower who does not submit to Jewish law?” Paul offered a different message:

Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace…For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.  (Galatians 5:2-6)

By allowing Gentiles to avoid circumcision, the Apostle Paul was able to bring Christianity to the entire world. And it would be another 1700 years before Christians not only reconsidered, but began lining up to shed their own foreskins in spite of his warnings.

Just How Much Should We Cut?

Circumcision has not always been what we think of now. Originally only part of the foreskin was removed. When Jewish men began stretching their foreskins to blend in with non-Jewish neighbors, it was decided that a change needed to be made. Around the beginning of the second century it was determined that the entire foreskin would have to be removed to be considered a true circumcision. And, as an added bonus, sexual desire could be diminished even further.

Make no mistake: Although today’s circumcision supporters are not shouting it from the rooftops, supporters throughout history have been very vocal about the effect circumcision has on sexual sensitivity. For example, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), an influential Jewish philosopher, wrote the following in The Guide of the Perplexed:

The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable. For if at birth this member has been made to bleed and has had its covering taken away from it, it must indubitably be weakened. The Sages, may their memory be blessed, have explicitly stated: It is hard for a woman with whom an uncircumcised man has had sexual intercourse to separate from him. In my opinion this is the strongest of the reasons for circumcision.

(It makes me wonder what I’ve been missing out on.)

The Withdrawal Method: Punishable by Death

In the early part of the eighteenth century, an anonymous pamphlet called Onania began to circulate in London that blamed masturbation for almost every illness imaginable. The full title was: Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, And All Its Frightful Consequences, In Both Sexes, Considered: With Spiritual and Physical Advice To Those Who Have Already Injured Themselves By This Abominable Practice. 

What a mouthful. It included letters from compulsive “self-abusers” who had been cured by whatever it was the pamphlet was trying to sell. “Onania” is a reference to the biblical character of Onan:

Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.”  But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also. (Genesis 38:8-10)

A very popular publication followed Onania which more effectively frightened the masses (who still believed in a humoral theory of balanced fluids). Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz sums it up in her book Rereading Sex: Battles Over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America:

Samuel August Tissot, a French physician, wrote the most famous eighteenth-century treatise, summing up the physical and moral harms of masturbation. In the 1766 edition, Tissot claimed that forty ounces of blood were required to make one ounce of semen (one fluid could become another in humoral thinking). Such loss of fluid was the source of physical weakness and debility and contributed to disease. Tissot argued that masturbation was more dangerous than coition because it was unnatural, not necessarily practiced lying down, solitary, and unrefreshed by the fluids and attractiveness of the opposite sex. Tissot’s work had great influence in England and America.

The Dreaded “Excitement”

By the middle of the nineteenth century, masturbation had become linked not only with every disease known to man, but to every personality flaw as well. It was a top priority to keep boys from anything which might stimulate sexual excitement. Their very survival and social status depended on it!

There were many elaborate devices invented to help keep the penis in check, using everything from cold water to electricity. But perhaps my favorite was designed by James H. Bowen in 1889. It was a (lockable) cap for the penis that connected to the man’s pubic hair. In the event an unwelcome erection visited during the night, it would simply awaken the victim by pulling out his hair. So simple you’re probably wondering why you never thought of it.

In 1855 a surgeon by the name of J. Cooper Forster wrote an article for a British medical journal which introduced the problem of  “Congenital Phimosis.” This is a where the foreskin is too tight and will not fully retract from an erect penis. To protect boys from unwanted stimulation, Forster had recommended parents and nurses retract the foreskin and regularly cleanse the area to remove secretions which irritate and lead to “excitement.” The trouble is, many found the foreskin did not want to retract, or caused more irritation when this advice was followed.

Why? Because it is completely normal for the foreskin to remain unretractable for years. But they didn’t know that. Instead of wondering if his reasoning was incorrect, Forster decided Phimosis was a widespread concern which could be eliminated entirely through routine circumcision right from the start. And parents, believing something was actually wrong with their sons, were inclined to agree.

To add more fuel to the fire, an admired physician who specialized in venereal diseases named Jonathan Hutchinson was inspired by Forster to write his own article. Working at a London hospital, Hutchinson observed that Jewish men seemed to have a greater resistance to syphilis—a devastating disease, which at the time was thought to be spread through cuts in the skin. He attributed this difference to circumcision, and the hardened skin which formed a shield of protection over the glans after removal of the foreskin.

This was definitely more compelling. And as germ theory became impossible to ignore, accusations previously made against masturbation fell flaccid. Most doctors turned their focus away from masturbation, and instead narrowed in on the foreskin as a breeding ground for germs. Of course, the stigma associated with masturbation remained—and it would take a few generations to completely cleanse ourselves from the belief that a romantic night alone might give us asthma.

Circumcision as Culture

In Leonard B. Glick‘s book Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America he writes:

By 1910, more than a third of all male infants in this country were being circumcised, and the rate was steadily rising. Claims for miraculous cures were no longer popular; now it was prevention, first of one illness, then another, that held center stage. When one claim proved insupportable, there was always another to take its place. The ancient Jewish-Christian controversy now held relatively little importance in American life.

The number of papers written on the subject of circumcision is overwhelming—but interestingly, the practice only took hold among English-speaking countries. By the turn of the twentieth century, the medical community offered a convincing argument. The new scare was cancer; and although penile cancer is rare, this would become the focus of the circumcision debate until the 1980s when it took a sharp turn toward the AIDS epidemic. But if there is any benefit which circumcision offers, it hardly seems enough to warrant mass mutilation of such a useful part of male sexuality.

By the time anyone realized this, most parents were unaware of these debates and completely uninterested in what circumcision did or did not offer in the way of health benefits. Americans took almost no notice at all when other countries abandoned the practice altogether. Circumcision had been routine in America ever since the majority of women began giving birth in hospitals; it was just another part of the process led by doctors who were following tradition. But over the past two decades that thinking has changed.

Once inspired by God, circumcision in Gentile hands lost all biblical meaning. It was no longer a medical procedure, either— it had become a part of our culture. So much so, that as a teen in the 1990’s I read Paul’s warnings, like so many others, and just kept going, never taking the time to make actual sense of it.

Join the conversation and leave a comment!  How would you have reacted if your doctor had recommended circumcising your child to dissuade him from masturbating?