Whilst male circumcision was practiced in antiquity by some Near Eastern peoples for various reasons and in specific ways, biblical milah (as opposed to the modern unbiblical periah form of 'circumcision' in both non-messianic/messianic Judaism and Islam) was different and had a unique place in the worship and practice of Old Covenant Israel.
According to Genesis, circumcision was first practiced by the patriarchs and involved all males of the household including servants. Even resident aliens had to be circumcised in order to observe Pesach (Passover) (Gen.34:13-24). Normally male infants were circumcised when eight days old (Gen.17:12; Lev.12:3). Circumcision became the most critical distinguishing mark separating the Israelites from the surrounding peoples. It was a requirement of the pre-messianic covenant (Gen.17:9-14) along with sabbath and kashrut observance.
By the time of the Maccabees, circumcision had evolved to become intimately bound up with Pharisee-inspired Judahite identity and nationalism (1 Macc.1:14-15,60-61; 2 Macc.6:10), becoming the nost significant boundary marker which distinguished male Jews from Goyim (Gentiles) - those within the Pharisee version of the pre-messianic Covenant and those 'outside'. Accordingly, in this later period, conquered non-Israelite peoples (such as the Idumeans) were forcibly circumcised so that the inhabitants could be viewed as part of Judea (1 Macc.2:46; Josephus Ant.13.257-58,318).
Thus by the time of Second Temple Judaism with all its corruption brought back by the rabbis to Judea from the Babylonian captivity, the terms 'circumcision' and 'Jew' became virtually synonymous, even though circumcision was practiced by other peoples of the time (like the Egyptians - see illustration above), Greco-Roman sources highlight the practice as a distinguishing mark of Judaism (e.g. Tacitus Hist.5.5.2) much in the same way that modern Christian denominations distinguish themselves through water immersion (Baptists), speaking in tongues (Pentecostals and Charismatics), observing the Seventh Day Roman Sabbath (Seventh Day Adventists), accepting the Book of Mormon (Mormons), etc.. Thus circumcision became to Judaism a badge of identity and a matter of some fleshy pride.
In the Old Covenant, 'circumcision' or 'transformation' of the heart was even more important than removing the foreskin of men's reproductive apparatus. Without this inner transformation, the outer form was regarded as valueless (Dt.10:16; 30:6; Jer.4:4; 9:25) though in moderm Judaism such a distinction is rarely made.
The issue of circumcision in the Messianic Scriptures (New Testament) came to the surface in the late 40's AD with the Council of Jerusalem (Ac.15:1-29; cp. Gal.2:1-10). This discussion comes in focus in the Pauline writings, especially in Galatians, with Paul teaching the ritual was not required of gentile converts. For Paul's opponents then, as today in certain quarters of the Messianic Movement that promote Zionism, this was tantamount to abandoning their Pharisee-inspired and Maccabee-imposed national identity such as was promoted by the Zealot party as witnessed by the anti-messianic influence of Barabbas in the Gospel narratives and by Judas amongst even the apostles.
According to Paul, the Cross is the way one now enters the (New) Covenant and becomes numbered amongst the people of Elohim (God) (Col.2:11), and although there is still an outward ordinance marking this transition, it is no longer circumcision at 8 days of age but baptism upon conversion and spiritual regeneration. In their desperate attempt to maintain circumcision as the badge of national Israelite identity, Paul's opponents - then as now - set about diminishing the importance of the Cross in their desire to retain the old ordinance (Gal.5:11; 6:12-15). For Paul, as for Messianic Evangelicals, there could be no importance placed on circumcision (the visible sign of the Old Covenant ended by the Cross) or uncircumcsion, Jew nor Gentile, in Messiah Yah'shua (Jesus).
Most Christians teach that the need for circumcision (Br'it Milah) was abolished when (they falsely claim) the whole Torah or Law was abolished by Christ. Most Messianics teach that circumcision is a sign that still devolves on believers in the Messiah Yah'shua (Jesus) and remains essential for identity as citizens of New Covenant Israel whilst trying to wriggle around Paul's plain teachings. Which, if either, is correct? Is there a third, more scriptural understanding, of the place of circumcision in the history of Yahweh's people? We believe so. Find out why and how in the series of articles in this Register.