Historical And Scriptural Evidence (Milah vs. Periah)

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Historical and Scriptural Evidence (OT milah circumcision vs. modern periah circumcision)
by Peter Keay

The following is a revised excerpt from the document originally available at http://www.scribd.com/doc/54746897/Un-Christian-Modern-Circumcision

In Genesis 17:11, the Bible reveals God’s institution of circumcision for Hebrew males. Little detail is given here, though it is clearly critical for the descendants of Abraham and involves some sort of excision from the male reproductive organ.
The great majority of modern readers – and many scholars, as well – assume that the practice referred to in Genesis 17:11 and in the rest of Scripture must be the same one which is performed today.[1] However, evidence from history, scholarship, and even the Bible itself shows otherwise.
Obviously, some sort of excision was involved,[2] as with the modern procedure. But the modern procedure, if it were performed with a knife (as indeed it is in many Jewish “circumcisions” today”), could only be performed as a multi-step, multi-cut procedure.[3] The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia describes the original procedure, “brit milah,” as a one-cut procedure, removing only the actual foreskin (the skin which actually extends beyond the glans).[4] This makes sense when, for instance, we consider the hurried circumcision (with a sharp rock!) performed by Zipporah in Exodus 4:24-27.[5]
This simple one-cut milah procedure did not remove the high amount of complex and varied tissue removed in modern times. Additional evidence that the procedure was less extreme is apparent in the circumcision reversals mentioned in I Corinthians 7:18a[6] (referring to removing the marks of circumcision by stretching – see the BDAG lexicon) and the apocryphal book of I Maccabees, chapter 1, verses 14-15a.[7] Many passages in the Talmud also refer to “drawing the skin back down.” A modern “circumcision” would be tediously difficult to undo by stretching the “skin back down!”
But why is modern “circumcision” so much more extreme? According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, brit periah was added to milah after the time of Christ in order to prevent the very reversal alluded to by Paul.[8] The following paragraph from Jewish World, written by an author who has conducted much research on the subject, summarizes the issue as follows:
The Biblical command for circumcision had its scope extended by the rabbis to address the unacceptable practice of epispasm, or de-circumcision, motivated by the wish to assimilate into Greco-Roman society or possibly convert to Christianity. While the Biblical requirement is to remove the foreskin (orlah) only (Genesis 17:11), the rabbis introduced complete uncovering (periah) of the corona.[9]
It is important to note that the authors quoted here are not from some anti-circumcision faction within Judaism. They desire the tradition to continue, but are showing that periah is a man-made tradition, not the original divine directive but an extension of it.
Jewish sources include much evidence for this unauthorized modification:[10] in Jewish writings, circumcision and periah are treated separately.[11] In addition, the Samaritans and Samaritan historical sources emphasize that their circumcision tradition, which continues from the pre-periah separation of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms even until today, does not and never has included periah.[12], [13] Rav plainly states: “The commandment of periah was not given to the Patriarch Abraham.”[14]
Modern “circumcision” is a man-made[15] practice that extends far beyond the practice authorized by God in the Old Testament.


[1] Here I mean the procedure performed on about half of American infants, as well as on Israeli infants, Muslim boys, and teenage boys in some African tribes and in the Philippines. Some modern groups practice different forms of circumcision.

[2]I believe the evidence disagrees with those who hypothesize that no form of circumcision was practiced until later in Israel’s history, or was merely a drawing of blood.

[3]Although the process is today simplified by various crushing and cutting devices in hospital circumcisions (though the same loss results), the natural infant attachment of the foreskin to the glans necessitates, when not using such a device, an initial snip of the foreskin proper, an extensive tearing of the bonding between the glans and the mucosa and skin covering it, an additional cut to peel all of the covering back, and, finally, a full circular cut well behind the corona. Only the initial cut was involved during Old Testament times, as will be shown.

[4]“Circumcision.” The Jewish Encyclopedia, (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1906-1910). The text is available online in its entirety at http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com.

[5]The intense pain endured by the men of Shechem in the incident of Genesis 34 may seem to suggest that the procedure was not a simpler one as the evidence indicates; however, upon consideration, it soon becomes clear that pain is not related to the amount of tissue removed but to the size and nature of the wound. For example, if your arm were cut off one inch below the elbow or three inches below, the pain would be roughly the same, despite less being removed in the latter case. The Genesis 34 episode is no evidence either way.

[6] περιτετμημένος τις ἐκλήθη; μὴ ἐπισπάσθω.
ESV: “Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision.”

[7]RSV: “So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision.”

[8]“Many Hellenistic Jews, particularly those who participated in athletics at the gymnasium, had an operation performed to conceal the fact of their circumcision (I Me. 1.15). Similar action was taken during the Hadrianic persecution, in which period a prohibition against circumcision was issued. It was probably in order to prevent the possibility of obliterating the traces of circumcision that the rabbis added to the requirement of cutting the foreskin that of peri’ah (laying bare the glans).” ~“Circumcision.” The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, ed. Werblowsky, R. J. Zwi and Geoffrey Wigoder. Oxford U P: New York & Oxford, 1997.

[9]Rickman, Dan. “Circumcision and its Critics,” Jewish World, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3780549,00.html

[10]I was referred to some of the following sources by: Rubin, Nissan. “On Drawing Down the Prepuce and Peri’ah,” Zion 54 (1989): 105-17 (Hebrew).

[11]See especially Cant. Rabbah (ed. S Donsky) [Jerusalem-Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1990]. For example, Cant 1:14, 4:1: “Ah, you are fair, my darling, ah, you are fair – you are fair in circumcision, you are fair in periah,” and Cant 1:62: “How fair you are, how beautiful, how fair you are in [observing] neta reva’i [the fourth year’s fruits of a tree], and how beautiful you are in [observing] circumcision; how fair you are in [observing] periah, and how beautiful you are in prayer.”

[12]Information on this is available in several sources, including: M. Avi-Yonah, “The Samaritan Revolts against the Byzantine Empire,” Eretz-Israel 4 (1956): 127-32 (Hebrew); Jacob, Son of Aaron, “Circumcision among the Samaritans,” ed. W. E. Barton; in Bibliotheca Sacra 65 (1908): 695-96; Pummer, “Samaritan Rituals and Customs,” in A. D. Crown, ed., The Samaritans (Tübingen: J. C. Mohr, 1988); J. Mills, Three Months’ Residence at Nablus, and an Account of the Modern Samaritans (London: J. Murray, 1864); and R. Kashani, “The Samaritans: History, Tradition, and Customs,” Bi-Tefutzot ha-Golah 13 (1971): 202-19.

[13]Josephus, who opposed the Samaritans strongly, never accused them of abandoning circumcision (periah had not yet been instituted among the Jews). See Pummer, “Samaritan Rituals and Customs,” 6, n. 23.

[14]BT Yevamot 71b, emphasis mine.

[15]Though long-standing; scholars estimate that periah was introduced sometime around 140 A.D.