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Alexandria Frisch





Persecuting Circumcision





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Alexandria Frisch





Persecuting Circumcision








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Persecuting Circumcision

Samson, Saul, Jonathan, and David insult Philistines for being uncircumcised. Antiochus IV prohibited circumcision, while, Mattathias, and later John Hyrcanus, forced others to circumcise. In Roman times too, Emperor Hadrian forbade circumcision and Bar Kochba circumcised Jews by force. Was circumcision a reason for the revolt?


Persecuting Circumcision

Bar Kochba, Arthur Szyk 1927. Wikimedia

The Uncircumcised Philistines

In the biblical accounts of Israel’s clash with the Philistines, an Aegean people living between Gaza and Ashkelon, circumcision plays the role of an identity marker.[1] Samson (Judg 15:18), Jonathan (1 Sam 14:6), and Saul (1 Sam 31:4; 1 Chr 10:4) each refer to the Philistines as ערלים “uncircumcised” when in combat, intended as an ethnic slur.

Similarly, David mocks the infamous Goliath, calling him הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי הֶעָרֵל הַזֶּה “this uncircumcised Philistine” before defeating him with his slingshot (1 Sam 17:26, 36), and he collects 100 Philistine foreskins as a bride price for Michal, King Saul’s daughter.

שמואל א יח:כה וַיֹּאמֶר שָׁאוּל כֹּה תֹאמְרוּ לְדָוִד אֵין חֵפֶץ לַמֶּלֶךְ בְּמֹהַר כִּי בְּמֵאָה עָרְלוֹת פְּלִשְׁתִּים לְהִנָּקֵם בְּאֹיְבֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ....
1 Sam 18:25 And Saul said, “Say this to David: ‘The king desires no other bride-price than the foreskins of a hundred Philistines, as vengeance on the king’s enemies.’”…

David doubles the amount:

שמואל א יח:כז וַיָּקָם דָּוִד וַיֵּלֶךְ הוּא וַאֲנָשָׁיו וַיַּךְ בַּפְּלִשְׁתִּים מָאתַיִם אִישׁ וַיָּבֵא דָוִד אֶת עָרְלֹתֵיהֶם וַיְמַלְאוּם לַמֶּלֶךְ לְהִתְחַתֵּן בַּמֶּלֶךְ וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ שָׁאוּל אֶת מִיכַל בִּתּוֹ לְאִשָּׁה.
1 Sam 18:27 David went out with his men and killed two hundred Philistines; David brought their foreskins and they were counted out for the king, that he might become the king’s son-in-law. Saul then gave him his daughter Michal in marriage.

The Disgrace of Being Uncircumcised

When Joshua crosses into the land with the Israelites, he circumcises them all, and the story concludes with:

יהושע ה:ט וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל יְהוֹשֻׁעַ הַיּוֹם [תה"ש:+הזה] גַּלּוֹתִי אֶת חֶרְפַּת מִצְרַיִם...
Josh 5:9 YHWH said to Joshua, “Today [LXX: On this day] I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.”[2]

According to this, being uncircumcised was disgraceful for Israelites. Even connection to them via marriage to their daughters was a problem. Thus, Samson’s desire to marry a Philistine woman brings about the response from his father:

שופטים יד:ג וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ הַאֵין בִּבְנוֹת אַחֶיךָ וּבְכָל עַמִּי אִשָּׁה כִּי אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ לָקַחַת אִשָּׁה מִפְּלִשְׁתִּים הָעֲרֵלִים...
Judg 14:3 “Isn’t there an acceptable woman among your relatives or among all our people? Must you go to the uncircumcised Philistines to get a wife?”

The unsuitability of Samson’s choice is underscored by his tragic end, the direct result of his poor choice of marital partner.

Eventually, in what is generally understood as a late Priestly (or Holiness) account in the Torah, God establishes circumcision as the sign of the covenant (Gen 17:11). Anyone who remains uncircumcised וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מֵעַמֶּיהָ “such a soul will be cut off from his people” (Gen 17:14).[3]

The Seleucid Prohibition

With Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire, the Judeans found themselves as a small culture of circumcised people in a sea of uncircumcised Greeks. When certain Jews wished to assimilate under the Seleucids, they “built a gymnasium in Jerusalem according to the customs of the nations, and made foreskins for themselves, and abandoned the holy covenant” (1 Macc 14–15). In other words, the Jews practice epispasm, a procedure of undoing circumcision that was known in antiquity.[4]

For other Jews, circumcision became a key identity marker, and this was noted by the powers that be. Thus, according to 1 Maccabees (1:48), Antiochus IV forbade circumcision together with Shabbat observance, sacrifices, and keeping kashrut as part of a concerted effort to unify his Seleucid kingdom so that they “all should be one people” (1 Macc 1:41), or, as most scholars now believe (following 2 Maccabees), as a response to rising tensions in Judea.[5] Some resisted:

1 Macc 1:60 According to the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised 1:61 and their families and those who circumcised them, and they hung the infants from their mothers’ necks.[6]

Thus, prohibiting circumcision or reversing it was a way to curtail Jewishness; the former by outside powers, the latter by the assimilating Jews themselves.

Forced Circumcision

The inverse of the Antiochian persecution also took place, namely forced circumcision. We can already see in the story of Dinah how her brothers insist that the people of Shechem circumcise, in order for the prince to marry her (Genesis 34). In the story, it was only a ruse, but it demonstrates how the inclusion of uncircumcised men among the Israelites would be anathema.

During the Maccabean Revolt and its aftermath, we find several instances of forced circumcision:

Mattathias—As a countermeasure to Antiochus IV’s prohibitions, and to ensure the future of the Jewish nation, 1 Maccabees recounts how Mattathias and his fellow rebels forcibly circumcised some within their borders—most likely Jewish children that had not been circumcised for fear of the prohibitions (1 Macc 2:46).[7]

John Hyrcanus—The historian Josephus (1st cent. C.E.) recounts how later Hasmonean rulers forcibly circumcised nearby peoples as a way of absorbing them (and their territory) into the Judean kingdom. Specifically, the long ruling high priest John Hyrcanus (r. 134–104 B.C.E.) did this to the Idumeans:

Ant. 13.254-258 [John] Hyrcanus took also Dora, and Marissa, cities of Idumea; and subdued all the Idumeans; and permitted them to stay in that country, if they would circumcise their genitals, and make use of the laws of the Jews. And they were so desirous of living in the country of their forefathers, that they submitted to the use of circumcision, and of the rest of the Jewish ways of living.[8]

The Great Revolt—In describing his own experience of the revolt against Rome, Josephus reports how circumcision was used to convert and subdue potential or actual enemies. In one instance, Josephus himself prevents the forced circumcision of two non-Jewish nobles, allowing them to remain among the Jews without becoming Jewish (Life 113). In another instance, a Roman general only survives the murder of his troops by Eleazer, the leader of the Masada rebels, after promising to be circumcised (War 2.454).[9]

Bar Kochba—According to the Tosefta, Simon Ben Koseba, better known by his nom de guerre Bar Kochba “Son of a Star,” who led a rebellion against Rome (132–135 C.E.),[10] re-circumcised assimilated Jews who had extended their foreskins, like the Judeans in 1 Maccabees mentioned above:

תוספתא שבת טו:ט המשוך צריך למול. ר' יהודה אומר משוך לא ימול מפני שהוא מסוכן. אמרו הרבה מלו בימי בן כוזבא והיו לו בנים ולא מתו שנאמר המול ימול אפי' מאה פעם. ואומר ואת בריתי הפר לרבות את המשוך.
t. Shabbat 15:9 A man who has had his foreskin stretched (mashukh) must be re-circumcised. Rabbi Judah says: he does not need to be re-circumcised, because it is dangerous. They said to him: Many people in the days of Bar Kozeba were re-circumcised and they had children, and did not die, as it is said: “And you shall surely circumcise” (Gen 17:13). [This means] even a hundred times, as it is said: “he has broken my covenant” (17:4), including a mashukh.

The “hundred times” makes clear that the danger is the risk of too many medical procedures, reversing and redoing circumcision over and over again. The Tosefta is saying that those who reversed their circumcision did so because of a desire to assimilate. In turn, some of those same people were re-circumcised during the revolt, either because Bar Kochba inspired a renewed sense of Jewish patriotism or because they were forced to do so by the rebels.

Rome Forbids Jewish Conversions Because of Circumcision

Like Greek culture, Roman culture was deeply uncomfortable with circumcision, especially the practice of converting men to Judaism by circumcising them. Although the Roman Empire gave preferential treatment to ancient religions such as Judaism, this did not extend to the practice of converting non-Jews, since this involved circumcision. In fact, Emperor Tiberius (r. 14–37 C.E.) ordered the entire Jewish community to leave Rome (Roman History 57.18.5) in response to the proselytizing, which involved circumcision.

Modestinus, a Roman lawyer from the 3rd century C.E., refers to a legal rescript— a Roman emperor's written reply to an appeal for legal guidance—of Antoninus Pius (r. 138–161 C.E.) that includes a conversion ban:

The Rules, Book VI Jews are permitted to circumcise only their sons on the authority of a rescript of the Divine Pius; if anyone shall commit it on one who is not of the same religion, he shall suffer the punishment of a castrator.[11]

This rescript, which bans circumcision of non-Jews, i.e., converts, treating it like castration, implies that previous to Antoninus Pius, there was a ban on Jewish circumcision in general, which this emperor was now lifting or modifying. Such a ban would have dated to the time of his predecessor, Hadrian, the emperor against whom Bar Kochba rebelled.

Antoninus, Rabbi Judah HaNasi, and the Circumcision Ban

In rabbinic literature, Antoninus Pius (r. 138–161 C.E.) is remembered as an emperor friendly towards the Jews, and imagined as a personal friend of R. Judah HaNasi (ca. 135–217 C.E.).[12] Indeed, an apocryphal story that appears in the 11th century Bereshit Rabbati has the two leaders meet as a babies, as a consequence of this circumcision ban:

בראשית רבתי כב:ב ע(ט)[ד]נא חדא אפקת קלוסי' רומי חייבת דלא יגזרון יהודאי בניהון...
Bereshit Rabbati 22:2 Once the cursed Romans put out an edict that Jews were not allowed to circumcise their sons…[13]

The story continues that the wife of Rabban Simon ben Gamliel (or Rabban Gamliel, depending on the text)[14] was pregnant, and he decided to circumcise the child anyway. In the end he gets arrested, but saves his son and wife by switching the baby with the recently born son of Severus, whose wife suggests the temporary trade. When the emperor (ostensibly Hadrian) sees that the baby has foreskin again, he decides that the Jewish God is too powerful, and cancels the decree.

בההיא שעתא בטילה גזרתה.
At that time, the decree was canceled.

The Jewish baby grows up to be Judah HaNasi and the son of Severus becomes the emperor Antoninus, and this is how their friendship began.

This apocryphal medieval tale shows how Jewish legend held onto the Hadrianic persecution as a key moment in history. We see this again in Bereshit Rabbati, which states that the circumcision ban took place in the days of Emperor Hadrian, during the governorship of Quintus Tineius Rufus (130–132 C.E.), the governor of Judea when the revolt broke out:

בראשית רבתי יז:א אמר ר' יודן: משגזר טורנוס רופוס שלא ימול אדם, מל אחד את בנו ועלה לבימה ונתפס.
Bereshit Rabbati 17:1 Rabbi Yudan said: “When Turnus Rufus banned circumcision, a man circumcised his son and went up on to the bema (podium?) and was caught.”[15]

In short, Jewish tradition remembers the connection between the ban and Hadrian.

A Circumcision Ban: Second Cent. C.E.

The Hadrianic ban is referenced obliquely in the Mishnah (2nd cent. C.E.), in the context of its discussion about whether it is permitted to carry a circumcision implement on Shabbat:

משנה שבת יט:א רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר: אִם לֹא הֵבִיא כְלִי מֵעֶרֶב שַׁבָּת, מְבִיאוֹ בְשַׁבָּת מְגֻלֶּה. וּבַסַּכָּנָה, מְכַסֵּהוּ עַל פִּי עֵדִים.
m. Shabbat 19:1 Rabbi Eliezer says: “If they have not brought the implement [for circumcision] on the eve of the Sabbath it may be brought openly on the Sabbath; and in a time of danger a man may cover it in the presence of witnesses.”

The phrase “in a time of danger” presumably refers to a time during which circumcision was forbidden. While the Mishnah is unclear about when this ban occurred, it seems reasonable to associate it with the other references to a Hadrianic ban.[16]

A less certain reference to this circumcision ban comes from early 2nd century C.E. Epistle of Barnabas, an apocryphal New Testament text, which discusses the biblical exhortation to “circumcise your hearts” and listen to the words of God:

Epistle of Barnabas 9:4 In short, he (=God) circumcised our ears in order that when we hear the word we might believe. But the circumcision in which they (=Jews) have trusted has been abolished, for he declared that circumcision was not a matter of the flesh. But they disobeyed, because an evil angel “enlightened” them.[17]

Barnabas may be referring to a Roman ban on Jewish circumcision, but it could also just be a Christian condemnation of the practice.[18]

A Hadrianic Decree as a Precipitant Cause for the Bar Kochba Revolt?

The Historia Augusta, a collection of biographies of Roman emperors beginning in 117 C.E. with the Emperor Hadrian and ending in 284 C.E., reports that Hadrian enacted a prohibition against circumcision, and adds that this is what led to the Bar Kochba rebellion:

Vita Hadriani 14.2 At this time also the Jews began a war, because they were forbidden to mutilate their genitals.[19]

The historical reliability of the Historia Augusta is uncertain; some of its details are clearly fabricated. Indeed, several Roman sources indicate that the main cause of the revolt was a new city or temple built on the site of the destroyed Jerusalem,[20] while rabbinic sources also hint at frustration regarding the failure to rebuild the Temple as a cause for revolt.[21]

Nevertheless, this account in Historia Augusta cannot be easily discounted. The author refers to Hadrian’s autobiography five times; this was probably written upon Hadrian’s last return to Rome before his death in 138 C.E., and thus the author of the Historia likely had access to Hadrian’s own words. Additionally, many sources exist that reflect Hadrian’s banning of castration,[22] and Barnabas refers to circumcision mockingly as mutilation, tying it conceptually to castration.[23] Many scholars, therefore, give credence to the possibility that a ban on circumcision was a motivator for the revolt, while others reject it.[24]

Anxiety over Circumcision Through the Ages

Whether or not a circumcision ban played a role in the setting of Bar Kochba’s revolt, we know that the Romans viewed circumcision with the same disdain as castration, referring to it as mutilation of the genitals. Thus, performing circumcision under their watch would have been cause for concern, and this left an indelible mark on the Jewish sources. We can see similar developments in modern times.

For instance, in 2012, Germany moved to ban circumcision, something that brought up the specter of the early Nazi ban in the 1930s.[25] Similar movements to ban circumcision exist in the US and other European countries.[26] Our look at the Roman ban under Hadrian serves as a telling precedent for the culture clash that Jews have experienced, both as aggressors and victims, in the performance of this identity forming ritual.


December 7, 2023


Last Updated

February 24, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Alexandria Frisch is an Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies at George Mason University. She holds a Ph.D. in Second Temple Judaism from New York University, an M.A. in Religion from Yale Divinity School, and an M.A. in Jewish Education from Baltimore Hebrew University. Frisch is the author of The Danielic Discourse on Empire in Second Temple Literature (Brill 2017), which examines empire in Second Temple literature through a postcolonial lens. Her latest article, “The Power of Pain: A Literary Reading of the Wicked Priest’s Death(s) in 1QpHab” appears in the recent festschrift for Prof. Lawrence Schiffman, her doctoral adviser.