Circumcision and Infant Baptism

Via Touchstone, I read an article recently on Women’s ordination that’s gotten me thinking about Baptism, of all things. 

Apparently, supporters of women’s ordination, especially among Catholics,  have recently been appealing to history to prove that ordination for women is well within the bounds of tradition.  William Tighe argues against such a position, and seems to do it quite nicely.  But in the mess of it, he mentions that in the First Century, Judaism was a “proselytizing missionary religion.

Gentiles who converted to Judaism—in the case of men by “proselyte baptism” followed by circumcision, in that of women by “proselyte baptism” alone—were full and coequal members of the People of God: they took new Jewish names and the Talmud recalls that Jews who reproached converts with their pagan origins were subject to severe censure. From the beginning, as the New Testament in general and St. Paul on more than one occasion explicitly witnesses, the Church which Christ founded upon the apostles regarded itself as the “Israel of God” or the “true Israel”.

This set me to all sorts of thinking.  I’d known for a while that Judaism was a missionary religion, witness Jesus’ complaint that the Pharisees “travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, …make him twice as much a son of hell as [them].”  But it had never occurred to me how exactly that might have played out when Christianity came on the scene.  Baptism for conversion was the norm for Christianity directly because it was first established in Judaism.  This implies that early Christians may not have made as much distinction between “Israel” and “the church” as we are accustomed to.  As Tighe goes on to say, “By definition, all baptized members of Christ’s Church are ‘sons of Israel’ and so the question of  ‘ethnicity’ is, and always has been, irrelevant to the argument.”

But if that’s the case, why does Paul make such a big deal out of circumcision?  If Christianity is supposed to fit into essentially the exact same template as the proselytizing Jews, with the exception that Christians know that their Messiah has come, shouldn’t we expect to see them following the same template for conversions?: Both baptism and circumcision for new male converts, and circumcision only for male infants. 

What was it about circumcision that Paul didn’t like?  The modern understanding about Judaism is that it is a separate religion and so, inasfar as we think about circumcision being a “Jewish” thing (as opposed to a “health” thing, which is why a lot of babies are circumcised today), we assume that Paul wanted to make some kind of distinction between Judaism and Gentile Christianity.  But that kind of distinction just isn’t available in the first century AD.  In Romans, Paul says that the church is grafted in to the roots as a wild olive branch might be grafted into a cultivated root.  He didn’t have in mind at all the creation of two separate olive trees.  He didn’t have any motivation to make a distinction between Jewishness, signified by circumcision and Christianity, signified by uncurcumcision.  He couldn’t have, since he himself, a circumcised Jew, would have fallen in the “Christian” camp over and above the “Jewish” camp. 

I can almost imagine a scenario where Paul opted not to make a big deal out of circumcision.  Fine.  Let the whole church be circumcised.  Honestly, it would have been a better (read: more pragmatic) plan, in terms of the continuity of the church.  It’s common to suggest that, if Paul hadn’t insisted against Christian circumcision, Christianity would have stayed a small Jewish cult, and eventually would have subsided back into Judaism.  But that scenario of course discounts both the reality of the historical truth of the Gospel – Jesus really did rise on the 3rd day; he really was the messiah – and the reality of the working of the Holy Spirit in the church.  Since the Gospel is true, and the Holy Spirit is real, there is no doubt that the church would have continued to grow among the Gentiles. 

Paul stood only to make great gains for Christianity by a small concession regarding circumcision.  He would have been perceived by the Jews, not as a threat to pure Judaism, but as a great evangelist for true, fulfilled Judaism.  Christians would have been recognised as true Jews, eventually dwarfing the number of those who are Jewish by birth.  Instead of Christianity being absorbed back into Judaism, Judaism might well have been absorbed into Christianity.  With “Jews who belive in Jesus” outnumbering “Jews who are still waiting” by a vast number, it would have been a gentle cultural transition for most of the “waiting Jews” to switch over to “believing Jews.”  There would have been hardly a stumbling block at all.  What great gains for Christianity, to have the entireity of Judaism within its fold!

With an opportunity like that, why wouldn’t Paul go ahead with it?  What’s so wrong about circumcision?  Of course, the problem is precisely what Paul says it is in Galatians:  “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”  The problem with circumcision is that it made you a Jew by human effort.  Circumcision meant that there was a mechanism for a person to become a Jew (or a Christian) by their own effort, apart from the sovereign grace of God and the working of the Holy Spirit.  It meant that people could decide who was and wasn’t a Christian by means of a human agency.  Worse, circumcision was something that could be done to  you, at birth, thereby sucking all of God’s sovereign grace right out of the operation.  With a simple snip of the knife, Christianity could be reduced from the religion of grace and faith into another religion of works. 

In short, what does it a profit a man if he gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?  Paul would have loved for the Jews to be converted one and all to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He said in Romans that he wished he could trade his own place in the book of life if only the Jews could be saved.  But the Jews couldn’t be saved by a political compromise that removed the very thing (God’s grace) that gave the gospel its saving power. 

Which brings me to infant baptism.  If my understanding is correct, the entire argument for infant baptism basically relies on an analogy with circumcision.  Baptism for the Christian plays precisely the same role as circumcision for the Jew.  But this is the one thing that simply cannot be the case.  Baptism cannot be understood by analogy with circumcision because, at the time that baptism was invented, it was performed in conjunction with circumcision.  If they performed both together, then it’s impossible to say that they mean the same thing. 

It’s also very difficult to say that the Christian church viewed baptism in a different light than the first century Jews did.  Early Christians considered themselves to be essentially undistinguishable from first century Jews, which is why the Judaisers were both baptising and circumcising, exactly like the Jews.  There was some distinguishing factor between baptism and circumcision.  Paul didn’t have any objections, it seems, to baptism.  He performed baptisms himself.  This distinguishing factor has got to be the aspect of human performance (works) that he blasts so thoroughly in Galatians. 

So it seems to me that, if infant baptism stands or falls by its analogy with circumcision, then it falls.  Not because the analogy can’t be made, but precisely because the analogy can be made.  The way in which infant baptism must be like circumcision is the very thing that makes it anathema: human works.  If Paul blasts circumcision, then he blasts infant baptism;  If he doesn’t blast infant baptism, then let us all be curcumcised, that Jews may more easily be saved!

Author: KB French

Formerly many things, including theology student, mime, jr. high Latin teacher, and Army logistics officer. Currently in the National Guard, and employed as a civilian... somewhere

8 thoughts on “Circumcision and Infant Baptism”

  1. Two comments:

    1. But the evidence, such and limited as it is, is that the apostolic chuerch did baptize infants. Cf. *Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries* by Joachim Jeremias (1960); *Did the Early Church Baptize Infants?* by Kurt Aland (1961); and *The Origins of Infant Baptism* by Jeremias (1962). The evidence in more inferential than factual, but it does incline one towards Jeremias’s views.

    2. In the early church, initiation consisted of three conjoined, but distinct, moments: water baptism (which effected remission of sins, regeneration and admission to the renewed Israel) and anointing, which conveyed the gift of the Holy Spirit; and then the consummation of initiation by participation in the Eucharist and reception of Christ’s sacramental Body and Blood (and all three of these obtained as much in the case of infants, as of adults). In most of the Early Church of the first three centuries it appears that water baptism came first, followed by anointing; but in Syriac regions the opposite order prevailed. In some way, this is analogous to the full procedure for proselytes to Judaism: Baptism + Circumcision + Offering a Thanksgiving Sacrifice in the Temple (of course, one could do that last only in Jerusalem). It seems to me that it was precisely the gift of the Spirit (of Adoption; of Sonship) conveyed to newly-initiated Christians that made it impossible to look on Baptism as a “human work.”


  2. Goodness! I didn’t expect you would take time to comment. I’ll take that as a compliment. I’ll have to look into those books at some time. School doesn’t exactly allow at the moment.

    That said, I would make some small distinction between the faith of the apostles and the “apostolic church.” There is no clear guarantee that the tradition passed down, even over a few centuries, would be identical to what was intended/expected by the apostles themselves. For instance, I’m not quite confident that baptism originally was expected to “effect remission of sins,” though I know that’s how it came to be understood. I certainly don’t see any evidence in scripture for a mechanical or functional understanding of baptism, though I wouldn’t argue that baptism has no spiritual effect at all.

    Without being able to spend a year doing historical research, I would say that there are indications of a definite trend away from an emphasis on God doing something to which we are witnesses and toward us doing something with which we expect God’s spirit to comply. The annointing for the Holy Spirit would be a case in point. In scripture, receiving the Holy Spirit was something distinct and discernable to the outside observer, hence Simon Magus’ offer to Peter to buy the ability to give the Holy Spirit. It seems pretty clear that Simon wasn’t trying to buy an ecclesiastical position in the church. He was a sorcerer attempting to buy spiritual power, which of course is impossible.

    In that light, it seems to me that conveying the gift of the Spirit by human means is still exactly what they were doing: performing a ritual with which God was expected to comply.

    Do Jeremias’ books have any information on whether 1st century Jews performed baptisms on the children of new converts? If that were the case, then infant baptism would predate Christian baptism, and I’d expect that Christians followed suit and start looking somewhere else for the key distinction between circumcision and infant baptism.


  3. To your last paragraph — yes, Jeremias abundantly documents the Jewish practice of baptizing the children, even new-born infants, of converts. Btw, the Aland book is an attempt to rebut Jeremias’ first book, and Jeremias second book is a rejoinder to Aland. They are all rather short, 100 pages or less each, and well worth reading.

    “I would say that there are indications of a definite trend away from an emphasis on God doing something to which we are witnesses and toward us doing something with which we expect God’s spirit to comply.”

    A hard thesis to prove. And why are these the only alternatives? Cannot God bind himself to fulfill a promise which he may have attached to the performance of an act?


  4. This may seem a little bit out of the blue, but perhaps what needs to be included in the discussion is the covenental aspect of circumcision. Circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant. Baptism, the New. As fallen humans we enter into this covenant with God for whatever reasons and we will always fall short fulfilling our end of things. God, on the other hand, never fails so the success of the covenant is always to his glory.

    The link between circumision and baptism is not in the activity, but in the covenant that it represents. If that idea is really explored it changes things quite a bit.


  5. Paul circumcised Timothy, I believe, but refused to circumcise Titus when Judaizers were insisting that he do so. He wasn’t opposed to it. He did it for the sake of reaching out to Jews. He didn’t do it when people were claiming entering the covenant depended on it.


  6. Leslie: so are you saying that if you’ve been baptised, then you’re definitely going to go to heaven when you die? That is, you are 100% undeniably permanently a Christian, in the same sense that a person who has been circumcised (as a Jew) is 100% undeniably permanently a Jew? I believe that William Tighe is a Catholic, and that as a catholic, he would confirm such a position. I’m a little bit leery of it myself.

    Understand, I’m not virulently against infant baptism. I’m not going to assert that people who baptize babies are going to hell, or that they have to be re-baptized as a conscientious believer to be a “real” Christian. But a covenantal understanding of baptism creats a disjunct for me. There seems to be some kind of fundamental difference between the way the Jewish covenant worked and the way that the Christian “covenant” works, exampled by Paul’s radically different response to baptism and circumcision. I have no problem asserting all kinds of similarities between the two, but we need to be clear on what the difference is.

    Jeremy: Why *doesn’t* entering the covenant depend on circumcision? If it has to depend on *some* outward act (that is, baptism), why not circumcision too? And if the outward act of circumcision is a bad thing when we think that salvation depends on it, what’s the point of baptism? Are you asserting that God has given us something to do which is totally meaningless?


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