Circumcision in the Bible is the process of removing the foreskin in order to follow God’s symbolic ordinances. God at one time almost killed the Hebrew patriarch, Moses, because Moses did not circumcise his son. Interestingly enough, the New Testament talks about circumcision about twice as much as the Old Testament. Almost all of these instances are by the apostle Paul (Jesus only mentioned it once and it is never mentioned by the twelve apostles in their letters).
So why does Paul talk about circumcision in over thirty verses and why does Jesus and the twelve ignore the issue? The answer is that Paul focused on circumcision because he was preaching something new and controversial, whereas Jesus just assumed circumcision into his teachings. Jesus believed circumcision was both necessary and lawful. The reason Jesus did not preach about circumcision was because he already agreed with his audience.
We see this is true by Israel’s reaction to Paul’s message throughout Paul’s ministry. “Circumcision” is the primary reason Paul was persecuted. Paul even states as much:
Gal 5:11 And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution?…
From town to town, the Jews revolted against Paul for teaching not to circumcise. Paul was forced to bring the matter before the twelve apostles in Acts 15, and he obtained a letter exempting Gentiles from the practice. In Acts 16, Paul circumcises Timothy due to a fear of the Jews. In Acts 21, James even goes so far as to force Paul to pay to have people purified because a rumor (a true rumor) broke out that Paul was teaching the Jews not to circumcise:
Act 21:20 … “You see, brother, how many myriads of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law;
Act 21:21 but they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs…
Act 21:24 Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law.
Even this is not enough to quell the Jews. A riot(!) ensued involving both Christian and Judaic Jews. This is just because Paul dared to teach the Jews not to circumcise. In the day of Jesus, the Jews would easily escalate any preaching against circumcision. Even Christian Jews!
The point is that Jesus did not have these worries. Jesus was not assaulted (nor any of twelve) because he taught “not to circumcise”. If Jesus was preaching against circumcision then the Bible would record massive retaliation against him. But the Bible is silent on any fallout for Jesus’ stance on circumcision. When circumcision is addressed in relation to Jesus, we find that Jesus was circumcised as a baby and that Jesus uses it as an example of a command that trumps the Sabbath day:
Joh 7:23 If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath, so that the law of Moses should not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made a man completely well on the Sabbath?
This is a respectful reference. We do not find the same hostility to circumcision that is found throughout the writings of Paul. Jesus is ultimate arrested due to driving out money changers in the temple with whips. Paul is ultimately arrested due to a riot about circumcision. This illustrates their different ministries. Jesus did not teach against the law, but preached it explicitly:
Mat 5:17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.
Mat 5:18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.
Mat 5:19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
So Jesus says that whoever teaches men to break the law (including not circumcising) will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. This is directly after saying that the law will not pass away anytime soon. Jesus taught the law.
Bart Ehrman, in one of his lectures, points out that the only way to understand who Jesus was is to understand Jesus as a first century Jew. When Jesus preaches to the crowds, he does not spend any time arguing for a monotheistic God or arguing that Israel was a chosen people. His audience already understood and accepted this. Likewise, Jesus did not have to explain the importance of circumcision, they were already in agreement.
The conflicts that Jesus faced were not “whether or not to follow the law” but “how to follow the law”. When Jesus faces criticism it is about how to apply the law. We find Jesus explaining what works are allowed on the Sabbath and the requirements for divorce. Jesus uses his preaching to expound on requirements of the law: Not only should you not murder your brother, but also not think evil thoughts of him. Not only should you not commit adultery, but you should even think about committing adultery. Not only should you love your neighbor, but you should love your enemy. To Jesus the point of the law was to “Love God with all your heart/mind/soul” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself”:
Mat 22:37 Jesus said to him, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’
Mat 22:38 This is the first and great commandment.
Mat 22:39 And the second is like it: ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’
Mat 22:40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
These two commandments, to Jesus, summarize all of the Old Testament law. Jesus preached that if a hearer accomplished these two things, then they would not be guilty of violating the law. These two principles were used by Jesus to interpret the rest of the law: Circumcision, picking food, and rescuing donkies trumped the Sabbath because all were helping mankind. Men should stay married to their wives, regardless of Moses’ allowances. The additional requirements created by the Pharisees were void of substance and should be ignored.
A critic would be hard pressed to find examples of Jesus violating the law. Jesus did violate certain Pharisaic interpretations of the law along with extra-Biblical traditions, but Jesus never violated the law itself. When accused, Jesus is always quick to show how the law is being misapplied. In short, Jesus both followed and preached the law.