If you ever had any doubt whatsoever that the Church was patriarchal, consider the fact that the very first HUGE fight the early Christians got into was over what the penis should look like (Acts 15).
Now, I know what you’re thinking. I’m being provocative. It wasn’t about foreskins as much as it was about covenants.
And to a degree, you are right. But the penis played a much larger role than you may think. And sometimes when we use the word “circumcision” we forget that we are actually talking about what the penis looks like.
So let’s start with why the penis was chosen as the sign of the Abrahamic covenant in the first place.
God tells Abraham to look at the stars, and this becomes a romantic object lesson illustrating how God was going to make a great nation out of him. Which, on its most basic level, means lots of grandbabies.
Where do all the babies come from? Here is where you need a little Ancient Near East sex education. You see, they had no idea that the sperm fertilized an egg that formed a zygote that implanted in the womb of a woman that became a fetus that then gestated for nine months to produce a baby.
Their thinking on this was much simpler. More like that lima bean you put in a glass jar filled with dirt. Remember? You left it on the shelf near the window in Mrs. Ferguson’s third-grade science class to watch it grow.
So what does this have to do with making babies? Well, in the minds of the biblical writers, the dirt in the jar was like the woman’s womb, and the lima bean was like what came out of the man’s penis.
Which sounds really painful.
But the gist of the idea was that the woman contributed nothing to the baby-making. So the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, which was to make the patriarch into a great nation, literally had to come from Abraham’s penis. And in honor of that distinction, it got snipped like the scalp of a tonsured monk. And if you wanted to be a part of the Abrahamic covenant, then your penis had to look like Abraham’s penis. Or you had to be married to a man with an Abrahamic penis.
Over the centuries, the Jews became more and more obsessed about this. To illustrate, in 142 BCE, John Hyrcanus came to power in Jerusalem and led a campaign to expand his borders into Edom. As a part of his military strategy, his soldiers lifted up the robes of the male Edomites to check out their penises. If they weren’t circumcised, then it was snip or die.
Most chose snip.
This obsession continued into the first century and became the centerpiece of a major fight found in Acts 15 were a group of “brothers” taught that “unless you are circumcised…you cannot be saved” (v.1). This odd theory I will hereafter refer to as “penile substitution.”
Paul and Barnabus had “no small dissensions and debate” among them, a nice way of saying that things got ugly. So much so that James, the brother of Jesus, had to weigh in.
Now, James was also known as the “righteous.” This meant that he had a reputation for meticulously keeping the law. So you have to imagine that the circumcisers were feeling pretty good when James stepped up to the podium.
But to everyone’s surprise, James backed Paul and Barnabus. And then, to make matters worse, Peter stood up and did the same.
A quick summary of their lengthy speeches boils down this: keeping the law is really hard, so the Gentiles are exempt from this “burden,” and they don’t have to get circumcised.
They DID, however, have to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from meat that hadn’t been prepared kosher (i.e. with the blood in it), and from sexual immorality (Acts 15:19-20).
Miracle! Case closed! Right?
Well, Luke would have us believe that, but evidence in the New Testament suggests otherwise. For starters, it appears that Paul never agreed to this. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes that the only condition he agreed to was that the Gentiles should remember the poor (Galatians 2:2-10).
So big deal, right? There isn’t a sale on meat sacrificed to idols at the local grocery store nowadays, anyway.
Well, it is a big deal. Mainly because penises are involved.
The “circumcision party,” as Paul calls them in Galatians, viewed a church that maintained the strict hierarchies of Judaism, with a High Priest closest to God, then the priests and rabbis and other assorted Jewish men rounding out the top tier.
Notice that all of these people have patriarchal penises.
Women, the unclean, god-fearers, and other marginalized groups including the Gentiles were located farthest from God.
So when Paul writes a diatribe against penile substitution and yells at the circumcision party to go castrate themselves (Galatians 5:12), he’s getting riled up because they were using their penises as an excuse to exclude people.
Case in point, women can’t get circumcised. So if you are a woman, and circumcision is a requirement for admission into the church, what do you do? Well, there’s not much you can do. As best as we can tell, the only way for a god-fearing woman to become a Jewess was to convince her husband to become a Jew and get circumcised. And not many men were willing to do that, for obvious reasons.
In addition, the requirements for Gentiles established by the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 were generally the same as those expected of aliens who lived in the land of Israel in the days of the Old Testament (see Leviticus 17-18 for example).
In other words, Paul probably disagreed with the Jerusalem Council because it wasn’t backing his egalitarian vision at all. It was a compromise, whereby Gentiles and women were treated as second class citizens in the Kingdom. A prime example of this attitude was when Peter refused to eat with the Gentiles (Galatians 2:11), forcing Paul to “oppose him to his face,” which would have been really fun to watch.
So the major implication of all this was that only MEN who had Abrahamic penises were full members of the church. (Sheila E. McGinn presents a compelling case for this in The Jesus Movement, though she explains it more eloquently).
In reaction, Paul writes a passionate polemic in Galatians, concluding, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female. For all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise,” Galatians 3:28-29 (NRSV).
And no penises are required.
Fortunately, Paul’s revolutionary vision won out. This allowed Lydia to be baptized, along with her entire household in Acts 16, just like Cornelius was baptized, along with his entire family in Acts 10. Had circumcision been required, Lydia probably would have been left out. But because of Paul’s stubbornness, not only was she included in the Kingdom, but she was the leader of a congregation, along with at least two other women mentioned in Philippians who were also in charge of their own congregations (notice that no male leaders in Philippi are mentioned at all).
Unfortunately, Paul’s egalitarianism was short lived. Though the circumcision party faded away, mainly because of the Jewish revolts during the latter part of the first century, patriarchal, Greco-Roman culture seeped into the church, and women were slowly removed from leadership.
They managed to hang on a little bit longer as deaconesses. Catechumenates were baptized naked, thus making it inappropriate for a man to offer this sacrament to female candidates, thus requiring deaconesses. But then the church started baptizing infants, and gradually even deaconesses were pushed to the side.
And for the most part, it’s been that way ever since for women.
If only they had a penises.
Kelly Pigott is a church history professor who teaches at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. You can find more musings on history, culture, contemplative spirituality and theology, along with interviews with authors . Follow him on twitter @kellypigott