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February 16, 2012

Baptism of a Coptic baby – Copts believe, like all Christians, that baptism superseded circumcision and made it obsolete (©AFP / Khaled Desouki)

In Part I,[i] we discussed how circumcision was not known to the Copts until at least the ninth century. In this part, we shall discuss how and why circumcision of boys came to be introduced into Coptic society towards the end of the eleventh century, and how the Coptic Church reacted to it.

But, if the Copts did not practice circumcision in the ninth century, when did they start that? We don’t know when exactly. However, there is circumstantial evidence that the Copts began emulating the example of the Muslims sometime in the second half of the Fatimid Period (1074 – 1171),[ii] and that circumcision became common during the Ayyubid Period (1171 – 1250 AD), and thereafter. This is the period of the language shift of the Copts from Coptic to Arabic in Lower Egypt,[iii] particularly in and around al-Qa’hira (Cairo) and Misr (Old Cairo) environs, the two most important centres of Muslim administration.[iv] This is also the period in which, following, and in consequence of, the Arabisation of the Copts,[v] Islamic assimilation or culturalisation of the Copts started – a process by which Copts, as individuals or collectively, consciously or subconsciously, abandoned their traditions, customs, behaviours, etc.; or in one word their culture – and acquired parts of Islamic culture to which influence they had been exposed. We can say that the twelfth and thirteenth are the centuries that witnessed the birth of these two interdependent processes. Not only did the Copts start assimilating the Muslim tradition of circumcision but also other bad social habits such as veiling and seclusion of women, banning the bridegroom from seeing the bride before marriage, first cousin marriages, and concubinage and divorce.[vi] It was inevitable as the Apocalypse of Samuel of Kalamoun[vii] had warned us: the lingual barriers first broke down when influential Coptic clerks in al-Qa’hira and Misr showed more interest in teaching their children Arabic rather than Coptic in order to advance their vocational careers. This resulted in Copts speaking, writing and reading Arabic while knowing little Coptic, which meant that they neglected the study of Coptic literature, and became ignorant of their intellectual heritage that underpinned their unique identity. When Copts, so alienated from their own culture, began to be exposed to the cultural influence of the dominant religion of the state and its social norms, it was just a matter of time when Arabic and Islamic culture displaced some of the known Coptic traditions, and replaced them with foreign practices. The introduction of circumcision into our nation must be seen as just one of the so many manifestations of this phenomenon.

Islam evidently advocated circumcision (khi’tan, خِِتَان), and that was on the authority of Muhammad himself, as his deeds and sayings (hadith) that have been relayed to us in Islamic literature tell us.[viii] Muslim scholars, whether Shiite or Sunni, codified the practice of circumcision, whether that of males or females, in their writings, and regarded it as part of Sharia.[ix] Some Muslim authorities even advocated executing a man who delayed in circumcising himself, or even waging war on the inhabitants of a country if they reached a unanimous decision to abandon circumcision.[x] So uncircumcision (ghalaf, غَلَف) became social stigma in Muslim societies and the uncircumcised (aghlaf, أغَْلَف, m.; ghal’fa, غَلْفَاء, f.) social outcasts since circumcision was regarded as one sign by which al-Mu’minun (the Faithful) and al-Kuffar (the infidels) could be distinguished. The words aghlaf and ghal’fa (or the sons of ghal’fa) have often been used in Muslim societies asswearing words.[xi]  Islamic circumcision, unlike in Jewish practice (which we shall see shortly), is usually performed at a later age, often at five or six years, or even beyond that.[xii] The Fatimids, who invaded Egypt in 969 AD, were known to be staunch supporters of circumcision, and performed it en masse with much celebration, festivities and spending of money.[xiii] The fourth Fatimid caliph, Al-Muizz Lideenillah (932 – 975), who became Egypt’s first Fatimid caliph, is said to have circumcised three of his children in 962 AD,[xiv] and ordered all his subjects to do so. He spent huge amounts of money on that, with each circumcised child receiving 150-200 dirham and a new attire. The ceremony was done in public, continued daily for a month, and each day, we are told, 5,000-10,000 children were circumcised. In Al-Mansuriya,[xv] the Fatimid seat of government then, alone 250,000 went under the knife. In Sicily half a million dinars werespent on circumcision of children during that month.  There is no doubt that the Fatimids raised the celebration of circumcision to a high level hitherto unknown, and made it a public social event – and Egypt seems to have taken that from them and kept it throughout the following centuries. Edward William Lane, who visited Egypt in the 1820s and 1830s, tells us in his AnAccount of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians about the lavish ceremonies and festivities attendant upon the circumcision of boys, whether children of common Egyptians, grandees or pashas.[xvi]

The position of Christianity on circumcision is a peculiar one and cannot be understood without reference to early history of Christianity when it was still in the early stages of differentiation from Judaism. The Old Testament tells us that Yahweh called Abraham and entered into a covenant with him, by which Abraham and his descendants after him, generation after generation, should circumcise their foreskin, “ … and this shall be the sign of the Covenant between myself and you. When they are eight days old all your male children must be circumcised… My Covenant shall be marked on your bodies as a mark in perpetuity. The uncircumcised male, whose foreskin has not been circumcised, such a man shall be cut off from his people: he has violated my Covenant.”[xvii] While Judaism took circumcision as a religious duty, Christianity insisted that that Covenant had been replaced by Christ’s sacrificial death; and the converted, whether Jews or Gentiles, became members of the new Israel simply by being baptised, and accepting the grace of God, through Jesus Christ. That was what St. Paul insisted on in the face of what a minority of Jewish Christians from Judea had called for, namely that those newcomers from Gentile background should get themselves circumcised and accept the Law of Moses, the Torah, before they could be admitted to the Christian fold. Without that they claimed they would not be saved and accepted by God as the old Covenant still stood.[xviii] To St. Paul, who took the leading role on this matter, circumcision was superseded by baptism; and, therefore, was rendered meaningless and futile.[xix] His anti-circumcision stance was uncompromisingly theological one – insisting on performing circumcision after one had turned Christian robbed him of the liberty he enjoyed in Christ Jesus, and reduced him to slavery .[xx] This was the position Egyptians inherited from St. Mark, a close associate of St. Paul, when he introduced Christianity to their land in the first century. For the Coptic Church the question about circumcision was decided once and for all by the Pauline theology. Origen in his Contra Celsum, which he wrote in 248 AD, tells us that Christ’s disciples were “forbidden to circumcise themselves, and are reminded [by the apostle]: ‘If ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.’[xxi][xxii]

The Pauline verse which Bishop John had quoted to the Abyssinians in the 9th century as he tried to convince them not to insist upon his circumcision, “If any man is called without circumcision, let him not be circumcised,”[xxiii][xxiv]seems to have been the foundation on which the Coptic Church based its position when circumcision was introduced later on into Coptic society: circumcision does not have any religious significance, and no man should practice the removal of his foreskin if he had been “called in” uncircumcised, that is if he had already received the grace of baptism. However, as boys were traditionally baptised at the age of forty days, it seems that a window of opportunity in the first forty days of life – when children were not yet technically ‘Christian’ – existed for those who wished to circumcise their children. That would not have been regarded as injurious to the Faith.

So as the newly acquired custom of circumcision was being introduced to Coptic societies by influential lay Copts, the Church felt the need to address and regulate it. For this a few ecclesiastical canons were issued and reaffirmed. The fact that almost all Coptic Church canons in the 12th and 13th century covered this topic, while earlier canons didn’t, is just another prove that circumcision was not original in Coptia, and that it was a new introduction in the Middle Ages. The earlier canons of the Coptic Church, which had often been enacted to address new problems as they emerged, never spoke about circumcision. These include the canons of Peter I (300 – 311 AD), Cyril I (412 – 444 AD), Timothy II (458 – 480 AD) and Athanasius II (488 – 494 AD).[xxv] [xxvi] Even the first known canonical system of the Middle Ages, that of Patriarch Christodoulos (1047 – 1077 AD), which was produced in 1048 AD, containing 33 canons, had no mention of circumcision, even as its first canon dealt with a baptismal matter.[xxvii] It is likely that the Copts did not yet know circumcision, or it represented a negligible social problem to require regulation by Christodoulos.

The three subsequent collections of canons that followed those of Christodoulos’, however, discussed circumcision – witness to the appearance of the practice of circumcision in Coptic society by then, and the need to regulate it in order to make it consistent with Christian faith. The first of these canonical systems is that of Patriarch Cyril II (1078 – 1092 AD), which is known to have been produced in 1086 AD.[xxviii] Its 19th canon states: “The Faithful who would like to circumcise their boys ought to circumcise them before baptism. No one should circumcise his son after baptism. Whoever breached this should be interdicted,[xxix] and not have share with us.”[xxx] One reads from this that the Copts, who adopted the tradition from the Muslims, circumcised their sons at the same age as Muslims did, that is when they were five years old or later, and that they most probably threw lavish parties and followed the same ceremonies and festivities. It is clear that Cyril II was addressing those few Copts who wished to circumcise their sons – he allowed them to circumcise their boys for as long as it was performed before baptism. Cyril II was succeeded by Michael IV (1092 – 1102 AD) and then Macarius II (1102 – 1131 AD). No canons are known to have been issued by either; however, we are told by the 13th century Coptic theologian and historian Abu Shakir ibn Butrus al-Rahib, in his Kitab al-Tawarikh, that Macarius II “ended many customs, amongst which Nazarenes’ boys used to be baptised before circumcision, and he made baptism follow circumcision.””[xxxi] We may conclude from this that Cyril II, despite his threat of interdiction and excommunication to Copts who insisted on circumcising their boys after baptism, failed to put a complete halt to the practice of delayed circumcision. One tends to think that those Copts who adopted the practice of Muslim circumcision did that mainly for the attractiveness of the ceremonies and festivities that accompanied it, and which gave them the opportunity to invite and mix with influential Muslims, thereby strengthening their social ties with the powers that be. It is very unlikely that lavish parties were thrown when the baptised were only little babies. The social aspect, and benefits, of circumcision ceremonies, which most probably triggered the original primary drive for Copts to adopt Muslim circumcision in its various aspects, seems to have been behind the failure of earlier efforts by the patriarchs to regulate the new custom.

The patriarch who followed Macarius II was Patriarch Gabriel II (1131 – 1145 AD), and he is known to have produced several canonical collections. The 20th canon of what is known as his ‘32-canon collection’[xxxii] was enacted, together with the rest, within a few years of the start of his patriarchate; and it did confirm the injunction of Cyril II: “No one should be circumcised after holy baptism. He who wants circumcision should do it before (baptism).”[xxxiii] There were no threats now of interdiction, presumably because Copts by this time became more obedient, and abandoned late circumcision of their sons – a matter which could be considered as a success story for the Coptic Church. But Gabriel II is interesting in many ways, not least because we know he had authored a Nomocanon[xxxiv] that included various elements of ecclesiastical and imperial Byzantine law sometime before his patriarchate, when he was yet a deacon at the church of St. Mercurius, in Misr, and known as Abu al-Ala’a ibn Turaik.[xxxv] In the Nomocanon he dedicated Chapter 40 for the collective problems of castration, penile amputation and circumcision. Gabriel II grouped them together because he considered them all to be undesirable mutilation of the body, God’s perfect creation. This thinking of the perfection of human body as the handmade of God had been the foundation of traditional Christian teaching on matters related to mutilation of the body – God’s creation should not be tampered with. The three practices were, therefore, all banned by earlier ecclesiastical law, putting those who performed any of them under sanctions. This theological anti-circumcision position of Gabriel II reminds us of Origen’s earlier statement that Christ’s disciples “were forbidden to circumcise themselves.” In defence of that position, Gabriel II quoted a canon from the First Council of Nicaea,[xxxvi] 1 Corinthians 7:18-20,[xxxvii] Galatians 5:2-4,[xxxviii] Philippians 3:2,[xxxix] and the 20TH canon of Epiphanius (bishop of Constantinople)[xl]. [xli] It may bring the reader to better understanding of the repugnance with which Gabriel II must had seen circumcision at that stage if we literally translate into English Philippians 3:2 which he quoted and gave in Arabic: “Beware of the dogs. Beware of the people of circumcision إحذروا من الكلاب; إحذروا من أهل الختان”. This is a bit different from what one finds in most translations of the New Testament;[xlii] and it helps to bring to the attention of the reader the strength of feeling with which circumcision was seen at earlier stages. Clearly Gabriel II took a theological stance against circumcision before his election to the patriarchate. There is no reason to suggest that he changed that position after his election; however, faced with a new social phenomenon, he did not work to uproot it but rather merely tried to regulate it as his predecessors had done before. Here we have evidently moved from a strict, theological anti-circumcision position to a laissez-faire attitude for as long as circumcision did not postdate baptism.

So, as one studies the history of Coptia during this period one may conclude that the subject of circumcision was introduced into our nation by some influential clerks who worked in the Muslim administration in al-Qa’hira and Misr sometime in the late eleventh century; and that they did that most probably to promote their own career through making themselves socially acceptable by Muslims for as much as possible. Circumcision was not widespread across Coptic communities and social strata. Where it was undertaken it was performed only on boys, with no evidence whatsoever that girls’ circumcision was practised by Copts at that early stage. The Coptic Church in the past took a fundamental Paulinistic attitude against circumcision; however, as it crept into society in the second-half of the Fatimid Period, the Church took a theological stance against it when it was performed after baptism, but assumed a more relaxed, and practical, position about it when it was done before baptism. Circumcision of boys during the first forty days of life was regarded as permissible but remained optional. The regulatory position of the Church, so cleverly devised, was in essence a compromise that allowed influential Copts to adopt a foreign custom previously banned by the Church – and the compromise was seen as consistent with the Pauline theology. What we see here is a regulation of a foreign Muslim tradition with the only objective of putting it in line with the Faith. Circumcision was not discussed as a health or moral issue, and the effects of adopting an Islamic custom on the national character of the Copts, and its potential assistance in the gradual Islamic culturalisation of the Copts, was not contemplated. Despite the theological challenge circumcision had posed, all parties in Coptia were very much relaxed about it, most probably because it did not represent yet a huge social phenomenon. It is clear that circumcision at that time did not represent a bone of contention within Coptia upon which Copts bitterly divided. Not in the next stage, however, as we shall see.

How to cite this article: Dioscorus Boles (16 February 2012), CIRCUMCISION AND THE COPTS – A HISTORY: PART II,  

If you like this, you may want also to read Part III at: Dioscorus Boles (24 June 2012), CIRCUMCISION AND THE COPTS – A HISTORY: PART III,

[i] See: Dioscorus Boles, Circumcision and the Copts – A History: Part I. You can access it here:

[ii] The Fatimid Period in Egypt started strong in 969 AD but at the beginning of the reign of the fifth caliph, al-Mustansir billah (1036 – 1094 AD), internal wars, economic crises and epidemics weakened the state. It was the Armenian soldier, Badr al-Jamali, invited by al-Mustansir in 1073 AD to be his vizier, who saved it from total collapse, and by his dynamic energy reduced rebellions and restored its economy.  He was followed by five more Armenians, who together with al-Jamali, ruled the state for a total of 58 years, in what is called the “Armenian period”. The rule of the Armenians, which coincided with the beginning of the second Fatimid Period, was favourable to the Copts.

[iii] The dating of the beginning of this particular language shift from Coptic to Arabic has been a subject of wide speculations, and has often been misled by putting undue emphasis on writings of the Muslim historian al-Maqrizi (1364 – 1442 AD) and the Coptic theologian Severus ibn al-Muqaffaʿ or Severus of El Ashmunein (d. 987 AD). There is no doubt that while Arabisation started in Upper Egypt, particularly in the environ of Misr, early, most of Upper Egypt remained speaking Coptic until late.

[iv] Misr (or Misr al-Fus’tat) was the ancient town that remained for a long time the main Muslim seat of administration before the Fatimids founded al-Qa’hira in 969 AD and the arrival of the Fatimid caliph al-Mu‘izz li Dīn Allāh in 973 AD in it. Today, the Cairo capital of Egypt spread across large area to include both Misr and the ancient al-Qa’hira. What is called now Coptic (or Old) Cairo represents roughly the area of ancient Misr. Al-Qa’hira is the area somewhat north of it around al-Azhar mosque.

[v] Arabisation, in the Coptic context, is the process and phenomenon by which Egyptians/Copts stopped talking in their own Egyptian/Coptic language, and adopted Arabic as their main daily language. It is thus a process of language shift from Coptic to Arabic.

[vi] Even as early as 695 AD some Copts started emulating the Muslims in divorcing their wives and pressurizing the Church, by use of the Muslim authorities’ arm, to allow them to remarry again. There is no evidence, however, that these cases were many. We read in the Biography of the 42nd Coptic patriarch, Simon I (689 – 701 AD): “There were at that time men who were like the Gentiles, and abstained from their lawful wives, and took unlawful mistresses, showing their subjection to their passions; and yet they said that they were Christians. But the bishops rejected them, and repulsed them from the Holy Mysteries. So some of them went to the Amir and said to him: ‘We are forbidden to marry, and they have cast us out so that we are forced to commit fornication’.” Severus of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria, Part 3: Agathon – Michael I (766 AD). Arabic text edited, translated, and annotated by B. Evetts. Patrologia Orientalis, Tome V (Paris; 1910); p. 43.

[vii] The Apocalypse of Samuel of Kalamoun (or Qalamun/Qalamoun) is attributed to the 7th century Coptic saint, who witnessed the persecution of Cyrus, the Chalcedonian bishop and governor, just before the Arab occupation of Egypt in 640 AD, which he also lived through its first years. There may be an authentic core in it that dates back to St. Samuel, but there is no doubt that the bulk of it is of later composition sometime in the Middle Ages. I tend to think it was a 13th century composition, but there are differences on its date by different Coptologists. Anyway, the Apocalypse denounces the two interdependent processes of Arabisation and Islamic culturalisation which the Copts went through, and holds them responsible for the negligence of our Christian duties, the abandoning by Christ of our nation, and the continuation of the Arab and Muslim oppression. The Apocalypse of Samuel was translated into French by J. Ziadeh (Revue de l’Orient chrétien; Vol. 20; 1915-1917); pp. 374-407.

[viii] The fact that circumcision of both males and females was based on Mohammad’s sunna is not in dispute. The reader can consult the books of Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. It is acknowledged that there is no mention of circumcision in Koran, and that the emphasis on female circumcision rests on performing the less severe form of it. For more on this matter, read: Sami A. Aldeeb Abu –Sahlieh, Muslims’ Genitalia in the Hands of the Clergy, Religious Arguments about Male and Female Circumcision (August 1998); pp. 22-24.

[ix] Sami A. Aldeeb Abu –Sahlieh, Muslims’ Genitalia in the Hands of the Clergy, Religious Arguments about Male and Female Circumcision; pp. 10-11.

[x] Ibid; pp. 10-11.

[xi] Ibid; p. 7.

[xii] Edward William Lane, in his An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians; Vol. 1 (London; John Murray; 1871); p. 71, writes about circumcision within the Muslims of Egypt: “At the age of about five or six years, or sometimes later, the boy is circumcised” Then in a footnote (1; p. 71), he adds: “Among the peasants, not infrequently at the age of twelve, thirteen, or fourteen years.” Although Lane wrote his book in the first half of the 19th century, it is thought that the age at which Muslims circumcised their boys had not really changed from the earlier centuries.

[xiii] For this, read: Hassan Ibrahim Hassan and Taha Ahmad Sharaf, al-mu’izz lideenillah (Cairo; Maktabat al-Nahda al-Masriya; 2nd. Ed.; 1964); pp. 273-276.

[xiv] RabiaAwal, 351 AH. RabiaAwal in that year, started 9 April 962 AD and ended 8 May. The three children we are told of were Abdullah, Nazar and U’kail.

[xv] It was the seat of the Fatimid government, and is located near Kairouan, Tunis. The seat of the government moved to Egypt after its occupation in 969 AD, and the establishment of Cairo.

[xvi] Edward William Lane, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (London; John Murray; 1871); pp. 244-247; 100-102. The reader may also be referred to my article: Egyptian Play: The Egyptian Fellah, His Wife, the Turkish Nazir, the Arab Sheykh el-Beled and the Coptic Clerk, at:

[xvii] Genesis 17: 9-14

[xviii] Read the story of the dispute about circumcision in Acts 15.

[xix] 1 Corinthians 7:19

[xx] Galatians 2: 4-7

[xxi] Galatians 5: 2

[xxii] Anti-Nicene Christian Library: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325. Edited by the Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson; Vol. XXIII; Origen Contra Celsum (Edinburph; T. & T. Clark; MDCCCLXXXII); p. 319.

[xxiii] 1 Corinthians 7: 18

[xxiv] For the story of Bishop John, read: Circumcision and the Copts: A History: Part I.

[xxv] I go along with Athanasius al-Maqari in his The Canons of Pope Athanasius Patriarch of Alexandria (in Arabic) (2nd ed., Cairo, 2006), that the author of these canons wasn’t Patriarch Athanasius I , known as the Great (328–339 AD), the 20th patriarch, but his successor down the line, Athanasius II, who was the 28th patriarch.

[xxvi] I have left out other canons that are recognised and used by the Coptic Church but were not produced by Egyptian ecclesiastics. Such works include the canons of Hippolytus, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom.

[xxvii] The 1st canon of Patriarch Christodoulos states: “No male and female should be baptised at the same time (in the same baptismal font)”. Athanasius al-Maqari, qawaneen batarikat alkaneesa alqubtiya fil u’sur alwusta (The Canons of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church in the Middle Ages (in Arabic) (Cairo, 2010); p. 35. The English translation from Arabic is mine.

[xxviii] See the Biography of Cyril II in History of the patriarchs of the Egyptian Church: known as the History of the Holy Church / by Sawirus ibn al-Mukaffa`, Bishop of al-Asmunin. Vol. 2 pt. 3: Christodoulus-Michael (A.D. 1046-1102) tr. & annotated by Aziz Suryal Atiya, Yassa ‘Abd al-Masih & O.H.E. Burmester (Cairo; Société d’archéologie copte; 1959).

[xxix] The ecclesiastic sanction of interdiction entails banning the individual from partaking of the Holy Communion.

[xxx] Athanasius al-Maqari, qawaneen batarikat alkaneesa alqubtiya fil u’sur alwusta; p. 60. The English translation from Arabic is mine.

[xxxi] See tarikh abi shakir butrus ibn abi alkaram ibn almohazab, alm’arouf bibn alrahib, published by Father Louis Sheikho, the Jesuit(Berut; 1903); p. 139.

[xxxii] Athanasius al-Maqari, qawaneen batarikat alkaneesa alqubtiya fil u’sur alwusta; pp.84-85; 219-234.

[xxxiii] Athanasius al-Maqari, qawaneen batarikat alkaneesa alqubtiya fil u’sur alwusta; p. 230. The English translation from Arabic is mine.

[xxxiv] Nomocanon, from the Greek, which means rule of the law, is a collection of ecclesiastical law that consists of both canon law (derived from different Church sources) and the Byzantine civil law. On the Nomocanon of Gabriel II, see: Athanasius al-Maqari, qawaneen batarikat alkaneesa alqubtiya fil u’sur alwusta; pp. 90-218.

[xxxv] We know Gabriel II was born 1084 AD. He became patriarch in 1131 AD, when he was 47. He probably wrote his Nomocanon sometime in the 1120s. He worked then as clerk in the Fatimid administration, which he continued to do until his election to the patriarchate. For more on Gabriel II, read his Biography in: History of the patriarchs of the Egyptian Church: known as the History of the Holy Church / by Sawirus ibn al-Mukaffa`, Bishop of al-Asmunin. Vol. 3 pt. 1: Macarius II-John V (A.D. 1102-1167) tr. & annotated by Antoine Khater & O.H.E. Khs-Burmester (Cairo; Société d’archéologie copte; 1968);

[xxxvi] Gabriel II says that “The 318 said in the 18thchapter: ‘The circumcised and those who castrate themselves: if they had been afflicted by a disease leading to a surgeon performing an operation on them; or they had been captured by Berbers who forced them to be circumcised or castrated; they should stay in clergy. If any of them performed that on themselves and had no disease to justify it, let he be suspended if he is a priest, and if he is a lay person and wants to be priest let he not be admitted. As for those who were cut by the Berbers, or castrated by their masters, and they deserve priesthood, the canonical law allows them (if they have no fault).’” By reviewing the 20 authentic canons of the First Council of Nicaea, which was attended by 318 bishops, none mentions circumcision or castration. There are non-authentic 84 canons attributed to the Council, which were in circulation at that time in the area, and perhaps Gabriel II took his quote from them. I could not get access to these non-authentic canons. It remains, however, true that the Copts in the Middle Ages had in circulation different collections attributed to the First Council of Nicaea. We know that from Ibn Kabar (al-Shaykh al-Mu’taman Shams al-Riyasah ibn al-Shaykh al-As’ad Abu al-Barakat ibn Kabar), the encyclopaedic Coptic scholar (d. 1234 AD). Ibn Kabar gives us three lists of the canons of the First Council of Nicaea in his Misbah al-Zulmah, fi Idah al-Khidmah: only the first two include a canon on castration and circumcision (but with different order from that given by Gabriel II: the first list gives it the number 19; the second list gives it the number 1).

[xxxvii] “Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God. Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.” (1 Corinthians 7:18-20)

[xxxviii]“Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” (Galatians 5:2-4)

[xxxix]Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision.” (Philippians 3:2)

[xl] Epiphanius, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (520 – 535 AD). Gabriel II quotes him: “Any lay person who circumcises himself should be banned from Holy Communion for three years; and any clergy who circumcise should be suspended.”

[xli] Athanasius al-Maqari, qawaneen batarikat alkaneesa alqubtiya fil u’sur alwusta; pp.196-197.

[xlii] The King James Bible (Cambridge Ed.) reads: “Beware of dogs; beware of the evil workers, beware of concision.” The New International Version (1984) gives the following translation: “”Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil. Those mutilators of the flesh.”

14 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2012 6:06 pm

    Just say NO!

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink
      February 18, 2012 3:53 pm

      Alex, that algorithm summarises it all.

  2. February 18, 2012 3:45 pm

    This was very interesting and educational, thank you so much for the info.:)

    PS:You might want to read the following:

  3. Dioscorus Boles permalink
    February 18, 2012 3:54 pm

    Thank, Will. I will come to the important topic you posted a link to later in the main page.

  4. Katherine permalink
    July 10, 2012 4:19 pm

    This was fascinating to read from a Melkite perspective, where the tradition to remain uncircumcised is very strong, in spite of it’s nick-name “The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque” (or perhaps because of it?) Being a Christian church in the Holy Land I think marked the Melkites as a Church to set itself apart from the Jews and Muslims there in Palestine, and circumcision (or not the decision not to circumcise) is one way to do this. I think it very interesting how each of the different traditions in the middle east have responded to the outside influences. Thank you again for posting this.

  5. Mariam Aziz permalink
    November 22, 2012 12:43 am

    Dioscorus, the work you have done investigating this issue is fascinating.
    I am writing currently writing my thesis and would love to speak to you further. If you could email me or provide me with a way to get in touch with you, I would be extremely grateful!


  7. Random Thought: Christ the “Firstborn” and Mary the “Ever”-Virgin « My Blog

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