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Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol III:
Tertullian: Part I: Of Circumcision and the Supercession of the Old Law.

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter III.—Of Circumcision and the Supercession of the Old Law.

But Abraham, (you say,) was circumcised. Yes, but he pleased God before his circumcision; 1162 nor yet did he observe the Sabbath. For he had “accepted” 1163 circumcision; but such as was to be for “a sign” of that time, not for a prerogative title to salvation. In fact, subsequent patriarchs were uncircumcised, like Melchizedek, who, uncircumcised, offered to Abraham himself, already circumcised, on his return from battle, bread and wine. 1164 “But again,” (you say) “the son of Moses would upon one occasion have been choked by an angel, if Zipporah, 1165 had not circumcised the foreskin of the infant with a pebble; whence, “there is the greatest peril if any fail to circumcise the foreskin of his flesh.” Nay, but if circumcision altogether brought salvation, even Moses himself, in the case of his own son, would not have omitted to circumcise him on the eighth day; whereas it is agreed that Zipporah did it on the journey, at the compulsion of the angel. Consider we, accordingly, that one single infant’s compulsory circumcision cannot have prescribed to every people, and founded, as it were, a law for keeping this precept. For God, foreseeing that He was about to give this circumcision to the people of Israel for “a sign,” not for salvation, urges the circumcision of the son of Moses, their future leader, for this reason; that, since He had begun, through him, to give the People the precept of cirp. 154 cumcision, the people should not despise it, from seeing this example (of neglect) already exhibited conspicuously in their leader’s son. For circumcision had to be given; but as “a sign,” whence Israel in the last time would have to be distinguished, when, in accordance with their deserts, they should be prohibited from entering the holy city, as we see through the words of the prophets, saying, “Your land is desert; your cities utterly burnt with fire; your country, in your sight, strangers shall eat up; and, deserted and subverted by strange peoples, the daughter of Zion shall be derelict, like a shed in a vineyard, and like a watchhouse in a cucumber-field, and as it were a city which is being stormed.” 1166 Why so?  Because the subsequent discourse of the prophet reproaches them, saying, “Sons have I begotten and upraised, but they have reprobated me;” 1167 and again, “And if ye shall have outstretched hands, I will avert my face from you; and if ye shall have multiplied prayers, I will not hear you: for your hands are full of blood;” 1168 and again, “Woe! sinful nation; a people full of sins; wicked sons; ye have quite forsaken God, and have provoked unto indignation the Holy One of Israel.” 1169 This, therefore, was God’s foresight,—that of giving circumcision to Israel, for a sign whence they might be distinguished when the time should arrive wherein their above-mentioned deserts should prohibit their admission into Jerusalem:  which circumstance, because it was to be, used to be announced; and, because we see it accomplished, is recognised by us. For, as the carnal circumcision, which was temporary, was in wrought for “a sign” in a contumacious people, so the spiritual has been given for salvation to an obedient people; while the prophet Jeremiah says, “Make a renewal for you, and sow not in thorns; be circumcised to God, and circumcise the foreskin of your heart:” 1170 and in another place he says, “Behold, days shall come, saith the Lord, and I will draw up, for the house of Judah and for the house of Jacob, 1171 a new testament; not such as I once gave their fathers in the day wherein I led them out from the land of Egypt.” 1172 Whence we understand that the coming cessation of the former circumcision then given, and the coming procession of a new law (not such as He had already given to the fathers), are announced: just as Isaiah foretold, saying that in the last days the mount of the Lord and the house of God were to be manifest above the tops of the mounts: “And it shall be exalted,” he says, “above the hills; and there shall come over it all nations; and many shall walk, and say, Come, ascend we unto the mount of the Lord, and unto the house of the God of Jacob,” 1173 —not of Esau, the former son, but of Jacob, the second; that is, of our “people,” whose “mount” is Christ, “præcised without concisors’ hands, 1174 filling every land,” shown in the book of Daniel. 1175 In short, the coming procession of a new law out of this “house of the God of Jacob” Isaiah in the ensuing words announces, saying, “For from Zion shall go out a law, and the word of the Lord out of Jerusalem, and shall judge among the nations,”—that is, among us, who have been called out of the nations,—“and they shall join to beat their glaives into ploughs, and their lances into sickles; and nations shall not take up glaive against nation, and they shall no more learn to fight.” 1176 Who else, therefore, are understood but we, who, fully taught by the new law, observe these practices,—the old law being obliterated, the coming of whose abolition the action itself 1177 demonstrates? For the wont of the old law was to avenge itself by the vengeance of the glaive, and to pluck out “eye for eye,” and to inflict retaliatory revenge for injury. 1178 But the new law’s wont was to point to clemency, and to convert to tranquillity the pristine ferocity of “glaives” and “lances,” and to remodel the pristine execution of “war” upon the rivals and foes of the law into the pacific actions of “ploughing” and “tilling” the land. 1179 Therefore as we have shown above that the coming cessation of the old law and of the carnal circumcision was declared, so, too, the observance of the new law and the spiritual circumcision has shone out into the voluntary obediences 1180 of peace. For “a people,” he says, “whom I knew not hath served me; in obedience of the ear it hath obeyed me.” 1181 Prophets made the announcement. But what is the “people” which was ignorant of God, but ours, who in days bygone knew not God? and who, in the p. 155 hearing of the ear, gave heed to Him, but we, who, forsaking idols, have been converted to God? For Israel—who had been known to God, and who had by Him been “upraised” 1182 in Egypt, and was transported through the Red Sea, and who in the desert, fed forty years with manna, was wrought to the semblance of eternity, and not contaminated with human passions, 1183 or fed on this world’s 1184 meats, but fed on “angel’s loaves” 1185 —the manna—and sufficiently bound to God by His benefits—forgot his Lord and God, saying to Aaron: “Make us gods, to go before us: for that Moses, who ejected us from the land of Egypt, hath quite forsaken us; and what hath befallen him we know not.” And accordingly we, who “were not the people of God” in days bygone, have been made His people, 1186 by accepting the new law above mentioned, and the new circumcision before foretold.



See Gen. 12:0, Gen. 17:0, Rom. 4:0.


Acceperat. So Tertullian renders, as it appears to me, the ἔλαβε of St. Paul in Rom. iv. 11. q. v.


There is, if the text be genuine, some confusion here.  Melchizedek does not appear to have been, in any sense, “subsequent” to Abraham, for he probably was senior to him; and, moreover, Abraham does not appear to have been “already circumcised” carnally when Melchizedek met him. Comp. Gen. 14:0, Gen. 17:0.


Tertullian writes Seffora; the LXX. in loco, Σεπφώρα Ex. iv. 24-26, where the Eng. ver. says, “the Lord met him,” etc.; the LXX ἄγγελος Κυρίου.


Isa. 1:7, 8. See c. xiii. sub fin.


Again an error; for these words precede the others. These are found in Isa. i. 2.


Isa. i. 15.


Isa. i. 4.


Jer. 4:3, 4. In Eng. ver., “break up your fallow ground;” but comp. de Pu. c. vi. ad init.


So Tertullian. In Jer. ibid. “Israel and…Judah.”


Jer. 31:31, 32 (in LXX. ibid. xxxviii. 31, 32); comp. Heb. viii. 8-13.


Isa. 2:2, 3.


Perhaps an allusion to Phil. 3:1, 2.


See Dan. 2:34, 35, 44, 45. See c. xiv. below.


Isa. 2:3, 4.


i.e., of beating swords into ploughs, etc.


Comp. Exod. 21:24, 25, Lev. 24:17, Deut. 19:11, Matt. 5:38.


Especially spiritually. Comp. 1 Cor. 3:6, 1 Cor. 9:9, 10, and similar passages.


Obsequia. See de Pa. c. iv. note 1.


See Ps. 18:43, 44 (xvii. 44, 45 in LXX.), where the Eng. ver. has the future; the LXX., like Tertullian, the past. Comp. 2 Sam. 22:44, 45, Rom. 10:14.


Comp. Isa. i. 2 as above, and Acts xiii. 17.




Or, perhaps, “not affected, as a body, with human sufferings;” in allusion to such passages as Deut. 8:4, Deut. 29:5, Neh. 9:21.


Ps. 78:25, John 6:31.


See Hos. 1:10, 1 Pet. 2:10.

Next: Of the Observance of the Sabbath.

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