Roman Bath

Pompeian interior, The Thermae by Forum by Joseph Theodor Hansen (1848–1912)

For nearly 600 years, some Jews tried to remove the mark of the covenant

“Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised on the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” So said God to Abraham, establishing the covenant of circumcision, a covenant “between me and you and your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:10, 14).

For centuries, Jewish boys have regularly been circumcised when they are eight days old (Genesis 17:12). An unusual challenge to circumcision developed, however, in the Hellenistic period (after about 133 B.C.E.a). Hellenistic and Roman societies widely practiced public nakedness. But they abhorred baring the tip of the penis, called the glans. To expose the glans was considered vulgarly humorous, indecent or both. This combination of attitudes could be—and often was—devastating for circumcised Jews. Enjoying oneself in a Greek gymnasium or Roman bath, where nudity was de rigueur, was a popular and stylish pastime. Here politics was discussed and business deals concluded. Athletic contests and exhibitions were also conducted in the nude. Participation in athletics was often a prerequisite for social advancement. Yet a circumcised penis effectively precluded this participation.

Consequently, for hundreds of years some Jews underwent a surgical procedure known as epispasm—an operation that “corrected” a circumcised penis. Some might call it circumcision in reverse. From references and allusions to the procedure in classical and rabbinic literature, it appears that epispasm reached the peak of its popularity in the first century C.E.

Read the rest of Epispasm—Circumcision in Reverse in the online Biblical Archaeology Society Library.