Christ Circumcised

Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and Difference

Andrew S. Jacobs
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Christ Circumcised
    Book Description:

    In the first full-length study of the circumcision of Jesus, Andrew S. Jacobs turns to an unexpected symbol-the stereotypical mark of the Jewish covenant on the body of the Christian savior-to explore how and why we think about difference and identity in early Christianity. Jacobs explores the subject of Christ's circumcision in texts dating from the first through seventh centuries of the Common Era. Using a diverse toolkit of approaches, including the psychoanalytic, postcolonial, and poststructuralist, he posits that while seeming to desire fixed borders and a clear distinction between self (Christian) and other (Jew, pagan, and heretic), early Christians consistently blurred and destabilized their own religious boundaries. He further argues that in this doubled approach to others, Christians mimicked the imperial discourse of the Roman Empire, which exerted its power through the management, not the erasure, of difference. For Jacobs, the circumcision of Christ vividly illustrates a deep-seated Christian duality: the fear of and longing for an other, at once reviled and internalized. From his earliest appearance in the Gospel of Luke to the full-blown Feast of the Divine Circumcision in the medieval period, Christ circumcised represents a new way of imagining Christians and their creation of a new religious culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0651-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Splitting the Difference
    (pp. 1-14)

    This is a surprisingly long book about a small mark: the circumcision of Christ, as it was imagined and interpreted in the first several centuries of Christianity. I propose to use this curious sign to begin to rethink the historical problem of Christian difference. By the historical problem of Christian difference I mean this: how do we, as historians, devise a narrative that reconciles the persistent Christian discourses of unity and singularity with the undeniable existence of multiple, diverse Christianities in antiquity? As Rebecca Lyman has phrased the problem: “‘Christianity’ defined as ‘orthodoxy’ rests uncomfortably on a history of inner...

  5. Chapter 1 Circumcision and the Cultural Economy of Difference
    (pp. 15-40)

    In the early second century, the Roman historian Suetonius described an incident from decades earlier under the revenue-hungry emperor Domitian: “Besides the other [taxes], the Jewish tax (Iudaïcus fiscus) was pursued with especial vigor: for which those persons were turned over (deferebantur)¹ who either lived a Jewish life undeclared or who, lying about their origins, had not paid the levy imposed on their people. I recall being present, as a teenager, when an old man, of ninety years, was inspected by a procurator (and a crowded court!) to see whether he was circumcised” (Suet. Dom. 12.2).² This brief, brutal scene...

  6. Chapter 2 (De-)Judaizing Christ’s Circumcision: The Dialogue of Difference
    (pp. 41-71)

    Over a quarter century ago, the historian of early Christianity Robert Markus elegantly noted: “The history of Christian self-definition cannot be written in terms of a steady progression from simple to complex. In one sense the whole of the church’s history is a growth in self-awareness; every important encounter with a new society, a new culture, with shifts in men’s assumptions about their world, themselves or God, with upheavals in the values by which they try to live, brings with it new self-discovery. Psychologists have long been telling us that we discover our selves only in encounter: what is self...

  7. Chapter 3 Heresy, Theology, and the Divine Circumcision
    (pp. 72-99)

    In the fifth century, Vincentius of Lerins famously described Christian orthodoxy as “that which everywhere, always, and by everyone was believed.”¹ Traditionally, we have understood Vincentius to be asserting the continuity of orthodoxy through time and space.² Yet we might hear this claim to singular discourse differently within the political framework of the late Roman Empire. As I explained in Chapter I, no overarching “Romanness” defined participation in the Roman Empire. Rather, the empire existed by virtue of its ability to contain and manage difference. Reading historically between Vincentius’s lines, then, we might hear him trumpeting not continuous assent stretching...

  8. Chapter 4 Dubious Difference: Epiphanius on the Jewish Christians
    (pp. 100-118)

    At the nexus of Judaism and heresy lies “Jewish Christianity,” a concept that signals the myriad ways that orthodoxy imagines religious truth might meander into a dangerous intermediary terrain: a space of otherness that is Judaized, but not quite Jewish. The term “Jewish Christian” itself does not exist among ancient Christians,¹ functioning rather (in Daniel Boyarin’s formulation) as a “term of art in a modernist heresiology.”² This modernist term covers a vast and impossible terrain, like the endless stretches of dragon-infested ocean on the edges of a medieval map. After listing roughly eight ways in which modern scholars deploy “Jewish...

  9. Chapter 5 Scriptural Distinctions: Reading Between the Lines
    (pp. 119-145)

    In Jerome’s notorious quarrel with Rufinus at the beginning of the fifth century, spanning theological and social networks from Rome to Bethlehem, the churlish monk had occasion to define the nature of commentary:¹

    For what qualities do commentaries possess? They explicate another’s words (alterius dicto); they lay out in plain speech what was obscurely written; they disclose the opinions of many people, and they say: “Some explicate this passage in this way, others interpret it in that way”; they strive to establish their own meaning and understanding by these witnesses for this reason: so that the sensible reader, when he...

  10. Chapter 6 “Let Us Be Circumcised!”: Ritual Differences
    (pp. 146-178)

    Jonathan Z. Smith has explained ritual as “above all, an assertion of difference,” and explained that ritual is “concerned with the elaboration of relative difference that is never overcome.”¹ We see ritualized the “difference that is never overcome” clearly in early Christian commemoration of Christ’s circumcision, on January 1. We have seen, in the previous chapters, how early Christians transformed the stereotypical signifier of Jewish identity into a malleable, even contradictory sign of Christianity: in texts, homilies, treatises, and letters, in discussions of theology, Scripture, and practice. The Feast of the Circumcision ritualizes and inscribes these paradoxical discourses into the...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 179-190)

    In a 1997 essay that asked how Jewish feminist scholarship might be applied to “issues other than the explicitly gendered,”¹ Susannah Heschel described Jesus as a theological transvestite: “Just as gender may be seen to be performative, so too Jesus and even Christianity and Judaism can be seen as constructs of the modern period, which exist by the virtue of performative activity. The anxiety over the self-definition of the two religions, and over the boundaries between them, comes into relief through discussions of the jewishness of the historical figure of Jesus. Jesus, I argue, functions as a kind of theological...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 191-268)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 269-308)
  14. Index
    (pp. 309-312)
  15. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 313-314)