JJMJS Issue 10 (2023)
Circumcision, Gender, and Ethnicity
In May 2019, Karin Neutel invited numerous scholars who specialize in circumcision in the ancient world to the University of Oslo to discuss our research (some of the research that was shared at that event later became JJMJS Issue 8 ). At the end of that conference, Karin jokingly suggested I should host another circumcision conference in Edinburgh once we had more to say on the topic. Two years and one global pandemic later, there was more to be said. With the support of the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for the Study of Christian Origins, I did indeed host another circumcision conference—this time online—with the theme “Circumcision, Gender, and Ethnicity in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity.”
The theme of this conference focused on two central aspects of Jewish circumcision in the ancient world that make it a fascinating ritual practice to study; it is both gendered and ethnically specific. Within the context of ancient Judaism and early Christianity, it is male and Jewish; it is performed on the bodies of male Jewish infants on the eighth day after birth. Given that the practice of circumcision is an embodied ritual that confirms a particular identity, the fact that it only applies to a specific subset of people raises several interesting questions. How do Jewish women relate to the ritual? For those who performed circumcision on male converts to Judaism, is there a comparable ritual for female converts to Judaism? What was the status of uncircumcised Jewish men? When we turn to the New Testament—specifically the letters of Paul—how is the issue of circumcision treated in non-Jewish assemblies? Does Paul replace the physical ritual with circumcision of the heart, extending the rite to include women and non-Jews? Why would a non-Jew even seek to be circumcised? The conference papers that now make up this issue answer these questions and more.
Isaac Soon’s article explores the status of uncircumcised Jewish men and uncircumsizable Jewish women within the ancient Jewish community context. He highlights how their lack of circumcised bodies brings about a liminal status within the community, in which they are Jewish but on the threshold of being non-Jewish. Carmen Palmer’s contribution looks at female converts in the Dead Sea Scrolls, specifically enslaved non-Jewish women. She proposes that in the Temple Scroll and 4QDamascus fragments, marriage and a seven-year integration period function as a visible marker of conversion for these women, which is analogous to the visible mark of circumcision. Continuing the theme of women and circumcision, Thomas Blanton traces the history of female participation in the ritual from ancient Judaism to late antiquity. His reassessment of the relevant sources shows that mothers or fathers initially performed the ritual in a household context, but by late antiquity it was being performed by ritual specialists (mohels) outwith the household.
The second half of the issue explores concerns related to circumcision in the letters of Paul. Martin Sanfridson looks at Paul’s letter to the assemblies in Galatia and—rather than asking, “Why does Paul oppose the circumcision of non-Jews?—he asks, “Why did the Galatians want to get circumcised?” Sanfridson proposes that by giving the non-Jews in his assemblies a new cultic life and genealogy linking them to Abraham, Paul inadvertently makes them more susceptible to a message that requires them to be circumcised. My contribution to this issue reassesses the role that circumcision of the heart plays in Paul’s letters. While many readers of Paul have argued that Paul replaces physical circumcision with circumcision of the heart or note that circumcision of the heart is the “true circumcision” for Paul, I argue that this does not play a central role in Paul’s thinking. In his letters, we find no repudiation of the circumcision of Jews nor the explicit promotion of heart-circumcision for non-Jews. In the final essay, Andrew Rillera looks at different types of circumcision ancient Jews performed and how understanding the varieties of circumcision can help us understand the individuals Paul opposes in Philippians and Galatians. Rillera argues that in these letters, Paul opposes those practicing a novel and more severe circumcision (periah) than was the norm, aiming to surgically guarantee control over their passions. In the concluding essay, Matthew Novenson offers a summative assessment of the essays in this special issue and their contribution to the study of circumcision in ancient Judaism and early Christianity.
I must thank all who participated in our online conference: Thomas Blanton, Kathy Ehrensperger, Matthew Novenson, Karin Nuetel, Carmen Palmer, Andrew Rillera, Martin Sanfridson, Isaac Soon, Matthew Thiessen, M Adryael Tong, and everyone who attended these papers and engaged with our research. Thank you to Anders Runesson for showing interest in publishing these articles in JJMJS and to Knut Høyland and Wally Cirafesi for their work on this issue. Finally, I give many thanks to our anonymous reviewers for giving us their time and numerous insightful comments.
Ryan D. Collman
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