Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Circumcision Debate

The academics are still debating the circumcision question. Some provocative issues have been raised concerning the reasons why Saul was issued letters from the High Priest to persecute the followers of Jesus. It is agreed that they were violating the laws of Moses but it is not known which violation triggered the issuance of the letters. Could it have been circumcision?

There are several authors that present critical information about the circumcision question.

In 1 Maccabees, we read about some Jews who built a gymnasium in Jerusalem and "made themselves uncircumcised." Thus it is evident that there were many Jewish men in the Hellenistic period who were uncircumcised, never having been circumcised, or underwent a surgical procedure to reverse the sign of their circumcision. Therefore we must assume that there was a wide variety of Jewish views on circumcision in the First Century. The evidence for uncircumcised yet practicing Jews is indirect but unequivocal.

The Jewish followers of Jesus attracted to their movements many Jews who had ceased to practice Judaism, some because they had been excluded by Jewish society and other because their occupation or their conduct had made them pariahs. The movement probably also attracted Jews who shared the Greek and Roman abhorrence of circumcision.

The Circumcision Party objected to the inclusions of these Jewish males as full members of Jewish society quoting Genesis: "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." Perhaps these certain Jews viewed the actions of Paul as threatening cultural survival.

Consequently we should review some of the writings.

The Book of Jubilees, as confirmed by Christiansen, is an important example of Palestinian Jewish writing. Christiansen notes that the author of the Book of Jubilees introduces the angel of presence as the writer of the tablets received by Moses on Sinai. Stephen’s last sermon includes the idea that the laws were promulgated through angels. Secondly, “... Israel’s identity depends on Jerusalem as its geographical centre of holiness.” The third reason is Jubilees has elevated the importance of the rite of circumcision from a sign of obedience “by adding eternal validity in making it a law written on heavenly tablets (Jub 15:25-34).” Finally, “It is noteworthy that Jubilees lacks criticism of contemporary religious structures. The established cult is accepted; the present temple is a valid means for atonement and moreover serves as an important centre for holiness and for social and religious identity. Because Jerusalem is a centre of shared identity, it unites the nation and helps to maintain the social structure, and as such it is not questioned.”

Luke is the only New Testament writer to tell us about the circumcision of the Messiah and the only New Testament writer to defend the covenant of circumcision.

According to Talbert, “The echoes are unmistakable. Sound, fire, and speech understood by all people were characteristic of the Sinai theophany. The same ingredients are found in the Pentecost events.” The Book of Jubilees connects Pentecost to the covenant of Noah. The Book of Jubilees also connects Pentecost in book 1:1 to the giving of the laws during the Sinai theophany. Therefore, it is clear that Luke is alluding to the Sinai theophany of the Book of Jubilees as well as paradise, the centrality of Jerusalem and importance of circumcision.

In Matthew, Chapter 22, Jesus answers a question about the greatest commandment. Although the commentators uniformly conclude that Jesus with his answer has done away with the need for sacrifices, the addition Mark makes to this pericope is more pointed: "This is much more important than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." For the Lucan Jesus, it is not a question of the priority of love over law but of the priority of love within the law. Love is not the only commandment. As noted by Jacob Jervell, Luke can have no summary of the Law in one commandment because for Luke, the law is not altered and is permanently valid. God's laws continue in effect for Jews even when they become followers of the Christ. Luke's position accurately reflects the views of the Jewish Christians and the Jerusalem church in its earliest years and is clearly pre-Pauline. It is a position that the High Priest would have found commendable. After all, “Moses was the first and greatest prophet: all that was communicated to the prophets, who followed him, he had already received. No prophet could contradict him or change or add to what he had proclaimed” (citations omitted).

During the first century, the debates were about scripture including the meaning thereof. That the New Testament contains a number of scriptural references to circumcision is an indication that the subject of circumcision was still hotly contested at the time of the publication of each of the passages in question. By the time Matthew and Mark were written, the issue was no longer debated.

Luke 1:59-60 Circumcision of John the Baptist.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zecheriah, but his mother spoke up and said, "No! He is to be called John."

Luke 2:21-39. Circumcision of Jesus.
On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.

John 7:21-24 Jesus teaches at the feast.
Jesus said to them, "I did one miracle, and you are all astonished. Yet because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses but from the patriarchs), you circumcise a child on the Sabbath. Now if a child can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing the whole man on the Sabbath? Stop judging by mere appearances and make a right judgment."

Acts 21:17-25 Paul's Arrival at Jerusalem
When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: "You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to their customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses so they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but you yourself are living in obedience to the law. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, and from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality."

Christiansen has something to say which provides some possible insight into the circumcision passages we read in the Acts of the Apostles, although admittedly she is discussing the Book of Jubilees. Christiansen states: “For a symbol to qualify as sign of belonging, visibility is vital, because a clear and visible sign of belonging, taking the form of an act of confession, or a rite of affirmation of belonging, is the obvious way to express what status one has within a group or society. In the context of Jubilees this visibility can be found particularly in circumcision, and to a certain degree in the celebration of festivals, either weekly Sabbath, or the yearly seasonal feasts.” Luke notes that Paul “was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.” Luke also reports that Paul shortly after his arrival in Jerusalem made what Christiansen would call “a rite of affirmation of belonging”.

The Galatians agitators also quoted scripture but we do not have the full report of the debate and thus need to reconstruct the theological argument advanced by them. Undoubtedly they relied heavily upon the Book of Jubilees. According to Jub. 15, circumcision is the eternal covenant showing the circumcised belong to the Lord. The Galatians agitators must have relied upon Genesis 17:9-14, Jub. 15:25-34 and the Maccabean tradition. If circumcision was an identity marker of the covenant people that the people must maintain so as to avoid being uprooted from the land, why then was James able to put forth a compromise solution that was acceptable. Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was conducted outside of the Land of Israel. The significance of this fact has not been appreciated. Covenant identity, election and associated laws and ordinances do not apply outside Israel.

The next author whose views should be considered is Josephus.

Josephus rewrote the traditional view of circumcision. In Judaism the rite of circumcision is the sign of covenant between God and Abraham. In Book One, God charged Abram “that they should be circumcised in the flesh of their foreskin.” However, according to Josephus, the purpose is “to keep his posterity unmixed with others.”

Josephus lived the later portion of his life in Rome, in the Diaspora. In Rome, Josephus was permitted to obtain a divorce from his Jewish wife and to marry a Roman. This violated the priestly marriage rules in Leviticus 21. It also violated the rule that Josephus asserted in his rewriting of Joshua.

Joshua 22 tells the story of the construction of an altar to the Lord beyond the river Jordan by two of the tribes of Israel. The people of Israel on the west side of the Jordan sought to punish those on the east side for a possible transgression of the Mosaic code. In Joshua 22, the potential misunderstanding is clarified when it is explained that the altar of the Lord was built “to be a witness between us and you, and between the generations after us, that we do perform the service of the LORD in his presence with our burnt offerings and sacrifices and peace offerings; lest your children say to our children in time to come, ‘You have no portion in the LORD.’”

Josephus rewrites Joshua 22. In the preamble, Josephus has Joshua remind the tribes departing for their territories beyond the Jordan that Abrahamic descent carries with it the responsibility to fulfill Mosaic religious duties, and that this responsibility is not negated by one’s place of residence. According to Josephus, observance of the Law will ensure God’s alliance, while turning away “to imitate other nations” will result in God turning away from them. When the people of Israel learn of the altar being built beyond the Jordan by their kinfolk, they quickly mobilized to punish them, “For they held they should take no account of their kinship . . . but of the will of God and the fashion in which He delights to be honored.” For Josephus, ethnic descent from Abraham imposes the requirement of obedience to the Mosaic Law. At the end of story as told by Josephus, the trans-Jordanian tribes state they had been guilty of “new-fangled ways that are perversions of our customary practices” and that they deserved to be extirpated.

To whom is the rewriting of Joshua 22 directed? Apparently at the end of the first century when Josephus published Antiquities, there are Jews asserting that because they are living outside of the land of Israel they do not have to have to strictly obey the Mosaic Law in order to maintain their Jewish identity. Josephus believes that Abrahamic descent requires strict obedience of the Mosaic Law by all Jews regardless where they might reside.

According to Christiansen, covenant identity, election and associated laws and ordinances do not apply outside Israel. The fact that the debates occurred inside and outside Israel is perhaps indicative that the boundary markers had not been firmly set. In rewriting Joshua 22, Josephus joined the debate. Was Josephus directing his comments to the Jews who associated with the followers of Jesus as depicted in Acts of the Apostles?

Christine Hayes, Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud, viewed the inevitable break between Jews and Christians as aided by Ezran ideologies that denied Jewish identity to non-native Jews and converts:

"... for the first time, the Jewish community was confronted with persons who met none of the requirements of Jewish identity: neither the sufficient condition of genealogical filiation nor the condition of moral-religious conversion as signalled by circumcision and observance of Jewish law. By no definition, then, could such persons lay claim to Jewish identity -- certainly not by those espousing an Ezran concern for genealogy and not even by tannaitic rabbis, who required, at the very least, the adoption of Jewish religious practices. And so, a new religion was born."

Although the debate will still continue, it is important to recognize that even within Judaism, there were mixed views regarding the importance of circumcision.

This is a work in progress.

Copyrighted 2007


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