Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.09.07, Jacobs, Christ Circumcised

13.09.07, Jacobs, Christ Circumcised

The foreskin of Christ, as Andrew Jacobs points out, became ubiquitous in the high middle ages, "parceled into reliquaries, represented in art, and contemplated in devotional literature" (ix). Such awareness of a part of Christ's body that was per definition missing took a particularly heightened form from the 12th century onward, but it was not entirely novel. Early Christians too had thought and written about Christ's foreskin, but for them the burning question was why Christ would have submitted to the quintessentially Jewish ritual of circumcision at all (what happened to the missing bodily element was of lesser concern). The question was central, Jacobs shows, because for pre-modern Christians, before the "historical Jesus," Christ was not a Jew. Why then was he circumcised, "what purposes--theological, cultural, social, and political--did his circumcision serve?" (xi). Jacobs's splendid, enthralling book answers those questions through an innovative and sophisticated reading that reveals Christ's circumcision as the locus where the highly permeable boundaries of religions become visible. At the heart of Jacobs's book stands the notion of inclusive boundaries, that Christian discourse about Christ's Jewishness negotiated the other at the heart of the self.

Drawing on several theoretical models, but especially on those engaged in psychoanalytical theory applied to history, as exemplified, for example, by Anne McClintock (Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Context(, 1995), Jacobs brings the analytical insights of psychoanalysis to bear on historical, social, and religious questions of identity and difference. The poles of identity and difference brought into dynamic tension here are heresy and orthodoxy, and above all Judaism and Christianity, from the late first and early second century to the turn from the sixth to seventh century. The texts and authors Jacobs examines range from the well-known, indeed canonical, to others less than central, all brought joined by their engagement with Christ's circumcision and the vexing troubles it caused Christian readers. The immense impact of Jacobs's work lies in his insight that the circumcised Christ allowed for a dynamic engagement of "self" and "other" that was never stable, never intended merely to exclude, but designed to affirm the difference of the "other"--be the other heretic or Jew--at the core of the Christian "self." Christ's circumcision made it clear that at the center of Christianity was its other, real and affirmed in the flesh, and that without the constant presence of this other the Christian self would not have been able to constitute itself. In many ways the formation of Christianity was thus part and parcel of the quintessentially Roman imperial dance of dominating and appropriating difference: difference can only be dominated and appropriated if it is also constantly maintained (6). Jacobs has shifted the angle of inquiry and the result is a new appreciation of the ways in which categories of religion, here Christianity and Judaism, are formed through a continuous rejection and incorporation of the other: no small feat by any stretch of the imagination.

The book proceeds in six chapters. After situating circumcision and the many ways in which it could be read by Jews and gentiles within the cultural logic of the Roman Empire, where circumcision signified Jewishness, Jacobs addresses the central passages in the New Testament mentioning Christ's circumcision to show how the earliest followers of Jesus employed its signifying potential. For him, Paul's rejection of circumcision carries political overtones. It was not merely a soteriological impetus, but "by refusing to submit followers of Jesus" to circumcision, he also refused to submit them "to the scrutiny of Roman secular authorities," who knew how to recognize Jews (24). Colossians may well be the first mention of Jesus's circumcision (I am using the conditional, because as Jacobs is also well aware, all these passages are hotly debated), and here the act is Christianized by becoming figural. In Luke, Jacobs suggests, Paul's rejection is almost reversed; Christ's circumcision is emphasized as an act of Romanization, because the circumcised messiah is marked in the one sense that Romans recognized as visibly Jewish, a signifier Luke then manipulates and re-signifies by making it his own.

Chapter 2 examines the evolution of the Christian-Jewish discourse based on dialogue literature (both Jewish-Christian dialogues but also orthodox-heretic question and answer texts) from Justin Martyr to Jerome and Augustine by tracing ways in which circumcision becomes Christianized by creating a new, Christian "Jewishness." The discursive stratagems employed here are then carried over into the orthodox-heretic encounters in Chapter 3. One of the decisive ways in which Christ's circumcision became Christianized was to de- judaize it. Circumcision was no longer read as a clearly Jewish sign, but as one of several marks of Christ's redemptive suffering, and hence as essentially Christian. Further, Christ's voluntary act of submission to the Law by acceding to circumcision at the same time fulfilled and superseded both the Law and the act and thus demonstrated both Judaism's uniqueness and superiority vis-à- vis, say, the Greeks (who had no such signs), but also made clear that the Law and the act had been overcome through the new covenant (e.g. 47, 53). Later texts elaborate these themes in creative ways. Here one feature is particularly crucial (at least for the reviewer): "for all its literary invention and artifice, Christians were drawn to elaborate the image of the Jew as their troubling interlocutor. The dialogic imagination of early Christians did not erase and silence those Jewish voices, but preserved them...[hence reveling] a desire to confront and domesticate Jewishness within Christianity" (60)--ditto for heresies.

Chapter 4 focuses on a single text that encapsulates much of what Jacobs has traced thus far, Epiphanius of Salamis's refutation of the Ebionites, "Jewish Christians" so-called. Placed in the mouth of these Ebionites, Epiphanius crystalized the paradox inherent in orthodoxy: "If Christ was circumscribed, so too should we be" (Epiph. Pan. 30.26.1-2). In his response to that Ebionite challenge, Epiphanius outs himself as the "true" Jew. While the Ebionites in their confused attempts to embrace a Judaism that mirrors that of Christ are neither real Jews nor true Christians, Epiphanius is both: because he is an orthodox Christian, he understands true Judaism as revealed in Christ. Christ's circumcision fulfilled a prophecy uttered by Moses's wife and "'the blood of circumcision' ceased forever to flow," so that the ritual became superfluous, something "real" Jews, that is, Christians, understood and Ebionites and Jews do not (109). Epiphanius thus articulated an imperial Christianity by "producing hybridized religious identities--orthodox and heretical [Jewish and Christian]--in the same gesture" (115). Chapter 5 widens the circle of commentary and exegetical readings of key scriptural passages (Epiphanius' response to the Ebionites was, of course, also an exegetical reading), illustrating how fourth and fifth century Christians, from Ambrose to Philoxenus of Mabbug, read Christ's circumcision exegetically as authorizing the displacement of the first covenant: here, circumcision becomes the literal proof of its spiritualization as baptism, in a move of paradoxical productivity that reveals Christ's submission as saving strategy (132).

The book concludes with a chapter exploring how Christ's circumcision became reified in Christian ritual and public festival, especially in the Feast of Circumcision, celebrated since about the mid-fifth century on January 1st. Jacobs's reading of several sermons preached on the occasion of that festival, both in Greek and Latin, places the Feast into a newly emerging cycle of celebrations of Jesus's life, carefully calibrated to overlay the historical time of Jesus as a signifying a time "before" belonging to "them," that "we" experience "now" fully cognizant of the present time in which the history of salvation is operative. At the moment of the liturgical celebration of Christ circumcised, the homilists were preoccupied by time, the contrast between the shadow of the (Jewish) past and the illuminated (Christian) presence, and by the overcoming of carnal imperfection through its assumption and redemption; law and flesh lead to grace and spirit, but the former never lose their relevance. Christ's circumcision proves his full humanity and at the same time his divinity and makes both, paradoxically, available for his followers because "the circumcision of that the Son of God received in the flesh, previewed the circumcision of our hearts in the spirit" (Ps.Fulgentius of Ruspe, Serm.dub. 2.6).

Jacobs's book contains numerous subtle readings that I have not highlighted and many other ways in which the circumcised Christ was interpreted, for example as a mere ruse, as passing, intentionally fooling those who misunderstood him by seeing in him anything that was not considered "orthodox." In all his observations, Jacobs reveals how the multiple ways to read Christ's circumcision refracted the cultural logic of the Roman imperium to which everyone belonged and which everyone could employ in his own ways. Only when that empire disintegrated together with it its ways to manage and appropriate difference did the interpretative horizons begin to close into "what we will call the middle ages" (189). Jacobs's book, on the other hand, opens our interpretative horizons in new and exciting ways.