I was reading the story of the Royal family of Adiabene as found in Josephus, quite interesting stuff. Its a historized folk tale about the conversion of Queen Helena and her son and King Izates to Judaism. The point I am dwelling on here is the two very different different approaches to Judaism that the royal family encounters through their teachers. First a certain Ananias promotes a liberal view wherein God is less concerned about ritual than devotion, then they meet a conservative literalist Eleazar who insists that Judaism is an all-or-nothing proposition. When studying Christian origins this issue of course looms large.
Pauline Christianity as we know favored the spiritual/symbolic over the corporeal/literalist, at least as compared to so called "Jewish Christians". Can we trace the Pauline view of issues like circumcision from earlier movements? Many scholars have noted that much of the eschatologically obsessed literature of the centuries preceding and centemporay with the birth of Christianity preached a universalizing theology. That is, the belief that all nations would at the end of the age come to recognize the God of the Jews and be welcomed into the family. This gathering from all nations didn't necessarily imply a conversion to Judaism with all its incumbent duties but rather an awareness of God and public acknowledgment. Given the early Christian belief that they were living in this eschatological hour the message of Gentile salvation without conversion to Judaism wasn't as radical as might appear today.
It is also worth noting that there definitely was a trend away from circumcision in the decades surrounding Antiochus IV and his campaigns. It is true that he did resort to leaglly prohibiting the rite in an effort to Hellenize the Jews but it seeems that at least in some circles they didn't offer much resistance to the change. This history and the eschatological expectations might have been sufficient to incline a Paul or others to diminish circumcision's importance but was it previously argued theologically that circumcision was unnecessary?
Maybe. Here's a snippet from Josephus' Antiquities where Ananias argues that God was forbearing on such issues as circumcision. :
38 And when he perceived that his mother was highly pleased with her observance of
Jewish customs, Izates resolved to convert himself, though he assumed that he would not truly be a Jew unless he was circumcised, and he was prepared to follow through on that as well. 39 But when his mother understood what he was about to do, she
endeavoured to hinder him from doing it, ... his subjects, ... would never bear to be ruled over by a Jew. 40 She presented such arguments to him, and by every other means tried to prevent him from being circumcised, but Izates decided to place the whole matter before Ananias for resolution. Ananias, it seems, not only agreed with the Queen mother but went so far as to threaten to leave the country if he could not persuade Izates....He further pointed out that he could worship the Divine without being circumcised if he had sincerely decided to devote himself to the ancestral traditions of the Jews, for indeed these were more important than circumcision.
I'm not sure just what the ancestral traditions of the Jews would involve but the point is made that the Divine wasn't terribly concerned about such lesser things as circumcision. Does anyone know of other such arguments from pre-Christian Judaism that specifically addresses circucision or maybe festivals?