Paul and circumcision

by peacefulpete 9 Replies latest watchtower bible

  • peacefulpete

    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?

  • Leolaia

    It would certainly be attractive if some precursor of Paul's stance towards circumcision existed in Hellenized Judaism. I can see at least two complications relating to Paul tho: (1) Paul saw faith in Christ as something beyond Judaism (which became named as such through Hellenism) as indicated by Galatians 1:13-14, or transcending Judaism (cf. Galatians 3:28-29), and circumcision had largely functioned as a prerequisite for Gentile converts to fully attain status as Jews.... but in pre-Christian Jewish movements, I don't believe there was a move beyond Jewish identity or beyond the Law that Paul here makes. (2) The very interesting comment by Josephus that according to some Gentiles "could worship the Divine without being circumcised," brings to mind the status of God-fearers (cf. Acts 10:22, 13:43; cf. also 2:10-11, 6:5, 10:2, 13:16, 26) who at least in Acts are described as sebomenón "devout" (13:43), tho were not full followers of the Torah and/or circumcised as Jews, cf. the Didache which recommends a minimum of Gentiles keeping some Noachide laws but recommends them to bear the whole "yoke" of the Law to become "perfect" (which has eschatological significance). So could it be possible that what is being recommended by Ananias is the sort of fidelity to the Law (perhaps beyond the Noachide Laws as well) expected of God-fearers, but not full "perfection" in attaining circumcision as well to become a "Jew". I also recall Narkissos making a point in an earlier thread that some Jews would have discouraged circumcision for God-fearers precisely to maintain a ritual distinction between Jew and Gentile.

    On what sort of laws Gentile converts would have kept, Josephus elsewhere states: "The masses have long since shown a keen desire to adopt our religious observances; and there is not one city, Greek or barbarian, nor a single nation to which our custom of abstaining from work on the seventh day has not spread, and where the fasts and the lighting of lamps and many of our prohibitions in the matter of food are not observed" (Contra Apionem, 2.282). But on the matter of circumcision per se, there is also the valuable comment by Juvenal (died c. AD 127), who complained that some Romans were adopting the ways of the Jews, such that they decry the eating of pork, and "get themselves circumcised, and look down on Roman law, preferring instead to learn and honor and fear Jewish commandments and everything that Moses hands down in his secret book," including committing the seventh day to idleness (Saturae, 14.96-106).

  • peacefulpete

    Excellent points. Its also of note the spiritualizing of circumcision taking place in certain circles. As early as Jeremiah some spoke of circumcision of hearts and lips as desired by God. The Essenes used these expressions, the Manual of Discipline speaks of circumcision of desires. Paul's contributuion (whether really his or popularized by him) was radical (setting Judaism aside as fullfilled) but each element of his approach wasn't.

  • freedomlover

    very interesting thread. what is the name of the book that you are reading? (about the ancient royal family?) I love that kind of stuff.

  • peacefulpete

    The story is in Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews but the translation I posted was from a collection of similar tales in: Ancient Jewish Novels : An Anthology (AAR Cultural Criticism S.)

  • greendawn

    Many gentiles liked judaism but wouldn't join because the judaic laws were so cumbersome, so there was an advantage in minimising them to draw gentile converts.

  • Narkissos

    Real circumcision was definitely a big problem for Judaism in the Hellenistic context, as early as the 2nd-century BC. This is admitted by 1 Maccabees 1:11ff:

    In those days certain renegades came out from Israel and misled many, saying, "Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us." This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king, who authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil.

    The spiritualisation of circumcision started very early in the Hebrew Bible (the "circumcision of heart" in Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6 and Jeremiah 4:4; cf. 9:26f) and was developed in Palestinian Essenism (1QS 5:5; 1QHa 11:13), although not as an alternative to real circumcision. But it could easily be seen as such an alternative in the Hellenistic diaspora. While Philo himself maintains the need for both real and spiritual circumcision the thrust of his moral allegorisation tends to make physical circumcision quite secondary. E.g. Special Laws I, 304ff:

    But those men are to be pitied, and are altogether miserable, who have never banquetted on the labours of virtue; and they have remained to the end the most miserable of all men who have been always ignorant of the taste of moral excellence, when it was in their power to have feasted on and luxuriated among justice and equality. But these men are uncircumcised in their hearts, as the law expresses it, and by reason of the hardness of their hearts they are stubborn, resisting and breaking their traces in a restive manner; whom the Lord reproves, saying, "Be ye circumcised as to your hard-Heartedness;" that means, "do ye eradicate the overbearing character of your dominant part, which the immoderate impulses of the passing hour have sown and caused to grow within you, and which the wicked husbandman of the soul, folly, planted. Again, it says, "Let not your necks be Stiff,"that is to say, let not your mind be unbending and self-willed, and let it not admit into itself that most blameable ignorance of excessive perverseness. But discarding obstinacy and moroseness of nature as an enemy, let it change so as to become gentle, and inclined to obey the laws of nature.

    Did some take Philo's point one step further and discard physical circumcision? Philo himself seems to suggest that some did, even prior to him, e.g. On the Migration of Abraham, 89ff:

    For there are some men, who, looking upon written laws as symbols of things appreciable by the intellect, have studied some things with superfluous accuracy, and have treated others with neglectful indifference; whom I should blame for their levity; for they ought to attend to both classes of things, applying themselves both to an accurate investigation of invisible things, and also to an irreproachable observance of those laws which are notorious. But now men living solitarily by themselves as if they were in a desert, or else as if they were mere souls unconnected with the body, and as if they had no knowledge of any city, or village, or house, or in short of any company of men whatever, overlook what appears to the many to be true, and seek for plain naked truth by itself, whom the sacred scripture teaches not to neglect a good reputation, and not to break through any established customs which divine men of greater wisdom than any in our time have enacted or established. For although the seventh day is a lesson to teach us the power which exists in the uncreated God, and also that the creature is entitled to rest from his labours, it does not follow that on that account we may abrogate the laws which are established respecting it, so as to light a fire, or till land, or carry burdens, or bring accusations, or conduct suits at law, or demand a restoration of a deposit, or exact the repayment of a debt, or do any other of the things which are usually permitted at times which are not days of festival. Nor does it follow, because the feast is the symbol of the joy of the soul and of its gratitude towards God, that we are to repudiate the assemblies ordained at the periodical seasons of the year; nor because the rite of circumcision is an emblem of the excision of pleasures and of all the passions, and of the destruction of that impious opinion, according to which the mind has imagined itself to be by itself competent to produce offspring, does it follow that we are to annul the law which has been enacted about circumcision. Since we shall neglect the laws about the due observance of the ceremonies in the temple, and numbers of others too, if we exclude all figurative interpretation and attend only to those things which are expressly ordained in plain words.
    Those whom Philo tries to refute here seem to have held a stance quite similar to Paul's, much earlier.
  • peacefulpete

    Yes as soon as someone suggested the rite was a symbol or that it had hygenic justification/motivation it became open to questioning. I thought it was interesting how Philo reasons from a hygenic and reproductive perspective rather than cultic. To me this reveals it had lost its meaningfulness.

    I. (1) The genera and heads of all special laws, which are called "the ten commandments," have been discussed with accuracy in the former treatise. We must now proceed to consider the particular commands as we read them in the subsequent passages of the holy scriptures; and we will begin with that which is turned into ridicule by people in general. (2) The ordinance of circumcision of the parts of generation is ridiculed, though it is an act which is practised to no slight degree among other nations also, and most especially by the Egyptians, who appear to me to be the most populous of all nations, and the most abounding in all kinds of wisdom. (3) In consequence of which it would be most fitting for men to discard childish ridicule, and to investigate the real causes of the ordinance with more prudence and dignity, considering the reasons why the custom has prevailed, and not being precipitate, so as without examination to condemn the folly of mighty nations, recollecting that it is not probable that so many myriads should be circumcised in every generation, mutilating the bodies of themselves and of their nearest relations, in a manner which is accompanied with severe pain, without adequate cause; but that there are many reasons which might encourage men to persevere and continue a custom which has been introduced by previous generations, and that these are from reasons of the greatest weight and importance. (4) First of all, that it is a preventive of a painful disease, and of an affliction difficult to be cured, which they call a carbuncle; {1}{the Greek word is anthrax, which also signifies a coal. The Latin, from which our carbuncle is derived, carbunculus, a diminutive of carbo, which also means a coal.} because, I imagine, when it becomes inflamed it burns; from which fact it has derived that appellation. And this disease is very apt to be engendered among those who have not undergone the rite of circumcision. (5) Secondly, it secures the cleanliness of the whole body in a way that is suited to the people consecrated to God; with which object the Egyptian priests, being extravagant in their case, shave the whole of their bodies; for some of these evils which ought to be got rid of are collected in and lodge under the hair and the prepuce. (6) Thirdly, there is the resemblance of the part that is circumcised to the heart; for both parts are prepared for the sake of generation; for the breath contained within the heart is generative of thoughts, and the generative organ itself is productive of living beings. Therefore, the men of old thought it right to make the evident and visible organ, by which the objects of the outward senses are generated, resemble that invisible and superior part, by means of which ideas are formed. (7) The fourth, and most important, is that which relates to the provision thus made for prolificness; for it is said that the seminal fluid proceeds in its path easily, neither being at all scattered, nor flowing on its passage into what may be called the bags of the prepuce. On which account those nations which practise circumcision are the most prolific and the most populous.
  • DaveNwisconsin

    Why not leave all the little boys units alone. Let them make the choice later.

  • Think

    I THINK that a lot of women like the uncut, natural monster...

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