Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision, and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity

Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision, and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity

Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision, and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity

Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision, and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity

Synopsis

Matthew Thiessen offers a nuanced and wide-ranging study of the nature of Jewish thought on Jewishness, circumcision, and conversion. Examining texts from the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Judaism, and early Christianity, he gives a compelling account of the various forms of Judaism from which the early Christian movement arose.

Beginning with analysis of the Hebrew Bible, Thiessen argues that there is no evidence that circumcision was considered to be a rite of conversion to Israelite religion. In fact, circumcision, particularly the infant circumcision practiced within Israelite and early Jewish society, excluded from the covenant those not properly descended from Abraham. In the Second Temple period, many Jews began to subscribe to a definition of Jewishness that enabled Gentiles to become Jews. Other Jews, such as the author of Jubilees, found this definition problematic, reasserting a strictly genealogical conception of Jewish identity. As a result, some Gentiles who underwent conversion to Judaism in this period faced criticism because of their suspect genealogy.

Thiessen's examination of the way in which Jews in the Second Temple period perceived circumcision and conversion allows a deeper understanding of early Christianity.Contesting Conversionshows that careful attention to a definition of Jewishness that was based on genealogical descent has crucial implications for understanding the variegated nature of early Christian mission to the Gentiles in the first century C.E.

Excerpt

BELBO: “Our Diotallevi thinks he’s Jewish.”

DIOTALLEVI: “What do you mean, ‘thinks’? I am Jewish…. ”

BELBO: “Diotallevi, a person can’t just decide to be a Jew the way he might
decide to be a stamp collector or a Jehovah’s Witness. Jews are born.
Admit it! You’re a Gentile like the rest of us.”

DIOTALLEVI: “I’m circumcised.”

BELBO: “Come on! Lots of people are circumcised, for reasons of hygiene.
All you need is a doctor with a knife. How old were you when you were
circumcised?”

DIOTALLEVI: “Let’s not nitpick.”

BELBO: “No, let’s. Jews nitpick.”

Belbo and Diotallevi, two characters in Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum, vividly illustrate the central concern that drives this book: the relationship between the rite of circumcision and Jewish identity. Their argument surrounds the identity of Diotallevi. Is he or is he not a Jew? While it is clear that Belbo, who himself is a Gentile, does not think that Diotallevi is a Jew, Diotallevi claims that his circumcision demonstrates his Jewishness. In reply, Belbo argues that not all circumcised males are in fact Jewish, asking him when he was circumcised. Diotallevi’s response (“Let’s not nitpick”) evades Belbo’s question, suggesting that he was not circumcised as an infant, as Jewish law requires. Diotallevi and Belbo give voice to two very different conceptions of Jewish identity. For Diotallevi, Jewishness is a matter of choice and of practice (“I’m circumcised”); for Belbo, Jewishness is a matter of birth (“a person can’t just decide to be a Jew…. Jews are born”). Although Eco’s novel does not attempt to resolve this dispute about Jewish identity, the question has been, and continues to be, of considerable magnitude to many Jews. What are the . . .

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