The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology, History

The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology, History

The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology, History

The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology, History


In this book Kathleen Biddick investigates the fate of the enduring timelines fabricated by early Christians to distinguish themselves from their Jewish neighbors. Ranging widely across the history of text, technology, and book art, she relates three interwoven stories: the Christians' translation of circumcision into a graphic problem of writing on the heart; the temporal construction of Christian notions of history based on the binary supersession of an Old Testament past by the present of a new dispensation; and the traumatic repetition of the graphic cutting off of Christians from Jews in academic history and anthropology.

Moving beyond well-studied theological polemics, Biddick works from the relatively unfamiliar vantage point of the graphic technologies used in medieval and early modern texts and print sources, from maps to trial transcripts to universal histories. Addressing current concerns about the posthuman condition by linking them to a deeper genealogy of disembodiment at the technological heart of imaginary fantasies, she argues that such supersessionary practices extend to contemporary psychoanalytic and postcolonial texts, even as they propose alternative ways of thinking about memory and temporality. Crucial to Biddick's study is the ethical challenge of unbinding the typological imaginary, not in order to disavow theological difference but rather to open up the encounter between Christian and Jew to less deadening teleological readings.

Making a significant contribution to the large debate over the transition from "scriptural" to "scientific" culture in Europe, The Typological Imaginary also succeeds in shedding light on the centrality of Jews to medieval and Enlightenment history.


This study grapples with an unsettling historiographical problem: how to study the history of Jewish-Christian relations without reiterating the temporal practices through which early Christians, a heterogeneous group, fabricated an identity (“Christian-ness”) both distinct from and superseding that of neighboring Jewish communities. These Christian temporal practices insisted on identitary time, by which I mean the assumption that time can be culturally identical with itself. Early Christians straightened out the unfolding of temporality (with its gaps and vicissitudes) into a theological timeline fantastically based on two distinct but related notions. First, they posited a present (“this is now”) exclusively as a Christian present. They cut off a Jewish “that was then” from a Christian “this is now.” They also imagined a specific direction to Christian time. They believed that the Christian new time— a “this is now”—superseded a “that was then” of Israel. Such a temporal logic also enabled early Christians to divide up a shared scriptural tradition. Christians subsumed the Hebrew Bible into an “Old Testament” and conceived of this Old Testament as a text anterior to their New Testament. “Christian-ness” was thus affirmed by the repetitive cutting off of the old Jewish time from the new Christian time. Even though Christians shared literary genres and rhetorical conventions with pagan and Jewish contemporaries, their notion of supersession came to distinguish their reading and writing. This book explores the stakes of this temporal model of Christian supersession.

The purported “secularization” of modernity, I contend here, has never overtaken this core Christian conception of supersession. Supersessionary thinking and notions of modernity are closely bound, and, I would argue, shape even the very terms of current debate among medievalists over the existence or nonexistence of antisemitism in the Middle Ages. At stake for me in this book is the belief that we cannot . . .

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