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Christ Circumcised

A Study in Early Christian History and Difference

By Andrew S. Jacobs

Publication Year: 2012

In the first full-length study of the circumcision of Jesus, Andrew S. Jacobs turns to an unexpected symbol—the stereotypical mark of the Jewish covenant on the body of the Christian savior—to explore how and why we think about difference and identity in early Christianity.

Jacobs explores the subject of Christ's circumcision in texts dating from the first through seventh centuries of the Common Era. Using a diverse toolkit of approaches, including the psychoanalytic, postcolonial, and poststructuralist, he posits that while seeming to desire fixed borders and a clear distinction between self (Christian) and other (Jew, pagan, and heretic), early Christians consistently blurred and destabilized their own religious boundaries. He further argues that in this doubled approach to others, Christians mimicked the imperial discourse of the Roman Empire, which exerted its power through the management, not the erasure, of difference.

For Jacobs, the circumcision of Christ vividly illustrates a deep-seated Christian duality: the fear of and longing for an other, at once reviled and internalized. From his earliest appearance in the Gospel of Luke to the full-blown Feast of the Divine Circumcision in the medieval period, Christ circumcised represents a new way of imagining Christians and their creation of a new religious culture.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

Beginning in the twelfth century, after centuries of relative obscurity, Christ’s foreskin was suddenly difficult to miss across Christian Europe. Monasteries in France claimed to possess fragments of what they called the sanctus virtus (“holy virtue”), and produced legends explaining how this fragment of divine...

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Introduction: Splitting the Difference

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pp. 1-14

This is a surprisingly long book about a small mark: the circumcision of Christ, as it was imagined and interpreted in the first several centuries of Christianity. I propose to use this curious sign to begin to rethink the historical problem of Christian difference. By the historical problem of Christian difference I mean...

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1. Circumcision and the Cultural Economy of Difference

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pp. 15-40

In the early second century, the Roman historian Suetonius described an incident from decades earlier under the revenue-hungry emperor Domitian: “Besides the other [taxes], the Jewish tax (Iudaïcus fiscus) was pursued with especial vigor: for which those persons were turned over (deferebantur)1 who either...

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2. (De-)Judaizing Christ’s Circumcision: The Dialogue of Difference

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pp. 41-71

Over a quarter century ago, the historian of early Christianity Robert Markus elegantly noted: “The history of Christian self-definition cannot be written in terms of a steady progression from simple to complex. In one sense the whole of the church’s history is a growth in self-awareness; every important encounter...

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3. Heresy, Theology, and the Divine Circumcision

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pp. 72-99

In the fifth century, Vincentius of Lerins famously described Christian orthodoxy as “that which everywhere, always, and by everyone was believed.”1 Traditionally, we have understood Vincentius to be asserting the continuity of orthodoxy through time and space. Yet we might hear this claim to singular...

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4. Dubious Difference: Epiphanius on the Jewish Christians

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pp. 100-118

At the nexus of Judaism and heresy lies “Jewish Christianity,” a concept that signals the myriad ways that orthodoxy imagines religious truth might meander into a dangerous intermediary terrain: a space of otherness that is Judaized, but not quite Jewish. The term “Jewish Christian” itself does not exist among...

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5. Scriptural Distinctions: Reading Between the Lines

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pp. 119-145

In Jerome’s notorious quarrel with Rufinus at the beginning of the fifth century, spanning theological and social networks from Rome to Bethlehem, the churlish monk had occasion to define the nature of commentary:1
For what qualities do commentaries possess? They explicate another’s words (alterius dicto); they lay out in plain speech what was obscurely written; they disclose the opinions of many people, and they say: “Some...

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6. “Let Us Be Circumcised!”: Ritual Differences

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pp. 146-178

Jonathan Z. Smith has explained ritual as “above all, an assertion of difference,” and explained that ritual is “concerned with the elaboration of relative difference that is never overcome.”1 We see ritualized the “difference that is never overcome” clearly in early Christian commemoration of Christ’s circumcision...

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pp. 179-190

In a 1997 essay that asked how Jewish feminist scholarship might be applied to “issues other than the explicitly gendered,”1 Susannah Heschel described Jesus as a theological transvestite: “Just as gender may be seen to be performative, so too Jesus and even Christianity and Judaism can be seen as constructs of the...


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pp. 191-268


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pp. 269-308


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pp. 309-312


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pp. 313-314

E-ISBN-13: 9780812206517
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812243970

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion