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C h a p t e r 1 Circumcision and the Cultural Economy of Difference The point of new historical investigation is to disrupt the notion of fixity. —­ Joan Wallach Scott Circumcision and the Jews: A Sign to the Gentiles Stereotype: The Jewish Body in the Roman Empire 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 lived a Jewish life undeclared or who, lying about their origins, had not paid the levy imposed on their people. I recall being present, as a teenager, when an old man, of ninety years, was inspected by a procurator (and a crowded court!) to see whether he was circumcised” (Suet. Dom. 12.2).2 This brief, brutal scene condenses for Suetonius’s readers, and for us, the convoluted role of Jewish circumcision in the early Roman Empire: a sign of distinction, strangeness, even shame, that at once sets the Jew apart (here, for special taxation), but also incorporates him into the broader economy of Roman power. The circumcised genitals of the tax-­ dodging Jew are part of the juridical processes that make the empire function. In this first, preliminary chapter I ask what kinds of meanings Jewish circumcision carried in the Roman context, and how those meanings were 16 Chapter 1 both appropriated and contested: first, by the Jews themselves; second, by the earliest texts of the Jesus movement (the writings of Paul and his followers, including the Gospel of Luke); and, third, by early gentile Christians seeking to grapple with the overdetermined Jewishness of their religious past. My basic argument, throughout this chapter, is that Jewish circumcision circulated as part of a cultural economy of signs in the early Roman Empire: the stereotypical function of circumcision supported, but also destabilized, Roman control and management of Jewish otherness. The cultural force of circumcision, and its ability to resignify in multiple contradictory ways among ancient Jews and Christians, must be understood in this Roman imperial context. Only by considering the cultural and political implications of Jewish circumcision can we begin to understand the implications of imagining this overcharged sign on the body of Jesus. The increasing significance of Jewish circumcision among Roman authors as “the mark of Judaism” has been well documented in modern scholarship.3 Indeed, by the early empire, Jewish circumcision was already something of an overdetermined symbol in Roman literature, as a mark of cultural difference and general ridicule among Roman literate elites.4 For Horace and Persius, the superstition of the “clipped Jews” (Iudaei curti) is a social nuisance (Hor. Sat. 1.9.69–­ 70; Pers. Sat. 5.185).5 Martial jealously contemplates the sexual prowess of foreskinless Jewish men (Epig. 7.30.5), while Juvenal bemoans the weird Jews who “worship the sky” and “by and by, shed their foreskins” (Sat. 14.99).6 The valences of circumcision in these writings varies considerably, from a sign of hypersexuality to cloistered superstition. The one commonality is that it signifies Jewish: “Jews did constitute an identifiable ethnic group in the varied social mosaic of the Roman Empire, and circumcision did serve as the chief mark of their distinctive way of life.”7 In fact, over the centuries spanning the rise of the Roman Empire—­ and the early spread of Christianity—­ Jewish circumcision became a part of a complex and labile cultural economy of signs: a system of symbols that made the otherness of provincial peoples at once distinct from yet legible to the controlling eyes of empire.8 I have already discussed, briefly in the Introduction, the particular mode of Roman imperial power: unlike that of “Hellenism,” the founding power of Romanitas was the containment and appropriation—­ but never erasure—­ of “other” cultures.9 A crucial component of this form of imperial control was a political culture based on knowledge of these others in Rome’s midst. Clifford Ando, in his recent work on Roman religion, has brilliantly inspected one sphere of Roman life in which such epistemological discourse functioned: Circumcision and Difference 17 when Romans courted the gods of their enemies (evocatio) or “translated” the religious beliefs and practices of other peoples (interpretatio), they were expanding the “empiricist” bases of their own imperial religion.10 Ando’s study, which stretches from Cicero to Augustine, suggests that the epistemological foundations of Roman society...


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