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C h a p t e r 2 (De-­ )Judaizing Christ’s Circumcision The Dialogue of Difference The I hides in the other and in others, it wants to be only an other for others, to enter completely into the world of others as an other, and to cast from itself the burden of being the only I (I-­ for-­ myself) in the world. —­ Mikhail Bakhtin Circumcision and the Dialogic Imagination 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 with a new society, a new culture, with shifts in men’s assumptions about their world, themselves or God, with upheavals in the values by which they try to live, brings with it new self-­ discovery. Psychologists have long been telling us that we discover our selves only in encounter: what is self and what is not self are disclosed to us in the same experience.”1 Markus envisions the early Christian “encounter” as the site of both estrangement and self-­ discovery, in the same moment recognizing “the other” and (thereby) creating an awareness of “the self.” More recently, in an essay likewise surveying the theoretical developments of the study of early Jewish and Christianity identities, Judith Lieu notes with approval the historian’s focus on the continuous construction of communal “boundaries,” rhetorical and yet effective means of distinguishing “self” from “other”: “While not the only model for understanding 42 Chapter 2 the construction of identity, an emphasis on the function of boundaries has proved particularly fruitful in recent analysis of identity.”2 Yet as Lieu goes on to suggest, the repetitious effort to draw boundaries between “Jew” and “Christian” in the ancient world hints at the instability of these same boundaries: “selectivity, fluidity, dynamism, permeability are all intrinsic to the construction of boundaries. . . . ​ Where rhetoric constructs the boundary as immutable and impenetrable, we may suspect actual invasion and penetration.”3 Like Markus, Lieu focuses on texts in which Christianity and Judaism rhetorically enact their difference with the “other” in order to produce something like a coherent self, an “imagined homogeneity.”4 For both scholars, it is the moment of putative boundary making, as the “self” gazes at and engages with the “other,” that fascinates. Our ancient Christian sources abound with such moments of encounter, of back-­ and-­ forth between Christian and non-­ Christian. Indeed, much of our textual resources constitute a cacophonous series of dialogues, a library of discourses fixated on that moment of differentiation: heresiologies, apologies, and texts adversus Iudaeos that place the Christian self in “conversation” with a heretical, pagan, or Jewish other. Literary theorist Terry Eagleton articulates how identities emerge out of chains of overlapping dialogues: “Like the rough ground of language itself, cultures ‘work’ exactly because they are porous, fuzzy-­ edged, indeterminate, intrinsically inconsistent, never quite identical with themselves, their boundaries modulating into horizons.”5 For Eagleton, as for Lieu, communal identity (“culture”) claims a wholeness and finitude that masks fragmentation and incompleteness: the “boundary” between persons and groups, on closer examination , turns out to be an ever-­ receding horizon. Eagleton’s comparison with the “rough ground of language”—­ which also aims for a precision that is lacking in the execution—­ further echoes the dialectic ground of early Christian culture. As Mikhail Bakhtin long ago asserted, and his cultural studies descendants have elaborated, “language—­ like the living concrete environment in which the consciousness of the verbal artist lives—­ is never unitary.”6 Our encounters with the world, framed by language, are (in Bakhtin’s now familiar terms) dialogical—­ “an encounter within the arena of an utterance, between two different linguistic consciousnesses”7 —­ and therefore can never be reduced to a singular, “unitary” selfhood. Dialogue provides the appearance of discrete identities, a formal separation between self and other (speaker and addressee); yet at the same time it confounds those identities, grounding them necessarily in a temporary space of identification (communication).8 Dialogue creates difference and yet elides that same difference; as Eagleton suggests, “culture” (De-)Judaizing Christ’s Circumcision 43 operates in much the same fashion. “Self” can only ever emerge from the dialogic imagination as the strange and contingent interaction with the “other.”9 The notion that identity emerges within a cacophony of strange, overlapping voices—­ that the singularity of identity is...


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