- Circumcision and Immortality
After thousands of years, circumcision remains controversial. Many American Jews have been shaken recently by new legal and political attacks on this ancient and basic rite. In the midst of this new crisis, we would do well to study every aspect of this fundamental Jewish ritual. In this article, I hope to provoke some thinking about the history of circumcision by focusing on its importance in one crucial era.
The religious persecution of Antiochus IV in the 160s b.c.e. included the prohibition of circumcision. It was not just circumcision as such that was forbidden; it was anything that served as a confessional of traditional Jewishness. But circumcision was a hot-button issue, always emotional on both sides and far more easily discoverable than other rites or beliefs.
In response to its prohibition, circumcision became an expression of Jewishness that was stronger than ever. As long as one who wanted to circumcise could do so, there was no need to revolt. Circumcision always had been assumed, and even when some Jews chose not to do it, there was no major crisis.
In the resistance to the persecution, circumcision became a rallying cry. In that resistance, martyrs were made. My emphasis here is on these martyrs and a generally unexplored reason for their martyrdom.
Scholarship has described the resistance to the Antiochene prohibition of circumcision as a religious/nationalistic response: “For the Maccabees circumcision was . . . an essential component of Jewish identity.”1 Yet the passages in 1 and 2 Maccabees recording martyrdom for those who refused to give up circumcision are so striking in their zealousness that one wonders if there might not be another dimension involved. It is one thing for a Jewish [End Page 6] mother to bring her child into her people’s covenant but quite another to act in a way that might cause the death of that child. In an era when many Jewish people neglected circumcision and still considered themselves members of their people and their religion, why did these women take this risk?2 Most scholars accept the historicity of these executions of mothers and babies for circumcision, as in Nickelsburg’s cautious assessment: “Some such event, of which there must have been many in the Antiochan persecution, could well have become the historical nucleus for [such] a story.”3 The question here is why the mothers would endanger their children’s lives (as well as their own) for this particular commandment.
For many Jews, nothing could be more abhorrent, or terrifying, than to refrain from circumcision. My goal is to present the case that there was a theological/eschatological reason for their attitude. My concern is the relationship between circumcision, un-circumcision, and one’s place in the afterlife. Did Jews in antiquity believe that circumcision brought one salvation—or at least the promise of a better afterlife? Could this be what motivated the mothers in 1 and 2 Maccabees to circumcise their sons, at the risk of death?
Before we study the texts involved concerning the controversy over circumcision in the Maccabaean period, we need to pose a basic question about the meaning of the rite. If circumcision was originally a rite associated with puberty or marriage, as we know from comparative evidence4 and from the phrase “bridegroom of blood” in Exodus 4:24–26 and the connection to marriage in Genesis 34 and 1 Samuel 18:17–27, why did it become a rite performed on infants in Israelite culture?5 Perhaps it was to deliberately separate it from the ritual of puberty, and instead to emphasize that circumcision had become a rite of entry into the covenant.6 But the emphasis on covenant does not exclude the possibility that circumcision was practiced on infants at the age of eight days (after they were deemed able to withstand the operation) in an age of high infant mortality, in order to ensure the immortality of those infants.7 In discussing another theory that the rite of circumcision moved from a primitive initiatory rite of neophyte warriors to one performed on infants, W. Robertson Smith states that “the natural tendency of pious parents will...