It is rather remarkable how such a small piece of skin, that is, Christ’s foreskin, could have so much meaning. But of course the source from which it came was no ordinary body, and Andrew Jacobs’ fascinating and complex book examines how early and late ancient Christians reflected on and explained what it meant to have their savior bear the essential mark of that “other” religion, Judaism. Jacobs is among a more recent generation of scholars trained in religious studies who read ancient sources through the varied lenses of psychoanalysis, and he marshals together and employs an impressive array of modern theories, postmodern and poststructuralist, that afford nuanced ways of understanding ancient religions and their adherents. If the reader is indeed amenable to the application of modern psychoanalytic theories to ancient contexts (which is certainly a matter of some disagreement), then she will find in this book a richly layered and learned study of Christian culture and theology.
This is a book about Christian identity (and boundary) formation, primarily vis-à-vis its relationship with Judaism, and the locus of reflection and contention is the circumcised body of Christ. Undergirding Jacobs’ study is an important conception of the Roman Empire that argues that the Romans neither developed nor imposed upon those whom they conquered a singular Roman culture or Roman-ness. Instead, they exercised their power through the appropriation and control over aspects of the cultures of the ruled, and their management of the differences of the “other” created an unstable and fluctuating space in which both the Romans and their conquered peoples negotiated and articulated their respective identities, often blurring the boundaries they imagined existed between them. As constituents of this empire, Christians mirrored the Roman identity-formation processes, and Jacobs finds in their different discussions of the circumcision of Christ a similar instability that reveals much about how early and late ancient Christians understood themselves. Jacobs states that the singular argument of his book is “that early Christian discourses of boundaries, differences, and distinctions consistently and paradoxically worked to erase boundaries, confound difference, and problematize distinction. That is, early Christian identity emerged out of the simultaneous making, and unmaking, of difference” (14).
In the first chapter, Jacobs explores both the meaning of circumcision for the Jews themselves and how it was a mark that functioned within a larger “cultural economy of signs” in the Roman Empire. Jewish circumcision became a stereotype by which the ruling powers supported their epistemological control of the otherness of the Jews. At the same time, it could be deceptive and misleading, as the Jewish male’s genitals usually remained hidden under clothing and away from the immediate gaze of Roman authorities. Through rabbinic reflections and regulations on circumcision, the Jews took up this stereotyping mark and attempted to control it for themselves, an act which itself represented a means of resistance to Roman power. Jacobs then examines New Testament attitudes toward Jewish circumcision and, more specifically, that of Christ. He finds that the backdrop of the Roman Empire influenced the different theological, political, and cultural interpretations of circumcision made by the authors of the canonical books. In the hands of gentile Christian authors of the second century, the meaning of circumcision was contested as it became a distinct sign of Christianity, although its undeniable Jewishness remained a persistent challenge to a purely Christian interpretation.
In Chapter 2, Jacobs examines what he calls “dialogue” texts as part of a polyphony of voices in early Christianity that contributed to the process of creating boundaries between the religions by textualizing difference. Justin Martyr’s famous dialogue with the Jew Trypho exemplifies the difficulty faced by Christians in confronting the original Jewishness of their religion. Again, the circumcision of Christ became a site of that conflict, as Justin tried to explain how that very Jewish mark on Jesus was not indicative of his submission to the Law, but its eradication. Origen’s work against the pagan Celsus demonstrates how both authors, far apart in time, used Jewish voices in their respective arguments, and we see again a dissonance within Origen’s argument that, on the one hand, asserted the superiority of Judaism over paganism; but on the other hand, emphasized that the very same Judaism was defunct. Jacobs then considers several other authors who appropriated and spoke with a Jewish voice to negotiate further what it meant to be a Christian.
The third chapter draws on the theoretical concept of abjection, which is a process of expulsion of “otherness” whereby the very identification and active rejection of that which is alien or feared concedes that it is already part of the self and so “creeps back in” and is internalized. This abjection is operative both in individuals and in groups, and in particular for the latter is manifest in religious rituals focused on pollution and purification. Jacobs applies this idea to the Christian discourse on orthodoxy and heresy, and the heretic becomes the object of abjection. The circumcision of Christ again becomes the focal point where Jacobs inspects these processes at work, specifically in Christian debates about the unity of the Scriptures, Christology, and ascetic practice. Jacobs’ reading of the discourse on orthodoxy and heresy is important because it takes us a step further from the already important recognition of heresy as rhetorical construct to incorporate the psychological dimension.
Chapter 4 considers the on-going scholarly debate over the nebulous modern notion of “Jewish-Christianity” and specifically the heresiological work of Epiphanius against the Ebionites (the quintessential Jewish-Christians). Jacobs turns to post-colonial theory, specifically the concept of the “hybrid,” who dwells in the interstitial space between self and other, to explain the instability of any totalizing discourse of the self. By ridiculing and reviling the Ebionites for their simultaneously defective Christianity and Judaism, Epiphanius created a hybrid heretic, whose faulty and nonsensical understanding of the Law and the Christ who fulfilled it provided for him the figure by which he could espouse his own supposedly impenetrable boundary of orthodoxy, as fractious as it really was. Epiphanius demonstrated what he thought was epistemological mastery over Judaism and hence his control over it, which mirrored the processes through which the Roman Empire asserted imperial mastery and control over its subject peoples.
The fifth chapter shifts into a discussion of the biblical commentary tradition, which for ancient Christians was rooted in a belief that “Scripture conveyed a single, unified skopos ” (120). But it did so in way that was often difficult to unpack and comprehend. Hence the proliferation of commentaries reflected attempts to mollify the resulting “semiotic anxiety,” which underscored the very volatility in meaning that they were intended to stabilize. Christ’s incarnate body, as the other manifestation of the Word on earth, was also the site of multiple meanings, and Jacobs examines several commentaries that dealt with the biblical passages about the circumcision of Christ. His analysis demonstrates how, across time and space, different commentators—Origen, Ephrem, Cyril of Alexandria, Philoxenus—to name a few, could conceive of such different interpretations of this one symbol, even as each and every one of them believed that the Scriptures contained a singular meaning.
In Chapter 6, Jacobs explores the connection between the development of rituals, the creation of boundaries of difference, and the assertion of identity. He begins with a discussion of how calendric time, demarcated through a cycle of festivals and rituals, was another paradoxical locus in which identity and difference were negotiated by both the ruling powers of the Roman Empire and its subject peoples. Through the celebration of their own calendar year, these Roman subjects simultaneously rejected and recognized the reckoning of time of the “other.” Christian time witnessed the establishment of a “Feast of the Circumcision,” which at first mention sounds rather bizarre, but as Jacobs explains, it embodied the ritualization of difference. Different sermons delivered during the celebrations of this feast reveal how listeners became participants in the circumcision of Christ and experienced the affirmation of their Christian identities, even as they “gazed” and reflected upon Jewish time and difference.
In the book’s conclusion, one more theoretical concept is introduced to underscore its central argument. Jacobs discusses “passing,” an idea drawn from theories about race, whereby an individual, for example a black person, “passes” as someone white. This act reveals the instability of an individual’s internal being and external appearance and of the (imagined) boundaries and categories that supposedly divide the passing spaces. The circumcised Jesus “passes” as a Jew, as he also passes as a male, and we see again how followers of the circumcised Jesus formulated their collective identity in the unstable in-between spaces.
Andrew Jacobs has examined in great depth one part the body of Christ and how early and late ancient Christians imagined and talked about it. Christ’s circumcision bore multifaceted and sometimes conflicting cultural, theological, and political meanings, and this book reveals that the formation of Christian identity was not a simple process of parting from its Jewish roots. The reader who is less than familiar with contemporary psychoanalytic theories may find the application of such ideas and approaches initially unsettling, but Jacobs does well in explaining at the start of each chapter the basic principles of the concepts he employs in his study. However, one might also maintain lingering questions about how appropriate it is to apply modern theories on race, culture, sexuality, and religion to a context far removed in time and space. Theologians of a more traditional bent may also find the book’s arguments to be provocative. Nevertheless, Jacobs skillfully shows how fruitful such theoretically based readings can be, and this book contributes significantly to the ongoing debates and discussions about the development of early and late ancient Christianity and its complex relationship with Judaism.