Review of Thiessen, Matthew. Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity.

Thiessen, Matthew.  Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. [Israel/Ritual/Liturgy/Worship/Covenants]

Review:  In this new book, Matthew Thiessen argues that in the Second Temple Period and even beyond 70 CE the genealogical nature of Jewishness remained contested, even by Jews. Much scholarship suggests that by the Second Temple Period, Jews willingly accepted converts into their midst, and circumcision was the rite through which one became a Jew. With this book, however, Thiessen upsets this consensus among modern scholars and challenges the idea that consensus could be found among ancient Jews and Christians. The main question of his book is how did ancient Jews define their Jewishness? How much of their definition was based on genealogy, and if so, was that genealogy permeable or not? Thiessen argues that Jewish understandings of “Jewishness” were not united nor monolithic, and that many Jews, and even some early followers of Jesus, following biblical precedence, remained adamant that Jewishness was not a choice but an immutable inheritance of a particular people: Israel.

The book is divided into two parts and five chapters. The first part (two chapters) discusses genealogy and circumcision in the Hebrew Bible, while the second part (three chapters) considers the same subjects within early Judaism and emerging Christianity. In his discussion of pertinent biblical passages, Thiessen is nothing but thorough. Through a close reading of Genesis 17, he argues that this text’s author(s) (P) established covenantal circumcision as Israelite only and performed only on the eight-day-old male Israelite child. In this way, the author(s) maintained that Israelite circumcision, which symbolizes Israelite divine chosenness, is distinguishable from other forms of circumcision practiced by Israel’s neighbors. Thiessen also suggests that by emphasizing eighth-day circumcision the author(s) disallowed any other form of circumcision performing the same duty. Thus, for instance, Ishmael, though circumcised–but at age thirteen–cannot be a child of the promise because of the wrong timing of his circumcision (Abraham with his late-age circumcision remains in a specialized category). Thiessen further suggests that this story was specifically crafted to show that not all children of Abraham are children of the promise, and that anyone who accepts circumcision at a later age cannot possibly come into the people of promise. The author(s) of this text held that Israelites are born into Israeliteness, and nothing can bring anyone else into the fold. By implication, an Israelite son who is not circumcised on the eighth day would be cut off from the people, as Genesis 17 directs. By comparing the various versions of Genesis 17:14 in the ancient texts, Thiessen argues that the better reading of this passage actually includes “on the eighth day” (which does not appear in the Massoretic texts), indicating the firmness of this divine directive to Israelites alone for some ancient readers.

Nevertheless, the biblical texts themselves often distinguish between the circumcised (Israel) and the uncircumcised (everyone else). The Philistines, for example, are depicted as the quintessential “other” and uncircumcised. Yet Thiessen proposes to demonstrate that despite the many circumcised Gentiles in Hebrew texts, none of those Gentiles ever become Israelites through the rite of circumcision. (Even the circumcised household slaves are distinguished from Israel.) The story of Dina is a case in point. Despite the machinations of her brothers, who promise that if the Shechemites circumcise themselves they can join with Jacob’s family as one, their subsequent massacre of the townsfolk shows the impossibility of such a union. One cannot just circumcise and marry into Israel: the genealogical border between Israel and all others is an impermeable boundary. Although the prophets also set up categories of circumcised Israel and uncircumcised others, they too perceive of the boundaries as impermeable. Furthermore the dichotomy should really be seen as distinguishing eighth-day circumcision from all other kinds, as the prophets too acknowledge that Israel’s neighbors also practice circumcision (just of the non-covenantal sort). Thiessen concludes, as others have before him, that the Hebrew Bible provides no evidence that outsiders could “convert” to Israeliteness, and certainly not through the rite of circumcision. Israelite circumcision could only be performed on (male) Israelites, and only on the eighth day. The situation changes, however, in the Second Temple period, where there seems to have been more openness to the possibility of more permeable borders. The Hasmonean leaders, for instance, made it a policy to absorb the peoples in their colonized territories, such as the Idumeans and Itureans. This absorption into the Judean polity was processed in part through circumcision. The Idumeans thereby became Judeans, at least politically. Yet, as Thiessen carefully shows through a close reading of Jubilees, the Animal Apocalypse, I Esdras, and even the texts affiliated with Herod, their genealogy, religion, and cultural affiliations remained undetermined and often rejected by many contemporary Judeans.

Thiessen’s stated purpose is to show that modern understandings of circumcision as the rite of passage of conversion to Jewishness/Judeanness/Judaism in the Greco-Roman period are heavily indebted to later Christian theological comparisons of circumcision to baptism and to the idea that religion, or faith, is a matter of choice, not birth. Thus anyone can become an Israelite/Judean/Jew through conversion, as anyone can become a Christian. However, this was not necessarily the case in the ancient world. So even while emerging Christianity struggled with this notion of a genealogical Israel (and thus genealogical Jews), that same Israel, and its descendents, both Jewish and Christian, remained beholden to some sort of genealogical notion in one way or another. Thus, Thiessen argues, the genealogical understanding of Israeliteness (which transforms into similar understandings of Jewishness), established in the Hebrew Bible, continues throughout the Greco-Roman period into the early Christian period as well. Given the paucity of sources, Thiessen cannot (and will not) claim that one theory of Jewishness dominated the scene, but rather wants only to establish that there were a multiplicity of understandings, the genealogical one only one among the others. While much of what he argues for Second Temple Judaism is not new, his contribution to the field lies in his refreshing reading of the early Christian texts, particularly Luke-Acts.

Thiessen argues that one should read Luke-Acts within the genealogical framework established by the likes of Ezra and the author of Jubilees. For the author of Luke-Acts, Israelites/Judeans/Jews are genealogically different than all other human species in the same way that pure/kosher animals are different than impure/unkosher animals. A pig cannot be made kosher; neither can a Gentile become a Jew. Thus circumcision and the rest of the law remain active and effective for Jews, but ineffective for Gentiles. Only by the grace of God (to wit Acts 10:44-48) can Gentiles be bought into God’s promise. Nonetheless, they remain genealogical Gentiles, they do not convert into Jews first, but simply lose their disability of impurity (unkosher status). Thus Luke proposes or assumes a community of “Christians” (a new category) made up of Jews and Gentiles who remain on some level Jews and Gentiles even as they share in God’s grace. As such Jews should continue to be Jews, and follow biblical law, while Gentiles should remain Gentiles, with the slight adaptation of following the Apostolic Constitutions.

While much of the material Thiessen reviews and the arguments he puts forward in the earlier chapters in this book are not new, he brings them together in a cogent, organized, and accessible manner. The more interesting and provocative argument remains his reading of Luke-Acts. As someone who comes more from the Jewish textual tradition, this refreshing reading was for me quite illuminating and satisfying, for it opens up other ways of understanding the struggles of the early Christian communities without an overlay of many later centuries of Christian theology. It helps us pull away from some of the more standard dichotomies that often influence (to our detriment) how we read these formative texts.

Naomi Koltun-Fromm, “Once a Gentile Always a Gentile.”
Accessed 19 August 2013.

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