Circumcision, Castration, Crucifixion; or, The Body and Difference
As Jewish culture, both in Palestine and in the Diaspora, came into contact with other cultures in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, it was faced with the issue of how the biblical religion fit in a world in which Jews live among other peoples. The dualism of Hellenized Judaism provides one answer to this question by allegorizing such signifiers as “Israel,” “history,” and the practices of Judaism. Thus Philo interprets these signifiers as having meanings of universal applicability. The Bible, its prescriptions, and the history it relates are universal in that they teach everyone important truths. Philo was working within and from a cultural tradition which, as Gager has shown, was widely attested among pagan as well as Jewish writers of the period “that regarded Judaism as a divinely revealed philosophy with Moses as its founder and spokesman” (Gager 1983, 69).
This “positive” and liberal perception of Judaism had negative consequences as well, however. As loyal a Jew as Philo was, he could not entirely escape the consequences of his allegorizing in a devaluing of the physical practices and genealogy of Israel. Where physical history and physical ritual exist only to point to spiritual meanings, the possibility of transcending both is always there. As Ronald Williamson has put it:
It seems that for Philo, alongside traditional, orthodox Judaism, there was a philosophical outlook on life, involving the recognition of the purely spiritual nature of the Transcendent, in which one day, Philo believed, all mankind would share. In that Judaism the idealized Augustus, Julia Augusta and Petronius—among, no doubt, many others—had already participated. (Williamson 1989, 13)
For Philo, such a spiritualized and philosophical Judaism, one in which a faith is substituted for works, remains only a theoretical possibility. For Paul it becomes the actuality of a new religious formation which deprives Jewish ethnicity and concrete historical memory of value by replacing these embodied signs with spiritual signifiers. These elements of embodiment are thus inextricable one from the other. If the body of language is its meaning and essence and the body of the person is his or her “self,” then the history of Israel and the practices of that Israel are the physical history and practices of the body Israel. Post-Pauline Christianity, with its spiritualizing allegorization of these signifiers, was universalizable but paid the enormous price of the suppression of cultural difference.
Philo indicates his disquietude with circumcision in his tract On the Special Laws, a tract whose name reveals what I take to be a common concern of such personalities as Philo himself, the author of Wisdom of Solomon, and Paul, that is, the specialness of Jewish rites and the ways that these mark off the Jews from others. Circumcision is in a sense the chiefest of these and, by Philo's own testimony, ridiculed in his environment (Philo 1937, 101; Hecht 1984). Philo offers four standard explanations and defenses of the practice, all of which promote rational and universal reasons for being circumcised. In fact, Philo emphasizes the fact that the Egyptians are also circumcised. Finally, Philo offers in his own name two “symbolic” (συμβολον) readings of circumcision. The more interesting of these is the second:
The other reason is that a man should know himself and banish from the soul the grievous malady of conceit. For there are some who have prided themselves on their power of fashioning as with a sculptor's cunning the fairest of creatures, man, and in their braggart pride assumed godship, closing their eyes to the Cause of all that comes into being, though they might find in their familiars a corrective for their delusion. For in their midst are many men incapable of begetting and many women barren, whose matings are ineffective and who grow old childless. The evil belief, therefore, needs to be excised from the mind with any others that are not loyal to God. (Philo 1937, 104)
The excision of the foreskin from the body is allegorically interpreted as the excision from the mind of an evil belief, indeed one that is intimately connected with the foreskin, as it has to do with generation. What we see, then, in Philo is a typical middle-platonist interpretation of the meaning of circumcision. Philo, however, typically berates those who, having a proper understanding of the meaning of circumcision, ignore the physical observance of the rite (Borgen 1980, 86; Collins 1985). The logic of his mode of interpretation is rather that others—not only Jews—should also be circumcised, a point which is supported by his aforementioned notice that the Egyptians follow the practice also.
In spite of his generally less extreme devaluation of the body, Paul goes further than Philo in a radical reinterpretation of circumcision. Where Philo argues that circumcision both symbolizes and effects the excision of the passions, “symbolizes the reduction of all passion by effecting in the flesh of the penis a reduction of sexual passion,” Paul “ties the removal of the fleshly desires exclusively to the believer's crucifixion with Christ” (Borgen 1980, 99). Baptism is also figured in Pauline language as putting off of the garment, namely the physical body, which is replaced by the corporate (resurrection) body of Christ. Baptism is a re-enactment for every Christian of the crucifixion of Christ, a putting off of the body of flesh and a recladding in the spiritual body of the risen Christ.
“Circumcision” in its true meaning κατὰ πνεῦμα also means this. This is “the circumcision not made with hands.” Since he allegorically interpreted circumcision as the outer sign performed in the flesh of an inner circumcision of the spirit, therefore, I would claim, circumcision was for Paul replaced by its allegorical signified and the embodied signifier “Jew” by its allegorical referent “believer in Christ.” Paul returns over and over to this theme, most clearly in such passages as the following: Galatians 6:11–17; and Colossians 2:11, “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ.” As Wedderburn has put it:
Instead of the physical circumcision which was perhaps demanded of the Colossian Christians they are reminded of the circumcision that they have already received in their union with Christ, namely the far more drastic “putting away of the fleshly body” which comes from union with him in his death and burial; they have been raised with him in his resurrection. (Wedderburn 1987, 84)