Israel in the Flesh: The Embodied Subject of the Jew
The dialectic between a Christian universalism and a Jewish particularism is perhaps first explicitly enunciated in a remarkable text of the mid second century, Dialogue of Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, a text for which Galatians provides a vitally significant intertext, even though Paul is never mentioned in it. Trypho quite eloquently represents the puzzlement of a rabbinic Jew confronted with such a different pattern of religion:
But this is what we are most at a loss about: that you, professing to be pious, and supposing yourselves better than others, are not in any particular separated from them, and do not alter your mode of living from the nations, in that you observe no festivals or sabbaths, and do not have the rite of circumcision. (Justin 1989, 199)
Circumcision is thus a site of difference in the same way that a female body is a site of difference, and thus a threat to univocity. And so Justin answers Trypho:
For we too would observe the fleshly circumcision, and the Sabbaths, and in short all the feasts, if we did not know for what reason they were enjoined you,—namely, on account of your transgressions and the hardness of your hearts. For if we patiently endure all things contrived against us by wicked men and demons, so that even amid cruelties unutterable, death and torments, we pray for mercy to those who inflict such things upon us, and do not wish to give the least retort to any one, even as the new Lawgiver commanded us; how is it, Trypho, that we would not observe those rites which do not harm us,—I speak of fleshly circumcision, and Sabbaths, and feasts. (Justin 1989, 203)
The crucial issue dividing Judaism from Christianity is the relation to the body, in general as a signifier of corporeal existence in all of its manifestations and here, in particular, as a signifier of belonging to a particular kin-group.
The dualism of body and spirit in anthropological terms transferred to the realm of language and interpretation provides the perfect vehicle for this carnal signification to be transcended. Justin repeats accordingly the gesture of Philo in understanding the corporeal rites, the holidays, the Sabbath, circumcision, as being “symbols” of spiritual transformations (Justin, 201), again exceeding Philo, of course, in that for the former the corporeal existence of the signifier was still crucially relevant, while for Justin it has been completely superseded:
For the law promulgated on Horeb is now old, and belongs to yourselves alone; but this is for all universally.…For the true spiritual Israel, and the descendants of Judah, Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham (who in uncircumcision was approved of and blessed by God on account of his faith, and called the father of many nations), are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ. (Justin 1989, 200)
If, however, on the one hand, the allegorization of the commandments on the part of a Christian like Justin creates the attractive possibility of a universalizing discourse, it also contains within itself, perhaps inevitably, the seeds of a discourse of contempt for the Jews. Thus Justin's universalism becomes, to use Jonathan Boyarin's felicitous phrase, “a particularist claim to universality” (J. Boyarin 1992; cf. Connolly 1991, 41): “For the circumcision according to the flesh, which is from Abraham, was given for a sign; that you may be separated from other nations, and from us; and that you alone may suffer that which you now justly suffer; and that your land may be desolate, and your cities burned with fire; and that strangers may eat your fruit in your presence, and not one of you go up to Jerusalem” (Justin 1989, 202). As Castelli has precisely phrased it,
The call to sameness (with Paul) in [1 Corinthians] 11:1 is paradoxically bound up with the call to exclusivity (difference) from the rest of the world. The action of imitation again has no specified content, but refers rather to a gesture which would set Christians apart as Christians. Unity and exclusivity are two sides of the same coin in the economy of Christian social formation. Each quality is a function of the mimetic relationship, insofar as each is played out in the polarity of sameness and difference. (Castelli 1991a, 114)
Ultimately, then, E. P. Sanders is right that Paul's main problem with Jews is that they are not Christians. This is, however, not nearly so weak as it might appear, because the not-being-Christian (or Greek or Roman or any universal human) is, in a sense, the very essence of the signifier Jew, and the insistence on difference was also (and remained) a positive content of Jewish self-definition as well. If the “content” of Pauline Christianity is a drive toward sameness, the Jew is the very site of difference which both constitutes and threatens that sameness, and the circumcision of the male Jew's penis is precisely a diacritic. The Pauline critique of one kind of particularism leads to a particularism of another sort, which threatens ideologically and in practice to allegorize the Jews out of existence entirely. On the one hand, Justin argues that Abel, Noah, Lot, and Melchizedek, all uncircumcised, were pleasing to God, a message of universalism, but on the other, “to you alone this circumcision was necessary, in order that the people may be no people, and the nation no nation” (Justin, 204). It is here, building on Paul, that “Christian” becomes, then, reinscribed as universal, and “Jew” becomes the realm of the particular, in almost the very same hermeneutical move that inscribes male as spirit and female as the realm of the senses. “The Jew” in the text is taken as the concrete signifier of a spiritual signified, so “The Jew” in the world becomes demoted precisely to the extent that signifiers are disavowed vis-à-vis signifieds.