Circumcision was a major factor in Jewish identity. For many in the Greco-Roman world, it was circumcision which set the Jews apart, usually for ridicule. Marital, for example, seems to find a great deal of humor in the Jewish practice (Epigrams 7.35.3-4; 7,82, 11.94. Some of Marital’s comments on circumcision are so crude the original Loeb translators did not translate them into English so as not to offend sensitive readers, choosing instead to translate them into Italian. A new edition of Marital has been produced for the Loeb series by D. R. Shackleton Baily which not only translates these epigrams, but seems to strive to offend!) All Jewish males were circumcised on the eighth day, a practice noted in the New Testament (Lk. 2:21; Phil. 3:5). There was some question as to the need for circumcision when a Gentile converted to Judaism. One of the first major controversies of the early church concerned the practice of Gentile circumcision, indicating the very close alignment of the earliest Christianity and Judaism.
The practice of circumcision itself is not unique to the Jews in the Ancient world, although some of the traditions based on the Old Testament are specifically Jewish. Circumcision is given as a sign of the Covenant of Abraham in Genesis 17. All male members of Abraham’s household are to be circumcised, those that wish to be joined to Abraham’s family must be circumcised (see Genesis 34, for example.) While the practice of circumcision was common in Ancient Israel, the ritual itself did not confer “spiritual blessing” as a sign of the covenant. For this reason the prophets told the people that they needed a “circumcised heart – clearly a metaphorical use of the idea of circumcision (Deut. 10:16, 30:6; Jer 4:4; Ezek 44:7, 9).
Since Greek sports were preformed in the nude and much of cultured society revolved around the gymnasium, it was difficult for a circumcised Jew to participate without being exposing themselves to ridicule. Many Jews simply refused to participate, others either did not circumcise their children so that they could participate in Greek culture. Some chose to submit to an extremely painful procedure to reverse their circumcision.
There is strong evidence that during the intertestamental period and into the first century, at least part of the Jews thought that circumcision was required for the convert to Judaism. See, for example, Schiffman in Jewish and Christian Self-Definition Volume 2 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 115-156, especially 125-127. Schiffman discusses a text in the Talmud ( Yebamot 46) and the importance of the Izates story in Josephus. In Josephus Antiquities 20.2.4 we read the story of Helena, queen of Adiabene, and her son Izates, who “changed their course of life, and embraced the Jewish customs.” What is interesting here is that Izates desires zealously to embrace Judaism, and decides to be circumcised. Helena and the Jewish Ananias tries to dissuade him on the grounds that he is a king, and the people will not accept the rule of a king that practices a foreign religion. Ananias seems to be arguing that if there is a mortal danger, circumcision can be ignored (if the person as a hemophiliac, for example.) Since allowing himself to be circumcised bight lead to the rebellion of his people and the loss of his and his family’s life, Ananias recommends that he not be circumcised. After Izates decides to forgo circumcision, another Jew Eleazar, described as being “extremely strict” with respect to the Law, tells Izates that he is breaking the Law if he does not submit to circumcision. Izates does immediately receive circumcision, and Josephus tells us that God preserves him in the dangers he faces later in life because he obeyed the Law fully!
In the Loeb Edition of Josephus there is a lengthy footnote on this story. A few scholars have drawn attention to the fact that the debate between Ananias and Eleazar reflects the two schools of rabbinic thought in the first century, that of Hillel and Shammai, with respect to circumcision. In Talmud Yebamot 46 a there is a description of a Rabbi Joshua who taught that only baptism was necessary for a Gentile convert, and the Rabbi Eleazar who argued that circumcision was necessary for the Gentile convert. J. Klausner argued that the dichotomy between Joshua and Eleazar is similar to that of Paul/Barnabas and Peter/James (as suggested by J. Klausner, From Jesus to Paul (1943), 39-40), but this may be reading the Paul / Peter relationship as a strict dichotomy alá Bauer.
Does the story of Izates indicate that Hellenistic Jews were more liberal on circumcision than Palestinian Jews? Assuming that Ananias is a Hellenistic Jew and Eleazar is a Palestinian Jew, Schiffman (127) notes that the argument has been made that Hellenistic Jews did not require circumcision. But this is not the case since Ananias never argues that circumcision for a convert is not required, but that in this case there is an acceptable and legal “out” of Izates that will perhaps preserve his life. Josephus’ comments at the end of the story make it clear that he approves of Izates’ decision to be circumcised. This brief survey indicates that the practice of circumcision was one of the most important issues to Jews of the first century. Even for a Gentile convert, circumcision was required in order to be part of the “people of God.”
A Brief bibliography: Thomas Schriener, “Circumcision” in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, 137-139; Robert G. Hall, “Circumcision”, in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1:1025-1031; Raymond E. Brown, “Not Jewish and Gentile Christianity But Types of Jewish/Gentile Christianity” CBQ 45 (1983) 74–79; J. M. Sasson, “Circumcision in the Ancient Near East” JBL 85 (1966) 473–76.