Jewish Identity Markers in Pre-exilic Period

Shaye Cohen claims that in the pre-exilic period circumcision, while of unusual importance, was not an essential mark of Jewish identity. The status of circumcision as the essential mark of Jewish identity did not emerge until the Maccabean period. Cohen in From the Maccabees to the Mishnah writes:

The central ritual of conversion was circumcision. This practice, quite common in the ancient Orient (Jer 9:24-25), figures prominently in only a few sections of the Bible . . . All these passages assign some unusual importance to circumcision, but the Bible as a whole generally ignores it and nowhere regards it as the essential mark of Jewish identity or as the sine qua non for membership in the Jewish polity. It attained this status only in Maccabean times . . . For the Maccabees, circumcision was such an essential component of Jewish identity that upon conquering various sections of the holy land they incorporated the inhabitants into the Jewish polity, a step that meant first and foremost circumcision . . . By the end of the first century BCE, circumcision was widely known to the Greeks and Romans as a typically (though not exclusively) Jewish practice (43-44).

Thus, before the Maccabean period (mid-2nd c. BCE) circumcision and other rites (e.g. baptism, sacrifices in the Temple) were not required of a Gentile to be included among Israel. I think the clearest example of this in the Old Testament is the Davidic and Solomonic Empire. When one studies their hegemony, it is obvious that their kingdom stretched over both Israelite, Judahite and over Gentiles. All three of these groups are referred to with the the title “Israel”.

  • Scot McKnight

    Joel, I’m not so sure either baptism or sacrifice were markers prior to the 1st Century. Baptism prior to John Baptist is notoriously difficult to document, and sacrifice for converts — that’s late 1st Century CE stuff, no?

    On circumcision … the law runs deep into Israel’s history and, if Abe is seen as the proto-type, then I suspect it was required for any Gentile who “converted” into Israel/Judaism prior to the Exile.

    • Anonymous

      Scot, Cohen notes that while no 2TJ text speaks of immersion and sacrifice rituals of conversion, Rabbinic material does reference both immersion and sacrifices. Cohen lands on a mediating position that in at least some circles of Judaism in the first century baptism/immersion was part of the conversion process.

  • Doug Chaplin

    Doesn’t the Jeremiah text depend for its implication on the assumption that physical circumcision is the Israelite norm? And I see no reason to assume it has a late provenance compared to other core portions of Jeremiah.

    Is there significant evidence marshalled for this reconstruction, or is it asserted rather more than argued?

  • Ryan Mahoney

    An argument from silence?

  • Allen Browne

    While I haven’t read Cohen, I don’t find this quote convincing, e.g. Ex 12:43-48 requires not only Israelites but foreigners to be circumcised to eat the Passover (even if it did take a while to become the norm: Josh 5).
    The relative silence on circumcision in the prophets could mean merely that uncircumcision was not a problem.

  • Anonymous

    I think there is something to be said in favor of Cohen’s observation, at least to a degree, in a comparison between Davidic/Solomonic hegemony and Hasmonean. The latter forced conversions on those who lived in their Empire, the former did not. Why? Something with respect to identity demarcation had changed in the intervening half a millennium.

  • Dan Bollinger

    Glick posits that the Biblical text mentioning circumcision was appended during the Maccabean era to support and codify their opinion and possibly as another way the priesthood benefited financially.

    Marked in Your Flesh, by Leonard B. Glick, Oxford, 2005