And the eight days were fulfilled for circumcising him, and he was called by the name Jesus, which he was called by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. - Luke 2:21
Since antiquity Christians have imagined Jesus as an infant, circumcised according to Jewish Law on the eighth day of his life: the paradigmatic mark of the Jewish covenant on the Christian savior's body. While modern Christians may derive an irenic interfaith message from this image, this sign had quite a different significance in the first Christian centuries.
It is true--at least according to the voracious fourth-century heresiologist Epiphanius--that some groups of "Judaizing" Christians evoked Jesus' example in requiring routine circumcision of Jewish males; but more often Jesus's circumcision allowed Christians to think critically, and often paradoxically, about the problem of difference embedded in their own uncomfortably diverse Christian cultural matrix.
When the author of the Gospel of Luke imagined Christ circumcised in fuzzy Greek (no finite verb decisively marks the cut in Luke 2:21), was he--like the apostle Paul--playing with ethnoreligious categories embedded in a Roman imperial landscape? Was he appropriating a Jewish ritual--one growing in importance in the first centuries C.E.-- to give it a new, non- (or post-?) Jewish meaning? Was he, as some scholars have argued, using the "old" covenant to oppose a rival Christianity that denied any connection between the divine Father of Christ and the Jewish God of the Law?
Christ's circumcision pops up frequently when early Christians are concerned about difference. Epiphanius summarizes a range of reasons why Christ was circumcised:
First, to prove that he had actually taken flesh, because of the Manicheans, and those who say he has appeared in a semblance. Then, to show that the body was not of the same nature as the Godhead, as Apollinarius says, and that he had not brought it down from above, as Valentinus says. Also to confirm the fact that the circumcision he had given long ago served legitimately until his advent, and to deprive Jews of an excuse: for, if he had not been circumcised, they could have said, "We could not accept an uncircumcised messiah." (Panarion 30.28.2-4)
On the one hand, the circumcision demarcates lines of difference between "orthodox" Christians and their "heretical" counterparts, whose beliefs about Christ's body--its immateriality, its divinity, or its alienness--might somehow appeal to Christians working out the paradoxes of a God who suffered a human life and death.
From the so-called "docetists" (deniers of Christ's embodiment) of the second century to the "aphthartodocetists" (deniers of Christ's suffering) of the sixth, Christians repeatedly invoked Christ's circumcised body to try to contemplate--but never resolve--the incongruity of a God with a body like (but not identical to?) our own. Did that body hunger, sweat, desire, or ail? A cut on an infant's body could affirm the materiality of that body but still leave room for speculation about its uniqueness, as when Severus of Antioch, who wrote against the aphthartodocetists, affirmed the truth of Christ's circumcision but also speculated that his detached foreskin survived and ascended to heaven with him.
In his list of reasons, Epiphanius also acknowledges the Jewish Law and expectations of a messiah. He stands in a long tradition of Christian writers who admit the Jewishness of Jesus' circumcision but nonetheless read it as a sign of division between Jews and Christians. The Law had been valid, but was rendered defunct by Christ's fulfillment of it. Stubborn Jews who persisted in circumcising were obeying an expired law.
Not only did Jesus's circumcision render the ritual moot, it also "deprived Jews of an excuse." Not that Jesus was really a Jew (as Cyril of Alexandria noted: Glaphyra in Exodum 1.7), but Jews should have accepted his circumcised body as proof of his messianic eligibility. Jesus' circumcision was a fulfillment, a disguise, even a proof to Jews who were nevertheless destined to misinterpret and misbelieve. It was Jew-ish, a tinge of difference Christians could accept and reject at once.
"Let us be circumcised!" one sixth-century preacher declared to his congregation. How did early Christians hear this call to circumcision? It meant many things: a call to baptism (a "spiritual" circumcision); a rejection of Judaism, heresy, and paganism; a reminder of the impossible intertwining of the flesh and spirit embodied in the incarnation. It meant acknowledging difference, even drawing it close--imagining it disfiguring the body of Christ--mastering otherness but never becoming other.
Andrew S. Jacobs is author of Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and Difference (U Penn, 2012) and the forthcoming Epiphanius of Cyprus: A Cultural Biography of Late Antiquity (U California, 2016)