"Given as a Sign": Circumcision and Bodily Discourse in Late Antique Judaism and Christianity

M. Adryael Tong, Fordham University


This dissertation argues that when we understand circumcision as a bodily discourse, rather than exclusively as a bodily practice, we find that early Jewish and Christian theological texts on circumcision reveal a surprising number of similarities in addition to their often more obvious differences. Following an examination of circumcision discourse in Hebrew biblical and pre-rabbinic Jewish sources, I focus on three topics—genealogy, gender, and the composition of the body—wherein rabbinic and patristic authors discuss circumcision as a means of exploring particular questions of theological anthropology. I demonstrate that in the early stages of the development of rabbinic Judaism and what would later be called orthodox Christianity, a shared set of theological assumptions and commitments often led Jewish and Christian thinkers to deploy similar theological arguments–even as they used these very arguments to insist on their difference from one another. I thus argue that even in the issue most emblematic of disagreement and difference between Jews and Christians–the topic of circumcision–these communities articulated that difference on the basis of a number of theological and rhetorical similarities and agreements. Accordingly, I suggest we expand our interrogation of circumcision beyond the question of simply whether or not circumcision was practiced by late antique Jews and Christians. By conceptualizing circumcision as an integrated symbolic system, one that functions at the intersection of bodies and language, we can illuminate new aspects of the ways in which rabbinic Judaism and Christianity developed along parallel—although not identical—lines of theological inquiry.

Subject Area

Religion|Judaic studies|Religious history

Recommended Citation

Tong, M. Adryael, ""Given as a Sign": Circumcision and Bodily Discourse in Late Antique Judaism and Christianity" (2019). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI22592035.