Matthew Thiessen’s Contesting Conversion

I read Matthew Thiessen’s Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision, and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2011).

What this book is about is the biblical requirement that Israelites be circumcised on the eighth day, and the implications of this requirement for the conversion of Gentiles to Judaism.  According to Thiessen, within the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism, there is a view that true Israelites are those who have been circumcised specifically on the eighth day after their birth, and thus a Gentile cannot become an Israelite through circumcision, since his circumcision generally would not occur on the eighth day.  

Within the Hebrew Bible, Thiessen argues, those among the seed of Abraham or Israel who have been circumcised on the eighth day are part of Israel.  Under this principle, Ishmael in Genesis 17 is not a part of God’s chosen people because he was not circumcised on the eighth day, but rather after that.  While Genesis 34 (the story of Dinah) depicts Simeon and Levi presenting the possibility of non-Israelites becoming united with Israel through circumcision, the story does not accept intermarriage or conversion as a pathway to joining God’s people.  When Simeon and Levi ask Jacob in v 31 if the Shechemite should treat their sister Dinah as a harlot, Thiessen contends that they are equating Israelite intermarriage with a foreigner with prostitution, indicating that they did not believe that the Shechemites could become part of Israel through circumcision. 

Regarding Exodus 12:43-49’s requirements that household slaves be circumcised to keep the Passover, and that gerim who desire to observe the Passover be circumcised, Thiessen does not see here a notion that a Gentile can become an Israelite through circumcision.  For one, if a household slave became an Israelite as a result of circumcision, then he would not be a slave anymore, since different sources within the Torah distinguish Israelite indentured servanthood (which is temporary) from Israel’s enslavement of Gentiles (which can be permanent); yet, Exodus 12 appears to presume that the household slaves remain slaves, even after their circumcision.  Second, Thiessen argues that there is no indication in Exodus 12 that gerim who become circumcised become actual Israelites, even though Thiessen acknowledges that gerim within the Pentateuch do participate in the cultic life of Israel, due to their ties to the land.

Within the Second Temple Period, Thiessen narrates, there were prominent voices that held that one had to be circumcised on the eighth day to be a part of Israel, thereby precluding the possibility of Gentile conversion to Judaism.  Jubilees is one such voice.  And, when the Maccabees circumcised the Idumeans, there were voices that spoke out against that, such as the Animal Apocalypse within I Enoch.  There were also Jews who had problems with Herod, an Idumean.  Thiessen does not believe that the Maccabees in circumcising the Idumeans held that any Gentile could join Israel through circumcision.  Rather, according to Thiessen, the Maccabees may have seen the Idumeans as a special case, since they were closely related to the Israelites (according to parts of the Hebrew Bible), and Deuteronomy 23:8-9 permitted Edomites eventually to enter the congregation of the LORD. 

According to Thiessen, the New Testament Book of Acts actually agrees with the Jewish view that Gentiles could not become Israelites because only those who had been circumcised on the eighth day were part of Israel.  Stephen in Acts 7:8 affirms that Isaac was circumcised on the eighth day.  When Luke mentions proselytes, Thiessen contends, Luke is distinguishing them from Israelites, not equating the two.  While Luke believed that God cleansed the Gentiles who believed in Jesus, Thiessen argues, he still distinguished between Jews and Gentiles within the church.

In terms of the book’s overall argument, Thiessen seems to explain what he is trying to say on pages 10-11:

“These scholarly perceptions regarding the relationship between Jewishness and circumcision are heavily indebted to the belief, similar to that of Eco’s Diotallevi, that Jewishness is a matter of choice.  A Gentile can become a Jew.  I do not deny that Diotallevi’s view had proponents in antiquity.  Further, I agree with these scholars that this was the dominant view in the late Second Temple period.  Yet, at numerous points I believe this sketch of early perceptions of Jewishness, and Jewish views about Gentile conversion through circumcision, to be either incomplete or inaccurate.  Consequently, what I intend to show in the following chapters is the existence of proponents of Belbo’s view, who thought that Jewishness was not a matter of choice, but of descent (i.e., ‘Jews are born’).”

Thiessen does not appear to be dismissing the notion that there were a number of Second Temple Jews who thought that Gentiles could become part of Israel through circumcision.  He is just saying that there was a voice that believed the opposite, and that it was faithful to the Hebrew Bible. 

This book is worth the read.  I appreciated his fresh interpretations of the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Acts, as well as his discussion of the controversy concerning the Idumeans within the Second Temple period.  It is interesting whenever a scholar argues that the conclusions that many scholars have held are not necessarily the case.

In terms of any criticisms I have about the book, I do not recall Thiessen addressing the question of why Ishmael or other Gentiles within Israel had to be circumcised.  (Maybe he did address this, though, and I do not recall his discussion.)  What was the significance of circumcision for them, if they were not part of Israel? 

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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