Lukes Gospel

My first example is the account of the circumcision itself in Luke's Gospel (2.21), and my first question about this account concerns why it occurs only in Luke's Gospel. What does it signify?17 Mark's Gospel has no infancy narrative and so the lack of any reference to Jesus's circumcision is readily explicable. John's Gospel contains one reference to circumcision (John 7.22—3), but not an account ofJesus's own.18 Of course, it could be argued that since there is, at best, only a veiled reference to the birth ofJesus in the prologue to John's Gospel (1.14),as with Mark's Gospel there is no narrative necessity for mentioning the circumcision. Though since scholars often take both Gospels to have been written with the Gentile world in mind, and given the controversies St Paul records in his letters about whether Christians as inheritors of a Jewish messianic tradition should be circumcised or not, it is significant that they are silent on the issue. But of what is that silence significant? The question is ultimately unanswerable, but perhaps the very absence of any mention of Jesus's circumcision signals a politics we cannot access now. It is possibly a politics that needs to be taken into account especially when interpreting the silence in Matthew's Gospel.19 For

17 A number of commentators note the way Jesus being circumcised accords with Jewish cultic observance and how Jesus is therefore seen as fulfilling all that the Torah required. Jack T. Sanders sums up the point they make: 'The infancy narratives ... show how totally immersed Christian beginnings were in good Jewish piety'; Jews in Luke-Acts (Philadelphia, Penn.: Fortress Press, 1987), p. 161. To go beyond these observations we need to view the incident in the light of the theology of the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. But, as we will see, this is highly disputed territory, betraying the politics of interpretation and what Pierre Bourdieu would call the 'habitus' or network of unre-flected dispositions that govern any enquiry. For example, Joseph B. Tyson, in his Luke, Judaism, and the Scholars (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), when discussing the major contributions to Lukan scholarship in the twentieth century by Ernst Haenchen (1894—1975) and Hans Conzelmann (1915—89), situates both their approaches in terms of the Jewish question and their association with or disassociation from German National Socialism. Both Haenchen and Conzel-mann make much of the anti-Jewish aspects of the Gospel and, particularly, Acts of the Apostles.

18 John's concern is with the way that in the Jewish law there is a certain overriding or double-play. Commentators (like Barrett, The Gospel According to St.John, 2nd edition, Philadelphia, Penn.: Westminster Press, 1978, p. 320) often refer to Mishnah Nedarim 3.11: 'R. Jose says, "Great is circumcision since it overrides the stringent Sabbath".' Nevertheless, in John's Gospel Jesus makes an interesting association between circumcision and being made whole that reinforces certain elements of my argument near the end of this chapter.

19 The nineteenth-century German exegete, Ferdinand Christian Baur, believed there was a relationship between Matthew's Gospel and the Gospel of Luke as we have it now. In the words of Tyson, Baur believed '[o]riginal Luke was a revision of Matthew that omitted the Jewish-Christian tendencies . A second author, who intended to reconcile the Jewish-Christian and Gentile-Christian wings of the Church, revised original Luke and re-introduced some pro-Jewish sections from Matthew' (Luke,Judaism and the Scholars, p. 137). But this is all very speculative.

most New Testament scholars concur that Matthew's Gospel has an implied Jewish-Christian reader. It is also a Gospel with an infancy narrative and a concern to show not only that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Jewish law and prophecy, but also that Jesus is the continuation of the Jewish tradition. Luke's Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, on the other hand, have often been viewed as having an implied Graeco-Roman reader, being addressed to Gentile converts who had separated themselves from both the Jews and the Jewish Christians. '[I]n reality, Luke the historian is wrestling, from the first page to the last, with the problem of the mission to the Gentiles without the law', writes Haenchen; 'When Christianity comes to be viewed as a religion separate and distinct from Judaism, which is the way Luke viewed it, then someone who tries to be both is, from a dispassionate descriptive point of view, an anomaly, but from a partisan religious viewpoint a hypocritic', writes Jack T. Sanders.20 Various studies have argued that the Greek of Luke's Gospel is more rhetorically conscious, the vocabulary more sophisticated. So when the circumcision ought to appear in Matthew's Gospel to show that Jesus of Nazareth really did live out the letter of the Jewish law, it does not. It appears in a Gospel seemingly addressed to Gentile outsiders. Why is this? Or more accurately, why might this be?

It is not that answers to this question are impossible to formulate — one only needs to challenge the implied readership and construct another context. In an article published in 1972, Jacob Jervell — in the only study I

20 Haenchen, Der Weg Jesu: Eine Erklärung des Markus-Evangeliums und der kanonischen Parallelen, 2nd edn. (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1968), p. 100; Sanders, Jews in Luke-Acts, p. 130. The work ofJacob Jervell contests this perspective. Developing 'God-fearer' into an official term for Gentiles who had attached themselves to Judaism and become proselytes, Jervell claims: 'it is those Jews who are most faithful to the law, the real Jews, the most Jewish Jews, that became believers' (Luke and the People of God: A New Look at Luke-Acts, Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Publishing House, 1972, p. 46). By implication, then, the Gospel is addressed to Jewish Christians with a considerable knowledge of Jewish law at a time when they are defining themselves (and the role of Paul's mission) in the context of a growing purely Gentile Church. In fact, the Church for Jervell is the true and restored Israel. It does not matter for this argument which interpretation, or constructed ecclesiastical context, is right. Though it is significant that Conzelmann, in his commentary on Luke, translated by Geoffrey Buswell as The Theology of St. Luke (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), in supporting the Gentile readership devotes only one paragraph to the infancy narratives in Luke 1 and 2. It is a dismissive paragraph that makes no mention of Jesus's circumcision while recognising that it 'is strange that the characteristic features they [the infancy narratives] contain do not occur again either in the Gospel or in Acts' (p. 172). Each of these commentators is involved in their own cultural negotiations. It does not matter for this argument whether the Gospel speaks to the Gentiles who have left Judaism and Jewish Christianity behind or speaks to an intra-Jewish debate: in either case a readership (and context) have to be constructed — a politics defined — in order for interpretation to proceed. The argument here concerns the politics of the writing and interpretation itself — its inevitability and its irreducibleness, despite the positivistic language of 'in reality', 'Luke the historian', 'the real Jews', and 'the way Luke viewed it'.

am aware of that is explicitly devoted to the circumcision ofJesus in Luke — makes the verse the crux of his interpretation of Lukan theology.21 For Jervell, working in the aftermath of the Jewish Holocaust and busily trying to revise scholarly attention to Luke's anti-Judaism, this verse becomes the key to unlocking the conflicting debates about circumcision in the early Church. In a way that refuses a supersessionist reading of the covenant, Jervell claims

Jesus spells salvation for Israel (and salvation also for the Gentiles via Israel). Jesus is Israel's Messiah also because he was circumcised. In the view of an early Christian or Jewish Christian, an uncircumcised Messiah is a self-contradiction. It is only long after Gentile Christians have gained a majority in the church and Jewish Christians feel threatened that the time is ripe for speaking ofJesus' circumcision.22

It is not, then, that an answer to a certain textual problem cannot be found — in this case, by constructing a different Sitz im Leben. What I wish to point to, though, is how what is missing, present or elaborated in any of the Gospel accounts of the life ofJesus is governed not simply by a theological project but also by a cultural politics. If we view every culture as a set of interrelated symbolic systems, establishing values here, legitimating certain forms of activity there, denigrating other, opposing values, criminalising forms of activity inconsistent with the lifestyle being advocated, then with the overlapping of those symbolic codes certain symbols are given more priority than others. Certain symbols are key symbols, or foregrounded symbols, which are used to interpret or order other less valued symbols.23 Each person internalises this priority, and its hierarchies, often without reflection. In this way specific cultural ideologies become normative. Each person then reproduces, modifies, even possibly critiques such priorities and hierarchies in the various practices that make up everyday living within any particular cultural context. I suggest Luke is doing the same with respect to circumcision; that circumcision becomes not exactly the organising or key symbol but one that, in the cultural milieu in which Luke's Gospel was composed (which is wider than any implied readership), took on a certain weight, a significance that it may or may not have had in the Johannine community, for example, or the cultural contexts in which both Mark and Matthew were writing. The circumcision is an important foregrounded

21 'The Circumcised Messiah', tr. in Jacob Jervell, The Unknown Paul: Essays in Luke-Acts and Early Christian History (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), pp. 138—45.

action for Luke because of its significance to the people he was addressing (whether Gentile-Christian or Jewish-Christian) and the wider situation in which he lived (the Graeco-Roman culture). Both these contexts have to be reconstructed in order for any enquiry or argument to proceed; but the proceedings of the enquiry are also governed by a cultural politics of their own — as Jervell's case evidences. What we are concerned with, then, in an examination of the body of Christ is twofold. First, how we gain access to the cultural politics, the movement of social energies which leads Luke to be concerned with the body ofJesus in this way; secondly, the cultural politics that shapes the way we gain such an access.

The circumcision scene itself is given a certain rhetorical prominence. For not only does it parallel and repeat (albeit differently) the circumcision and naming ofJohn the Baptist (Luke 1.59) — where the Baptist foreshadows the perfections of Christ — but it acts as a tiny bridge between two large peri-copes, the nativity (Luke 2.1—20; where narrative attention is drawn to the pastoral framing and that which Mary kept pondering in her heart) and the presentation in the Temple (Luke 2.22—40; where Simeon prophesies the piercing of Mary's soul in the context of sacrifice). The circumcision links salvation to naming, weaving a complex relation between Mary's body and Christ's. For the cutting Jesus undergoes Mary herself will undergo when 'a sword will pierce through your soul also' (de; Luke 2.35). The present event of circumcision dissolves into the future prophecy while it floats upon a past resonant with connotations of shepherd kings and sacrificial lambs. Time is being governed; an explicit sense of providence is performed through certain symmetries: John and Jesus, Mary and Jesus. The brief action takes on a symbolic weight, a diaphanous quality — as if when held up to the sunlight of eternal truth that watermark of what has been and what will come permeates the present significance of the act. The action is weighted with mystery in the process of which the circumcision has to be interpreted. We need to understand what occurs to the event itself in its interpretation.

I am unconvinced by those who might suggest this inclusion of the circumcision in Luke's Gospel was an early example of what we have come to term Orientalism:24 a western European employing western European views of eastern practices in order to add a bit of local colour or novelistic realism. That is not Luke's cultural context. It is the context of nineteenth-century thinkers, narrators and painters such as Holman Hunt. Some have resorted to saying the verse is an interpolation,25 others to quibbles about

24 See Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Routledge, 1980).

25 See H. Sahlin, Der Messias und das Gottesvolk. Studien zur protolukanischen Theologie (Uppsala: ASNU 12, 1945), pp. 240ff.

the grammatical structure of the sentence in Greek that focuses on the naming rather than the circumcision of Christ (in fact, the circumcision may have not taken place at all),26 and still others argue that pre-Gospel material has been incorporated into the narrative, irrespective of the designs of that narrative.27 Along with several other commentators I would accept that, viewed in the context of the Gospel as a whole, the circumcision forms one of several references by Luke to Jesus's fulfilment of the Jewish law. As Luke writes: 'they [Jesus and his parents] had performed everything according to the law of the Lord' (2.39). As such the event is theologised. Nevertheless, I want to get behind that gesture and think through why it becomes theolo-gised in this way. What I am suggesting is that the circumcision is an event with specific cultural resonance of which we today continue to register the reverberations, but are unsure how to evaluate them.28 What does it mean to portray the removal of the foreskin from the penis of Jesus the incarnate God? What did it mean for a Gentile-Christian readership or a Jewish-Christian readership, or as a literary offering to a Graeco-Roman audience? As Tyson acutely recognises with respect to Lukan scholarship, 'it may be observed that the perspective of the reader has a great deal to do with the ways in which narratives are perceived, and this perception has a great deal to do with the social setting of the reader'.29 We know from the Acts of the Apostles30 (thought by most to have been written by the writer of Luke's Gospel), the Pauline Epistles31 and Justin's Dialogue with Trypho what difficulties circumcision raised in the Gentile world.32 Furthermore, as Daniel Boyarin argues, 'For the Jews of late Antiquity, I claim, the rite of circumcision became the most contested site ... precisely because of the way that it concentrates in one moment representations of the significance of sexuality,

26 See the commentaries by G.B. Caird, The Gospel of St. Luke (London: Black, 1968), E. Klostermann, Das Lukasevangelium (Tübingen: Mohr Paul (Siebeck), 1929) and H. Schürmann Das Lukasevangelium 1. Teil Kommentar zu Rap. 1, 1—9, 50 (Freiburg: Herder, 1969) on 2.21.

27 See R. McL. Wilson, 'Some Recent Studies in the Lukan Infancy Narratives' in Studia Evangelica 1, pp. 235—53 and H.H. Oliver, 'The Lukan Birth Stories and the Purpose of Luke-Acts' in New Testament Studies 10 (1963-4), pp. 202-26.

28 And not only today. The recent puzzlement among exegetes is only mirrored by the difficulties in the textual transmission of this verse, as various Greek sources attest. For the textual variance between these sources, see Jervell, 'The Circumcised Messiah', p. 140.

29 Tyson, Luke, Judaism and the Scholars, p. 133.

31 Rom. 2.25; 3.1; 4.10, 12; 15.8; Gal. 2.3; 5.2ff., 11; 6.15; Phil. 3.3; Col. 2.11.

32 To appreciate just how high the theological stakes are on this matter, see Trypho's remarks to Justin that not only does Christ's circumcision require all Christians to be circumcised, but that it was this very circumcision and Christ's obedience to the law, rather than the Virgin Birth, that makes him the Messiah at all: Dialogue with Trypho, sections 63, 67.

genealogy and ethnic specificity in bodily practice.'33 So what kind of politics was this account of circumcision implicated in?

The circumcision of Jesus in Luke is associated textually with naming, sacrifice and salvation. These themes were taken up and developed by the early Church Fathers like Ambrose and Augustine in their allegorical readings of the circumcision. As such circumcision was related to three sets of issues. First, it was connected with a set of moral dispositions to be imitated by followers of Christ: kenotic obedience, self-denial, a disciplining of the sensual flesh. Second, it was linked to a set of soteriological criteria and a particular model for the operation of atonement: the bloodletting was a down payment for the redemption to follow, a token of the sacrifice on the cross. Third, it was related to a set of eschatological values: the eighth day on which the liturgy took place was symbolically associated with the final resurrection (the eighth being the day following the last day in the cosmic calendar). From the early sixth century the 1st ofJanuary became the Feast of the Circumcision in the Christian Church. It was the great feast (no doubt to replace pagan feasting) between Christmas and Epiphany. And most of the material we have on the theology of the circumcision is found in sermons and homilies preached on this feast day. This allegorising of the surgical event was a continuation of Jewish hermeneutical method. Circumcision was already being employed metaphorically to refer to hearts and ears in the Old Testament; no less a writer than Philo, in his essay The Migration of Abraham, proclaimed: 'It is true that receiving the circumcision does indeed portray the excision of pleasure and all the passions, and the putting away of the impious conceit, under which the mind supposed that it was capable of begetting by its own power.'34

Now all this is very erudite, but we need to note what occurs in this allegorical move (and, more generally, in the tendering of a 'theological interpretation' to a concrete event). An episode in a narrative is opaque. Its brute factuality interrupts the smooth flow of events such that it draws attention to itself and raises the question about how we are to understand its inclusion. In the face of that opacity we accredit it not just artistic or creative integrity, but, since we are treating a sacred or revelatory text, we accredit it with theological value. That is, we deem its opacity not to be a case of bad writing, or the work of an editor, or aesthetic pragmatism (some local colour to make the account more believable), or the chronicler's addition of another bit of biographical information. We deem the opacity to be theologically significant. However, though we deem it significant, we do not precisely know

34 In vol. 4 of Loeb Classics Philo (London: Heinemann, 1932), p. 185.

of what it is significant. Hence the critical debates among the exegetes. By wheeling in the allegorical interpretations of the Philos, the Origens and the Gregory the Greats, we are weighing the episode down with symbolic sug-gestiveness. In other words, we are legitimating its significance by an appeal to the way it encodes transhistorical and eternal verities. To employ good Hellenistic vocabulary, we are translating historia into theoria. By this move we both transfigure the material — which has been made to render its true form — and displace the act itself. The body begins to disappear so that in the hermeneutical shift towards moral dispositions, soteriology and eschatology, we are no longer talking about the handling and the mutilation of sexual organs. We are treating the preparation of the heart or soul for receiving the divine. We are not talking about the cutting of male flesh, an incision into masculinity itself. In this theologising we both bypass the way circumcision is a bio-political act implicated in issues of gender, genealogy and ethnicity, and we bypass the metaphorics of the theological discourse that has transfigured the event. For concerns with the production of moral dispositions, moral subjects, soteriological models of redemption that revolve around an exchange mechanism between two asymmetrical powers, and eschatological dreams of new forms of embodiment, new liberational jouissances, are both freighted with political implications.

I want to suggest that the circumcision of Jesus — the attention to the body of this man — was important for Luke, and not just theologically in terms ofJesus's obedience to and fulfilment of the Torah or the immersion of Christianity in Jewish piety. To speak of the circumcision was making a cultural and political statement. The question is: What kind of statement? I suggest, whatever the implied readership of the text, a statement is being made here about embodiment (as early Christian exegetes understood) and about Jewish masculinity (and by implication femininity). It is a statement not just about religious and ethnic self-identity (as Jervell argues) but about the way certain figurations of the body are invested with cultural status. It says something, then, about the politics of embodiment. For the body, until its medicalisation and dissection in the late Renaissance and early seventeenth century, was not a discrete entity. It was not only malleable, it was mapped onto and composed other bodies larger than itself — social and political bodies.35 Furthermore, the body established a hierarchical system of values in which the physical was related intimately to the cosmic. The perfection of the physical was an aspiration towards the realisation of political harmony and cosmic beauty. What then does the circumcised body of

35 See Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 3-103.

the Messiah mean when it is conceived of as figuring the social and political body, or as an analogue of the cosmic or divine body — not simply a physical, ethnic or even spiritual one?

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