I read Matthew Thiessen's Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision, and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2011).
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.
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.
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.
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
In terms of the book's overall argument, Thiessen seems to explain what he is trying to say on pages 10-11:
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?