Wednesday, 25 November 2015
In a longer discussion, Shaye Cohen addresses the question as to whether circumcision was a clear distinction between Jews and gentiles in antiquity. He starts with a fairly obvious comment:
even if circumcision is an indication of Jewishness, it is marker for only half of the Jewish population (in the eyes of the ancients the more important half, of course, but still, only half). How you would know a Jewish woman when you saw one remains open.
He then discusses how circumcision would have functioned as a marker only in certain times and places. In the Maccabean period, for example, Jews are circumcised, Greeks are not. Some Roman poets make much play of circumcision and after the first Jewish revolt (66-70CE) the Roman Senate declared that any circumcised person in Rome would be assumed to be Jewishand therefore liable to the fiscus Iudaicus, the "Jewish tax". While that may have applied in Rome, it could not do so in the eastern part of the empire, for other nations also practised circumcision - lists include Phoenecians, Egyptians, Arabs, Ethiopians and others. The emperor forbade circumcision throughout the empire, but his successor allowed an exemption for Jews. Nudity was, in general, away from the baths and the gymnasium, not encouraged. Cohen concludes:
There is not a single attested case in antiquity of Jewish communal leaders checking the circumcision of a supposed Jew ... even the Romans did not regularly check circumcisions publicy; the Romans, at least, had the authority to do so if they needed to, but the Jews did not. From the Jewish side circumcision was not a useful marker of Jewishness.