Andrew Jacobs, Professor of Religious Studies, University of California, Riverside

"Imperial Politics and the Gospel Account of Jesus' Circumcision"

On April 6th Andrew Jacobs, Associate Professor of Religion at UC Riverside, presented "Imperial Politics and the Gospel Account of Jesus' Circumcision” as part of the ISS Brown Bag Series. Jacobs presented his research on the Lukan account of Jesus' circumcision, a passage long considered problematic because of its absence in the other gospels. Since Luke is generally considered to have been addressing a Gentile audience, it is puzzling that Luke alone should have included a custom paradigmatic of Judaism. Theologians, scholars, and other commentators have employed a number of mechanisms or explanations to handle the passage. These range from rendering it insignificant or incidental to representing evidence of Jesus' messianic identity, Lukan Orientalism, fulfillment and nullification of Jewish Law, or a symbolic illustration of Jesus' obedience and blood atonement. Jacobs rejects these explanations, preferring to employ postcolonial theory as his heuristic wedge for “reading” the text.  Using Graham Ward's essay, “Uncovering the Corona: A Theology of Circumcision,” as a starting point (in which Graham hypothesizes that Luke's inclusion constitutes an act of cultural resistance towards Hellenism), Jacobs reorients the act of cultural critique away from a Hellenic milieu and towards empire. It is Rome, not Greece, that acted as the “cultural manager” of the period. As Rome expanded its influence through the transplantation of its political structures over both directly and indirectly subordinated regions, it  “signified” local cultural agents by exploiting difference. Through the identification and conservation of distinctions, groups became "legible" and, by extension, "manageable" (short hand for domination). Having been absorbed into a world manufactured and dominated by the city of Rome, various subaltern groups struggled to define themselves against the reconstituted identities that were constructed and imposed upon them. For Jacobs, Luke's account was a conscious attempt to construct Jewishness through circumcision, a legible sign of Jewish identity and “otherness” that was both easily recognizable and concealable. By placing circumcision in the constellation of domination Jacobs suggests that Luke's account may have served apologetic purposes, permitting Jesus to be read within the Roman economy of signs. Alternatively it may have served as an ironic marker, locating Jesus, as well as the Law and Temple, in the past. In addition, Jacobs suggested that Luke deployed the account as a subversive appropriation, a way for the colonized (Luke) to mimic the dominant culture. In conclusion, he argued that Luke's account destabilized boundaries and religious identities, and appropriated rather than dissolved otherness in the process of constructing a “Christian” identity within the Roman empire.
Discussion questions:
Is it possible to think in such stark terms as “resistance” and “identity formation” for said period? To use these terms suggests that Christianity, as described by Luke, would have been designated as heterodox. If the nascent faith contended with a dominant group over the limits of doxa (the universe of assumptions), then which group is likely to fit that role? Jacobs suggest the Romans. At the writing of this gospel, however, had Christians agitated themselves into being identified as heterodox by the Romans yet? His case is certainly justifiable in the second century, but less tenable in the first. Logically, Christianity had two much more immediate orthodoxies (conservators of doxa) to contend with: Judaism and Hellenism. Wouldn't Luke's discursive strategies have been better deployed against and understood by either of these two groups?

Jacobs' presentation largely focused on authorial intent, getting at Luke's motivations or the actual events represented in the text. It, therefore, represents another layer in the history of interpretations. To what extent, however, can intentionality or the veracity of the details ever be recaptured? Once written and transmitted, they become fixed and beyond the control of the author. Add to this the designations “sacred,” “gospel,” or “bible,” and text becomes a device on which to hang meaning, signifiers, even scripture. Doesn't the issue at large then become how those who followed Luke used his passage to form a particular identity? Why do students of these texts often assume that they denote an identity? Is identity fixed by text, or does it emerge from it? (FYI: Jacobs is interested in history of interpretations. His presentation is actually the basis of a book-length project in which he proposes to look at some of these issues.)

Considering that Luke’s infancy narrative contains numerous biblical citations and allusions, is Jacobs’ reading of Lukan authorial intention over subtle? If Luke is a Gentile Christian writing for other Gentile Christians, isn’t the subversive appropriation of Jesus’ Jewishness implicit in the textual/scriptural construction of Gentile Christian identity?

According to Jacobs, Luke’s account of Jesus’ circumcision provides the author with a way of constructing Jewishness as “legibly” other and strange, annulling Jewish law while simultaneously transforming this Jewish other into the world savior. By doing so, Jacobs’ Luke both appropriates and subverts Roman methods of cultural signification. Is it more appropriate, then, to regard Luke as engaging in subversive appropriation simultaneously on two fronts, i.e. the Jewish/Christian identity struggle as well as the Christian/imperial Roman claims for the “true” savior of the world?

Luke’s account of Jesus’ circumcision is illustrative of the tension that both ancient and modern readers have with Jewish “signs” in Christianity, an example of paradoxical and irreconcilable cultural elements held in creative tension. Can the construction of Christian identity and Jewish otherness thus be seen as a classic example of such constructions in diverse cultural locations? Do such constructions follow a recognizable pattern of simultaneous rejection/affirmation, appropriation/subversion and transformation?

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