Jubilees, Circumcision, and Judaizers
It seems to me that in some Christian circles, especially those that emphasize a grace/law dichotomy, that “the Jews” are used as little more than an antagonistic foil of legalistic hard-hearted blind men stubbornly holding on to the traditions of the past even though “the truth” is being preached to them.
However, as I have become more familiar with Second Temple literature, the conclusions of some of these Jews during the time of Jesus, and especially early Christianity, are perfectly reasonable. For instance, let us take a quick look at the book of Jubilees.
Jubilees was written in the early to middle second century BCE, most likely by a priest. It is a re-telling of Genesis and the first part of Exodus. What is most important for this post is how Jubilees presents itself. The book does not begin with creation but: “These are the words regarding the divisions of the times of the law and of the testimony, of the event of the year, of the weeks of their jubilees throughout all the years of eternity as he related (them) to Moses on Mt. Sinai when he went up to receive the stone tablet – the law and commandments – on the Lord’s orders as he had told him that he should come up to the summit of the mountain.” Basically, the Lord summons Moses up to Sinai, talks to him, and then commands an angel to dictate to Moses what is already written on the heavenly tablets, and commands Moses to write these words in a book which is Jubilees. The book merely records what is already written in heaven.
As a result, the contents of the book are presented as revelation in the form of direct speech by the angel of the presence to Moses, and the several stages in the process of revelation guarantee the accuracy and authenticity of the message: God commands that the message be communicated, that message is already fixed on heavenly tablets, a member of the highest-ranking class of angels reads it to Moses, and no less an authority than Moses himself makes the earthly copy of the heavenly message. Jubilees thus presents itself in no uncertain terms as an absolutely authoritative work whose divine message compels acceptance and obedience. (VamderKam, Jubilees, p. 12)
This combination then leads to great polemical force throughout the book as the angel makes many legal declarations based on the narrative of Jubilees. Many of these decisions are binding and eternal. For example 32:10 “For this reason it is ordained as a law on the heavenly tablets to tithe a second time, to eat it before the Lord — year by year — in the place which has been chosen (as the site) where his name will reside. This law has no temporal limits forever.”
At some point in the Second Temple Jubilees also became an authoritative revelation for some Jewish groups. It was normative and formative. It was part of the religious belief set by which individuals were inculcated and socialized into groups. And Jubilees has more than a few things to say about circumcision.
“The Lord appeared to him, and the Lord said to Abram: ‘I am the God of Shaddai. Please me and be perfect, I will place my covenant between me and you. I will increase you greatly’. Then Abram fell prostrate. The Lord spoke with him and said: ‘My pact is now with you. I will make you the father of many nations. You will no longer be called Abram; your name from now to eternity is to be Abraham because I have designated you the father of many nations. I will make you very great. I will make you into nations, and kings shall emerge from you. I will place my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations and as an eternal pact so that I may be God to you and to your descendants lo after you. To you and your descendants after you I will give the land where you have resided as an alien — the land of Canaan which you will rule forever. I will be their God.'”
“Then the Lord said to Abraham: ‘As for you, keep my covenant — you and your descendants after you. Circumcise all your males; circumcise your foreskins. It will be a sign of my eternal pact (which is) between me and you. You will circumcise a child on the eighth day — every male in your families: the person (who has been born in your) house, the one whom you purchased with money from any foreigners — whom you have acquired who is not from your
descendants. The person who is born in your house must be circumcised; and those whom you purchased with money are to be circumcised. My covenant will be in your flesh as an eternal pact. The male who has not been circumcised — the flesh of whose foreskin has not been circumcised on the eighth day — that person will be uprooted from his people because he has violated my covenant.'”
Just in case the reader is uncertain at this point whether or nor this is an eternal practice the angel reminds Moses one more time at the end of this particular section of narrative “This law is (valid) for all history forever. There is no circumcising of days, nor omitting any day of the eight days because it is an eternal ordinance ordained and written on the heavenly tablets.”
Now imagine the Jewish person raised with this understanding of their salient past, and the function of such a religious text that presents itself as a copy of what is already written in heaven. Basically, you end up with an understanding of circumcision as a binding, eternal, pact with God, which is written on God’s tablets in heaven. You end up with something like Genesis Rabba 48:8 “In the Hereafter Abraham will sit at the entrance to Gehenna, and permit no circumcised Israelite to descend therein.”
In to this thought world walks Paul and he says, “Yeah, circumcision… don’t worry about it. Gentiles don’t need it to be part of the people of God. (Though it is of utmost importance to remember that Paul had Timothy circumcised who was a Jew).
And cue the Judaizers: obviously, there is more to this discussion, but I hope that you can see from my brief examples that it would be hard for a Jewish person socialized into this religious context to believe that YHWH had somehow gone back on his eternal pact that was forever and written on the heavenly tablets because he was allowing some Gentiles to be grafted in.
As an aside, if there are any New Testament persons still reading this: I wonder if something like the religious thought world extending from Jubilees is not partially responsible for the argumentative line taken by the author of Hebrews who goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Jesus is God’s final word, that he is superior to the angels and to Moses (thus their revelation), and attempts to demonstrate that the first covenant is “obsolete”, and that Jesus provides a better covenant enacted on better promises. What think ye?