Friday, October 19, 2012

Shem and the Circumcision Controversy

Today's half-baked idea involves circumcision, and the idea that Shem, son of Noah, was born pre-cut.

Here's Genesis Rabbah
Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Surely Japheth was the eldest? [Shem, however, is written] first because he was [more] righteous [than the others]; also because he was born circumcised, the Holy One, blessed be He, set His name particularly upon him; [other reasons for his priority are that] Abraham was to arise from him, he was the minister in the High Priesthood, and because the Temple would be built on his territory.
This also appears in Avot de-Rabbi Natan 2:5.

My half-baked idea is that this strange insistence that Shem was born circumcised is actually a response to a first century Christian decision. In around 50 ce the Council of Jerusalem ruled that circumcision was not necessary for righteous gentiles (by which we mean those who converted to Christianity.)  At the Council, Peter gave a speech, recorded in Acts 15, in which he says that it isn't necessary to load down new converts with rules that "neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear."

* Not much later, the Tanna R. Joshua b. Chanania would also argue that it was not necessary to circumcise gerim (BT. Yeb 46B) Smarter people can me can work out whether or not Peter and R. Joshua came from the same intellectual tradition/Mesorah.

Later, a new argument appears defending Peter's ruling. Based on Psalm 110, a short prayer poem which calls Malkizedek a valid and eternal priest, the drasha a points out that Malkizedek did not come from Aaron's family, and had not been circumcised; therefore neither are really necessary. (which is why their priests aren't Aaronic.)

According to James Kugel, the earliest appearance of the "Malkizedek was not circumcised, therefore we don't need to be circumcised either" argument is in Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho. Justin lived in the second century.  TTBOMK, the first time Malkizedek is identified with Shem is in the Targum Neofiti, a first century work. This identification was also known to James, the fourth century Church Father. 

All of this material  is much earlier than the "Shem was born circumcised" legend . (Genesis Raba is 4th cnetury; Avot de Rabbi Natan is geonic) This dating leads me to wonder if perhaps our idea that Shem was circumcised (and perhaps even the earlier idea that Malkizedek was Shem) began as a response to Christian claims about circumcision being unnecessary.