Historical Cultural Context
Children of God
Defining the family is never easy. The challenge was no different in the ancient world than it is in modern cultures. Even more difficult is deciding what kind of family is good and decent, and what kind of family is not.
As today’s Gospel indicates, the family into which Jesus was born and raised is unquestionably devout and pious. They observe the Torah meticulously. In accord with Lev 12:3, Jesus’ parents have him circumcised and name him on the eighth day after he is born.
In accord with the larger context of Lev 12:1-8, the family accompanies Mary to the Temple in Jerusalem for her purification forty days after the birth of Jesus.
In the ancient Middle East, circumcision was practiced in many societies. Its origins are obscure. Originally, scholars thought it had originated in Egypt and moved thence east and north into the Semitic world.
Contemporary opinion rooted in recent archaeological discoveries holds that the practice of circumcision began in the northwest Semitic world and moved south where the Egyptians adopted it.
It was not until Abraham was circumcised that Sarah was able to bear a child, the proper child whom God would bless.The meaning of the procedure varied. For instance, in early Israelite history, males were circumcised at puberty (see Gen 17:25) or at the time of marriage (Gen 34). In this connection, the rite has a functional meaning: the man is now able to get married and to function as a married person.
It was not until Abraham was circumcised that Sarah was able to bear a child, the proper child whom God would bless.
Later in Israelite history, circumcision was performed on the eighth day after birth, a custom that was retrojected into Abraham’s life (Gen 17:10-14).
The Palestinian Targum, that is, the Aramaic paraphrase and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, reports an interesting, and very likely fictional, argument between Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac argues for his superiority over Ishmael because Isaac was circumcised, therefore pleasing to the Lord, at a very early age. Ishmael, acknowledging that he was circumcised at the age of thirteen, argues for his superiority over Isaac by noting that at puberty he could have resisted and rejected circumcision, but willingly accepted it. Who knows what Isaac would have done at puberty?
To appreciate the significance of circumcision and naming, it is important to recall the ancient understanding of conception. It was widely believed that the male deposited a fully formed miniature person in the woman who served merely as the “field” in which the “seed” would grow to maturity.
But women in the ancient Mediterranean world were considered to be lascivious and untrustworthy (read Sirach and Proverbs for illustrations of this concern). A husband never knew for sure whether the child born was actually his. Such uncertainty would weaken the family by making potential heirs suspect, thereby rendering the family treasure vulnerable to theft.
So by circumcising and naming a boy as early as eight days after birth, the father made a public proclamation formally accepting this child as his son, no matter what other charges might be made later.
In Luke’s Gospel, Joseph does not receive a “revelation” about Jesus and his divine origins, such as he does in Matthew’s Gospel. Nevertheless, Joseph demonstrates that he is truly an honorable and just man by seeing to the circumcision and naming of his son in accord with the prescriptions of the Torah. Joseph’s honorable behavior solidifies the bonds of his young family.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible.
**From Saint Louis University