Forced Circumcision and the Shifting Role of Gentiles in Hasmonean Ideology

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Abstract:

by Steven Weitzman, Indiana University

One way in which ancient rulers proclaimed their power over war captives and slaves was to inscribe their bodies with a distinctive mark of ownership. For instance, according to Herodotus, the Persian king Xerxes ordered “royal marks” inscribed on Theban soldiers who had deserted to his side. To cite an example closer to the world of Judaism, 3 Macc 2.29 reports that the Hellenistic ruler Ptolemy Philopator ordered an ivy-leaf shaped “mark of Dionysus” branded onto Jews. Generally speaking, the mark of circumcision served a very different social role in antiquity, serving in many (though not all) contexts as a sign distinguishing Jews from others.

There is reason to believe, however, that circumcision too could serve as a “rite of domination” marking Jewish power over Gentile bodies. Several sources refer briefly to incidents during the second and first centuries BCE when Jewish rulers forcibly circumcised Gentile peoples after subduing them in battle.