The history of the Jewish people between the days of the kings and Jesus was tumultuous. Following the glory days of King David the nation split and both nations were eventually conquered and carried off into exile. When they finally did return to the Promised Land they were subject to a revolving door of new conquerors. You can understand why they clung to the hope for a return to the glory days of King David.
I recently read Desire of the Everlasting Hills by Thomas Cahill. He tells a story from this time period when the Greeks were the conquerors du jour. The Greeks, in this case the successors to Alexander the Great, sought to make the culture of their subjects more Greek, so toward that end Antiochus Epiphanes built a gymnasium in Jerusalem. And how did the Jews respond?
All too many Jews were eager to imitate their betters by taking out gym memberships and running around naked (a practice alien to the modest Judeans, among whom public nudity, so prevalent in the ancient world – at least among males – was quite unknown). Because the perfect male body was for the Greeks a kind of physical expression of spirit – the harder the pecs and the tighter the buns the more spiritual you were – any deformity or deviation from the norms of perfection was viewed with repugnance. If a missing ear or toe rendered one the object of derision, imagine what circumcision did. So the Jews who were especially eager to be Greek began to “disguise their circumcision” as First Maccabees puts it discreetly – that is, they underwent epispasm, a painful (and often unsuccessful) exercise in ancient plastic surgery.
Of course to the Jews circumcision wasn’t just an option in the delivery room. Circumcision was the sign of their covenant with God. God said this would set them apart from all other nations. He was very clear that every Jewish boy was to be circumcised eight days after his birth and that any uncircumcised male would be “cut off from his people” because they had broken the covenant. (Genesis 17:14)
Knowing how fundamental this practice was to their identities, can you imagine turning away from it? Let’s be clear, we’re not talking about making a small mistake or a unfortunate choice. We are talking about an intentional decision to turn your back on God’s covenant, and how committed to that decision would you need to be to subject yourself to that sort of pain? It’s pretty ridiculous, right? I mean you are God’s chosen people. How could you turn your back on that? And for what, so you could fit in with the Greeks in gym class? I’ve heard of locker room peer pressure, but this is ridiculous! That would never happen today… would it?