From Papal Gift to Royal Fertility Charm, the Insane Story of Jesus’ Foreskin
Charlemagne once thought it was a gift fit for the pope while other royals used it as a fertility charm. One saint even dreamed about eating it.
If you were a Christian in the Middle Ages you could not enter a church without hearing a story about the saints whose relics were housed there. Everyone loved relics and there was fierce competition for possession of the remains of those closest to Jesus or most widely renowned for their holiness. Given that Jesus had ascended into heaven the closest you could get to the Savior was the body of one of his relatives or followers, right? Well, not exactly. There was one rather sensitive piece of Jesus’ body that some believed had remained on Earth: his foreskin.
Jesus was a Jewish man. He preached in synagogues, was called a rabbi, and—like other Jewish men—was circumcised eight days after his birth (Luke 2:21). There was nothing strange or unusual about this event; it was something done in fulfillment of a law handed down by God to Abraham in Genesis 17.
Strikingly, however, the Apostle Paul did not require that Gentile followers of Jesus circumcise themselves in order to join the movement. Even though many Christians today circumcise their sons it’s not a religious requirement and Paul’s sharply worded letter to the Galatians stresses that non-Jewish followers really should not do this. In fact, he accuses those who do this of mutilating themselves. Paul’s opinion won the day and it’s easy to see why: beyond the fact that circumcision is a tough sell for adult men it was viewed with suspicion by many of Paul’s contemporaries.
Dr. Isaac Soon, an assistant professor of New Testament studies at Crandall University, told The Daily Beast that “many ancient Greeks and Romans treated circumcision like a kind of disability.” “We know of some ancient Jewish men who tried to remove their circumcision, through a procedure called epispasm.” Others tried to fake it by using twine to pull the skin around the penis forward but this was not always successful. The poet Martial ridiculed a Jewish man whose fibula (twine) fell out when he was at the baths.
Over the following centuries circumcision became increasingly unpopular among mainstream Christians. Dr. Andrew Jacobs, senior fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School and author of Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and Difference, told me that as the most famous marker of Jewish identity circumcision was a way for Christians to distinguish themselves from Jews and from what would later be called “heretical groups.”
Later sources, Jacobs said, refer to groups of unorthodox Christians who allegedly practiced circumcision. The fourth century theologian Epiphanius claims in his lengthy encyclopedia of heresies that at least three groups—the “Cerinthians,” the “Nazoreans,” and the “Ebionites”—practiced circumcision ‘like the Jews.’ Jacobs mentioned that Epiphanius tells us that the Cerinthians and Ebionites claimed to be following Christ's example when they were circumcised. The difficulty is that we can’t be sure that these groups existed, much less that they did the things that Epiphanius claims they did. “Epiphanius is certainly no stranger to exaggeration (and even lying),” said Jacobs, “But other ancient sources talk about forms of Christianity that adhered to the laws of Moses… so we have to imagine at least some people who considered themselves Christian may have been circumcised, and may have claimed they were following Jesus' example.”
All of this anti-circumcision conversation, however, created a problem. For Christians who used circumcision as a means of distinguishing themselves from Jews the body of Jesus was something of a rub. “Christians had to figure out,” Jacobs told me “how and why (or even if) their savior had this paradigmatic Jewish mark on his body.” The difficulty was only exacerbated as Christian theologians began to emphasize Christ’s divinity “even as an infant he must have been aware of and in control of what happened to his person!” Why did baby Jesus let this happen?
By the Middle Ages, Christians had worked out sophisticated arguments for why Jesus’s circumcision was not about his Jewishness. They argued that he was circumcised to prove that he was actually a human being; to put an end to the law by fulfilling it once and for all (a similar idea about sacrifice is found in the Epistle to the Hebrews); or his circumcision confirms his masculinity. The medieval bestseller The Golden Legend even claimed that the day of circumcision has salvific function as it was the day when Jesus began to shed blood for humanity. It was, Jacobs said, “anything but a concession to Jewish law!”
This theological maneuvering allowed Christians to reclaim the foreskin of Jesus as a holy relic. But there was still a problem—where was it?
The Bible doesn’t tell us, but for medieval Christians who were fascinated with the power and intimacy of relics, the idea that a piece of Jesus’ body was still on Earth was ripe with potential. One later apocryphal infancy gospel tells us that the foreskin (and umbilical cord) was taken away by an “old Hebrew woman” and preserved in an alabaster box of oil. According to tradition it then somehow ended up in the bottle of perfume that the sinful woman used to anoint Jesus’ body before his death in Mark 14. This is the earliest example, Jacobs said, of Christians thinking about the kinds of unique Jesus-relics that might still be around. Other abandoned body parts like toenail clippings or hair might also be out there: one divine man’s trash, as they say, is a regular person’s treasure.
As with all relics, the holy foreskin (or prepuce as it is loftily known) began to multiply. The first example showed up at the beginning of the ninth century when Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, presented Pope Leo III with one. According to St Birgitta’s The Lord’s Foreskin, the Virgin Mary had kept Jesus’ foreskin in a leather pouch before bequeathing it to the Apostle John. It then languished for 700 years before it ended up in Charlemagne’s hands. By the 13th century it was on display at the Vatican.
Charlemagne’s relic was not the only one; during the Middle Ages at least 12 could be found in European churches. One famous example includes a holy foreskin from France that was placed in the marriage bed of Henry V of England and Catherine of Valois on their wedding night as a fertility charm (and you thought finding an old band-aid in your bed was gross). Over the centuries, however, many of the holy foreskins went missing or were stolen. The last known example was stolen out of a church in Calcata, Italy, in 1983. Interestingly, the local bishop didn’t attempt to recover it and let the whole matter slide. Some have speculated that the Vatican itself had stolen the relic in order to stop people talking about Jesus’ penis.
As a relic, the holy foreskin was the object of religious veneration. Medieval Christianity was a sensory religion in which participants communed with God in an embodied way. Somatic encounters with the remains of saints and the body of Jesus were a common occurrence and even today Catholic Eucharist services involve ingesting the body of Christ. There is a precedent, therefore, for tasting the body of Jesus. The Swedish nun St. Birgitta records a vision in which she ate the then-millennium-old holy foreskin. Chapter 37 of her Revelationes describes the experience in some detail: “Now she feels on her tongue a small membrane, like the membrane of an egg, full of superabundant sweetness, and she swallowed it down…And she did the same perhaps hundreds of times. When she touched it with her finger the membrane went down her throat of itself.”
While this might seem somewhat extreme, Harvard academic Marc Shell writes that tasting Jesus’ foreskin was one of the few ways to test the authenticity of a holy prepuce. Whereas we might perform carbon dating tests, ancient physicians, known as croques-prépuces would taste the “shriveled leather in order to determine whether it was wholly or partly human skin.” Shell notes that the foreskin was just one of many Jesus cast offs to make a splash on the relic scene: sweat from the Garden of Gethsemane, lost baby teeth, breast milk from the Virgin Mary, and even urine and faeces made appearances. The 12th-century Cistercian monk St. Bernard was famous for drinking the breast milk of the Virgin. Digestive practices like these give a whole new meaning to the phrase “cafeteria Catholic.”
Many Christians, though, were skeptical of the claims about the foreskin of Jesus. The sixth century Severus of Antioch was the first, Jacobs told me, to argue what would later become the standard view: that the foreskin rose with Jesus at the resurrection and is now in heaven. This view is not just about protecting the integrity of Jesus’ resurrection, it’s about the resurrection of everyone else as well. Early Christians worried about the aesthetics effects of people leaving bits and pieces of themselves behind after Judgment Day. They wanted to ensure that amputated limbs, hair lost through male pattern baldness, and so on all made its way to heaven. Leaving pieces of you behind presents a philosophical problem: Have “you” really been resurrected if your body—in its entirety—isn’t raised from the dead?
Even so, the holy foreskin has elicited more than its fair share of humor and criticism. Martin Luther was a skeptic; Voltaire made fun of the concepts in the 18th century; and even BuzzFeed has explored the story. The somewhat liminal view of the 17th century theologian Leo Allatius that the foreskin of Jesus left Earth only to expand and form one of the bands of Saturn has particular comic appeal. Over time, therefore, the Roman Catholic church became concerned. In 1900 the Vatican issued a ruling that anyone referring to the “true sacred flesh” could be subject to excommunication. In its 2,000-year history the foreskin of Jesus has shifted from from biological debris, to controversial identity marker, to relic, and, finally, sacred taboo. The cultural journey of this small piece of skin marks Christianity’s own passage from Jewish sect to medieval socioeconomic powerhouse to modern religion.