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January 1: Ecce Foreskin

[ 85 ] January 1, 2014 |

According to Christian tradition, January 1 marks the eighth day of Jesus’ life. Among other things, it is the day on which — following Jewish custom — the Son of Man would have been circumcised. And while the rest of his body would presumably have ascended to heaven on the third day after his gruesome execution, early followers believed it quite possible that he had neglected to retrieve his long-excised foreskin before taking a seat at his father’s right hand.

For medieval and early modern Christians, Jesus’ foreskin remained an object of peculiar veneration, with as many as eighteen different reliquary nubs of flesh competing for attention and honor. Charlemagne allegedly offered one to Pope Leo III as a gesture of gratitude for being crowned emperor in 800. Another, purchased from a vendor in Jerusalem at the end of the 11th century, was brought back to Antwerp as a souvenir from the first Crusade.

Nearly 300 years later, St. Catherine of Siena purported to wear the foreskin as a ring, while the 13th century Austrian mystic Agnes Blannbekin had an even more unusual relationship with the sacred relic. By Agnes’ own account, she tasted the carne vera sancta — the “true and holy meat” — numerous times during communion. As she revealed to an anonymous Franciscan scribe, she had long pondered the whereabouts of Christ’s foreskin until she experienced a revelation one year on the Feast of the Circumcision.

And behold, soon she felt with the greatest sweetness on her tongue a little piece of skin alike the skin in an egg, which she swallowed. After she had swallowed it, she again felt the little skin on her tongue with sweetness as before, and again she swallowed it. And this happened to her about a hundred times . . . . And so great was the sweetness of tasting that little skin that she felt in all limbs and parts of the limbs a sweet transformation. 

Similarly graphic, often erotic accounts helped assure that Agnes’ Life and Revelations would remain unpublished until the 20th century.

Like most Catholic relics, the Holy Prepuce was believed to possess extraordinary powers, including (not surprisingly) the enhancement of fertility and sexuality. And so in 1421, the English King Henry V retrieved one of the rumored foreskins from the French village of Coulombs to aid his wife, Catherine of Valois, in the delivery of their first son. Alas, while the relic may have helped bring the future King Henry VI into the world, it did his father little enduring good. The king died less than a year later, felled by dysentery.

The Reformation helped to undermine Catholic traditions of all kinds, including its centuries of speculation on the provenance and status of Christ’s foreskin. In 1900, the Church issued an edict than any discussion of the Holy Prepuce would result in excommunication and shunning; since the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, Roman Catholics have not officially recognized the Feast of the Circumcision, though it continues to be observed in some Anglican and most Lutheran churches. The last public appearance of one of Jesus’ alleged foreskins took place in the Italian village of Calcata, which had hosted the tip of the Redeemer’s penis since 1557. Residents of Calcata and Catholic pilgrims continued to celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision until 1983, when thieves absconded with the foreskin and the jewel-encrusted box that contained it. Neither it nor any other alleged foreskins have ever turned up.

Comments (85)

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  1. AGM says:

    Mormonism is weird and Scientology is pretty obviously a scam, but in terms of sheer strangeness no religion comes close to Catholicism.

    • Manju says:

      Look, Catholicism is a legit religion. Scientology is not. Why?

      Well, the latter is the product of some random crank who, decades ago, simply made up a whole bunch of bullshit. In contrast, the former’s crank made of a whole bunch of bullshit centuries ago.

      • UserGoogol says:

        This doesn’t really change whether it’s a sensible belief system, but I do think it’s worth distinguishing that Catholicism really isn’t the product of one guy, but the product of lots of people over a long period of time. Whatever the teachings of the historical Jesus were, it seems like a safe bet he wasn’t talking about how his foreskin would pass through the ages as a holy relic. Within the Catholic framework you have lots of people throwing ideas into the mix which get accepted by the institutional hierarchy to varying degrees, some of them relatively well-thought out philosophical systems, and some of them crazy stuff about Jesus’s foreskin.

        And really, that’s what makes Catholicism weird. LDS and Scientology rely heavily (presumably) on the imaginations of Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard, but Catholicism has been able to absorb whatever weirdness comes its way in being a major religion for over a thousand years.

        • herr doktor bimler says:

          What I find fascinating is the thirst for details. Clearly the original source materials do not provide enough corroborative detail to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative, so people just made stuff up. As UserGoogol says, it was a collective endeavour, so the fraudulence is not focussed in any one individual. One person made stuff up as a pious lie, or a tentative speculation, and then later writers decided “Yes, that sounds about right!” and added it to the canon.

          Not enough information about Mary’s genealogy? OK, invent an entire family tree for her… and make them all retrospective saints. In the absence of a specific number of Magi at the manger, people collectively decided that three was the best number (four thou shall not count, nor two) and dreamed up names for them, and racial backgrounds. It’s the horror vacui in full swing.

          • Anonymous says:

            So you are saying Catholicism institutionalized fanfic?

            That’s actually not a bad way of looking at it.

            • Malaclypse says:

              Dammit, cookies clear for New Years now?

              • LittlePig says:

                Excellent way of putting it though. The 3rd century fellow that added the ‘Jesus and the Adulteress’ story really had a hit with that one.

            • cleter says:

              It’s basically the Star Wars Extended Universe.

            • burritoboy says:

              Not really. A lot of the Greek mythology is relatively similar to fanfic – a poet would be thinking about stories he had heard about Zeus or the Trojan War, and then write pieces about how he imagined one portion (or portions) of the stories had happened, but with more depth or details than the original(s).

          • cpinva says:

            “One person made stuff up as a pious lie, or a tentative speculation, and then later writers decided “Yes, that sounds about right!” and added it to the canon.”

            people made stuff up, as a means of solidifying their own authority within the church, or legitimizing, as church doctrine, the bizarre views of some dyspeptic who couldn’t get a date.

            bearing in mind that the whole of the original catholic canon wasn’t decided on until 3 centuries after jesus was executed, based on the writings of people who never knew him, or even knew people who knew him.

            an obvious example: three different versions of his birth, in three different gospels, by three guys who weren’t there (because they weren’t born yet themselves), with no indication of who provided the specifics to them; was it mom, dad, someone else who was staying at the inn, an angel? we have no idea, because none of the three gentlemen in question bothered to tell us.

            • Lurker says:

              I’ve often thought that if Luke is not making things up out of whole cloth, he must have had some discussions with Mary. The things he tells are such that they sound very much like her personal experiences.

              • Snarki, child of Loki says:

                ..and then the later editing removed the introductory:

                “No shit, this really happened…”

                which would have been a dead giveaway.

            • herr doktor bimler says:

              And later, for good economic reasons like capturing a share of the pilgrim thaler.

            • MAJeff says:

              Exactly. The gospels are just historical novels.

          • DAS says:

            We do this “filling in the details” thing in Judaism too. It’s called Midrash. Well, actually, it’s only one aspect of Midrash, but it’s a key aspect.

            We also do it in secular American culture. How many kids learn that George Washington cut down a cherry tree and then would not lie about it? I am sure I can think of other examples, but this is the most notorious.

            I think Midrash-making is human nature. And religions are human institutions, really. And I say this as believing Theist and an active participant in an organized religion (if you can call Judaism “organized” …).

        • Karen says:

          This is really important. Catholicism absorbed lots and lots of things from paganism, including the practice of making talismans, which at least strongly influenced the veneration of relics.

        • Snarki, child of Loki says:

          It takes about 500 years for the crazy prophets to get “interpreted” and “theologized” into something approaching (yet never quite achieving) coherence. And yeah, they have to wait for the people that knew the people that knew the crazies to die off.

          Mormonism has another 300 year to go, Scientology 450 or so.

          • Lurker says:

            While your observation is really a good snark, it underestimates human creativity a lot. I think that theologisation takes no more than about 200-300 years. Christianity solidified into something that would feel pretty familiar to us in about 300 years. Constantine the Great had a great impact, but even without him, the doctrines had achieved a certain level of coherence.

            Islam became a theological religion by the time sunna had formed and the hadiths had been codified in the 9th century. This took about 200 years from Muhammed’s death.

            Lutheranism and reformed church had taken stable doctrinal positions by 1580′s, some 70 years after Luther started the reformation. Admittedly, they were only modifying an existing religion, so they got a headstart.

            And when it comes to Mormonism, I think they have already a pretty convoluted and complex theology, enforced by the LDS hierarchy, and challenged by numerous heretical movements. So, I would already rate Mormons as a fully theological religion.

      • Warren Terra says:

        Scientology is still incredibly crass and blatant about their moneygrubbing and office-selling. Sure, the Mormons have strict rules about paying your tithes,but even they aren’t nearly so obvious about it as the scientologists are. Give it fifty years and a bit more circumspection on the monetary side, and the Scientologists may well blend into the religion scene a lot more.

        • Lurker says:

          What scientology really needs to become a true religion instead of a business, is a set of heretical scientological movements. I have read reports of persons who have left the Church of Scientology as an organisation but still hold its faith.

          In practice, the existence of heretical scientology is made pretty difficult by copyright protection. Scientology uses copyright law very aggressively to protect its esoterical doctrines, so having an openly acting heretical scientological church may be impossible, as it would violate copyright law. (In Europe, things are different: copyright law makes an exemption for religious use of copyrighted material, but even in Europe, this exception is very narrow.)

    • ROTFLMAO!
      Thank you!
      I haven’t seen that since it aired when I was a teenager!

      Oh, Gilda, WE MISS YOU SO MUCH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • CJColucci says:

        All these years, I’ve mis-remembered the bit and thought that John Belushi had played the mohel. All these years I’ve regretted that the SNL crew never combined “his” roles and wrote a Samurai Mohel bit. At least I now know they didn’t overlook an obvious opportunity. Still would have been funny though.

  2. herr doktor bimler says:

    when thieves absconded with the foreskin and the jewel-encrusted box that contained it.

    The cloning attempts continue.

  3. Warren Terra says:

    What is the status of Jesus’s umbilicus? The umbilicus comes from the fetus, genetically, so surely it’s as divine as the foreskin? Maybe St. Catherine of Siena liked to wear it as a necklace?

    Also, what about Jesus’s gut bacteria? As many of the cells in you are bacterial as are genetically “human”, and they’re influencing your physiology, your health, even your psychology. So did Jesus have a divine or a semidivine microflora? If so, where did it come from? And what happened to it?

  4. And then there’s the joke about the Rabbi who collected the foreskins of the infant boys.

    If he needed to travel, he’d rub his wallet until it turned into a suitcase.

    That’s from Junior High School, so don’t blame me.
    Why I remember that joke, I don’t know – maybe Brian O’C's comment above triggered it.

    HAPPY NEW YEAR, ONE AND ALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • CJColucci says:

      True story. I was a central NY-raised goy but knew a fair amount about Jewish culture. When I first saw a tfillen, the little black box Jewish men wear on their foreheads during prayers, I didn’t know what it was and a Jewish friend — or so I thought — asked if I knew about circumcision. I explained (inordinately proud of my knowledge) that I was familiar with it — the symbol of Abraham’s covenant with God. My “friend” asked me: “Have you ever wondered what they do with the foreskins?” This was before I had heard the suitcase joke, and I said I hadn’t acually given the question any thought. He then told me that the box contained the worshipper’s foreskin, and Jewish men wore it as a reminder of the covenant.
      Made sense to me, and one day, as my “friend” no doubt knew I would, I trotted out this piece of bogus knowledge in mixed company, to predictable reactions.
      Some day, I’ll find him and kill him. Happy New Year.

    • DAS says:

      And there is also this joke:

      A man needs his watch repaired, but is new in town, so he decides to stroll downtown and see where they repair watches. He finds a shop with a clock in the window, and walks in and asks for his watch to be repaired. The proprietor responds to the man: “we don’t repair watches here”. Man: “nu? what do you do then?”. Proprietor: “I’m a mohel”. Man: “then why do you have a clock in the window?” Proprietor: “nu? what do you want I should put in the window?”

      As it has been said: b’ris milah is proof that God is a woman … with a very peculiar sense of humor.

  5. MAJeff says:

    So, their cock obsession has been around for a long time.

  6. Anderson says:

    Wikipedia:

    Other philosophers contended that with the Ascension of Jesus, all of his body parts, even those no longer attached, ascended as well. One, Leo Allatius, reportedly went so far as to contend that the foreskin became the rings of Saturn.

  7. Malaclypse says:

    I just hate how commercialized the Feast is nowadays.

    • Ken says:

      An old complaint, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

      In the ages of paganism, however, the solemnization of the feast was almost impossible, on account of the orgies connected with the Saturnalian festivities, which were celebrated at the same time. Even in our own day the secular features of the opening of the New Year interfere with the religious observance of the Circumcision, and tend to make a mere holiday of that which should have the sacred character of a Holy Day.

      I should mention that’s the online version at newadvent.org, from the 1913 text, so doesn’t mention Vatican II. (Which is appropriate, since quite a lot of the writers for the site don’t acknowledge Vatican II.)

  8. Barry Freed says:

    This is such an awesome post. I wish there could be a regular series like the Battleship Blogging of old or Loomis’ This Day in Labor History: LGM Holy Foreskin Wednesdays.

    Are there any Holy Coprolites to out there?

  9. David M says:

    And while the rest of his body would presumably have ascended to heaven on the third day after his gruesome execution…
    The third day is the Resurrection. The Ascension is forty days after that.

    • Anderson says:

      True dat.

    • Steve S. says:

      Plus the Resurrection was not three days after his gruesome death. Jesus was dead a maximum of 39 hours and as little as 33. These points are important and the OP is certainly going to Hell.

    • Snarki, child of Loki says:

      It is completely amazing that Jewish or Roman chronicles of the era do not mention that one extraordinary day when tons and tons of hair, skin flakes, and old tried turds stirred from the ground and ascended into the heavens.

      Or perhaps they did, but it got mistranslated into a “Left Behind” novel.

  10. J R in WV says:

    I can’t get over how weird the whole content of the bible is – no mattter which version you start with. As a child, I attended Presbyterian sunday school, and was given a bible for my very own. That very afternoon, I started reading with page 1 in Genesis, and I kept on for the whole thing. I will confess that I skipped over the begats once I realized that there were hundreds of them, all the same, all boring.

    But the stories of the old testament, the plagues of Egypt, the genocidal cleansing of Canaan so that the chosen people could live there, Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah, all so very strange. Samson and Delilah the list of incredible stories is endless. Burning bush, sacrifice your first born…

    So at an early age, I decided the whole thing was as sacred as the Grimm stories from Germany. I also realized that not believing in it was dangerous, as historic data shows you can get tortured to death for slipping up on any little detail of dogma!

    So I kept my doubts to myself, until I was older and learned that the religious were no longer not currently allowed to burn people at the stake. When I figured out what an auto de fe really was, I was stunned!

    Now, as an educated person, I find it unbelievable that masses of people believe that every word in the King James translation is the word of god, and that said god wants everyone to believe in every word. Lot’s wife? Lot’s daughters??? Every word?

    Crazy!

    So worshipping a foreskin, not the hardest gnat to swallow. Transforming magically wafers and wine into flesh and blood, and then eating the magic meat and blood, now that’s amazingly weird! Embedding jewels and gold onto the skeletons of Saints, to the tune of many millions of dollars in precious stones and gold, more amaze!

    After the whole story of the Golden Calf, you would think, wrongly, that today’s church would take the idol prohibition more seriously, but no, they fund the painting of icons, gold leaf, statues of saints and holy warriors, and worship those symbols of holiness. Tots strange!

    And our current civilization is bogged down over the unbelievable doctrines of the Roman Catholic church, and all the fundy churches that believe that the RCC has got it all wrong. Modern provable science is dismissed as biblically wrong, and therefore worthless, when it has saved the lives of nearly everyone alive today…

    Stunning weirdness!

  11. JazzBumpa says:

    I have never read anything at LGM that looks so much as if it could have been lifted entire from The Onion.

    And I mean that in the most sincere way.

  12. ChrisTS says:

    If we are going to explore the weirdness of Christianity, let’s begin at the Beginning.

    The Creator does not even create ex nihilo – the ‘waters’ are already there. What’s with that? And what does it mean that “the earth was without form”? Was it a blob of earthy-stuff? Then, God just supplies form[s]to earth, but the water already has form, because it is not Prime Matter?

    Seems like we’ve got three archai: God, Water, Earth. Why don’t we worship the latter two?

    • John Casey says:

      Because Water and Earth can’t give us stuff.

    • N__B says:

      We only worship life-givers. So we don’t worship water, we worship aquavit.

    • dn says:

      Actually, the issue of the water and the formless earth is more interesting than you might think. It’s an important part of the mythical version of geography presented in several Near Eastern creation stories, including polytheistic ones like those of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Basically, in all these myths the Earth emerges from primordial chaos (the Sea) and is formed into one big mountain, the peak of which is the center of the world and typically the abode of a god. The pyramids of Egypt, ziggurats of Mesopotamia, and temple of Jerusalem are all architectural representations of this idea.

      The concept isn’t very clearly expressed in Genesis, whose author is clearly concerned mostly with establishing monotheism, but you can find more details elsewhere in the Bible if you know what to look for. For instance, Ezekiel mentions that Eden (Paradise, the abode of Yahweh) is located on a mountain, and God himself mentions in passing during his glorious rant to Job that the creation involved vanquishing the sea monster Leviathan. The Babylonian chief god Marduk did the same thing, and just like Yahweh his victory over the forces of chaos justifies his lordship.

  13. MAJeff says:

    In an Intro Class this semester, some of my students were giggling a bit as we watched a video showing a Hmong ceremony. When the lights came up, one of my other students said, “You know, you all can giggle and shit, but your central ritual is cannibalism, for crying out loud.”

    It seems to freak Christians out when you note that.

  14. [...] “The last public appearance of one of Jesus’ alleged foreskins took place in the Italian village of Calcata, which had hosted the tip of the Redeemer’s penis [...]

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