There were certain people, he said, who did not blush to write books even about the circumcision of the Lord.
—Guibert of Nogent (d. 1124)
Beginning in the twelfth century, after centuries of relative obscurity, Christ's foreskin was suddenly difficult to miss across Christian Europe. Monasteries in France claimed to possess fragments of what they called the sanctus virtus
("holy virtue"), and produced legends explaining how this fragment of divine flesh came to be in their possession: it had been brought back from the holy land by none other than Charlemagne. Jacobus de Voragine, author of the widely read Legenda aurea
(Golden Legend) in the thirteenth century, recounted what was by then a common tale: "Now concerning the flesh of the Lord's circumcision (de carne autem circumcisionis domini
), it is said that an angel took it to Charlemagne, and that he enshrined it at Aix-la-Chapelle in the church of the Blessed Mary and later transferred it to Charroux, but we are told that it is now in Rome in the church called Sancta Sanctorum." Of course, Jacobus expresses some doubts about this legend, and even provides a more circumspect proposal of what happened to the foreskin: "But if this is true, it certainly is miraculous! But since that very flesh is truly of human nature, we believe that when Christ rose it returned to its own glorified place." The miracle of Christ's foreskin in European hands was already engendering skepticism in the twelfth century. Guibert of Nogent, a Benedictine monk with deeply held reverence for the resurrection body of Christ, complained about scurrilous and impious persons who claim to possess Jesus' tooth, his umbilical cord, and his foreskin.
Despite monastic skepticism, the foreskin of Christ (or fragments of it) became ubiquitous. It was parceled into reliquaries, represented in art, and contemplated in devotional literature. Catherine of Siena, a lay mystic in the fourteenth century, imagined the wedding ring made for a virgin bride of God (perhaps even herself) fashioned out of Jesus' foreskin. Agnes Blannbekin, a Beguine nun also in the fourteenth century, reported that she had visions of swallowing the sacred relic "hundreds of times." Birgitta, who founded the Bridgettine Order of nuns in fourteenth-century Sweden, left a devotional tract in which she and the Virgin Mary also discussed the whereabouts of Christ's foreskin (Mary assures her it is safe in Rome). Very quickly, it seemed, the foreskin was on everybody's mind (and lips).
Post-Enlightenment readers may shudder (or titter) at benighted medieval Christians so taken with a relic that is, to say the least, a bit unseemly. Yet to dismiss these monks, mystics, and pilgrims as merely superstitious is to overlook the theological creativity and innovation here at work. Christians in those centuries (like many people today) saw the body, and all its constituent parts, as a highly charged zone of signification, on which multiple boundaries were enacted. In an extremely technical commentary on the Catholic mass, written in the late twelfth century, Cardinal Lotario dei Conti di Segni spent many chapters explaining the miracle of the appearance of Christ's real flesh on the altar. He paused, as he turned to discuss the transformation of wine into Christ's blood, to ponder what happened to all those parts Christ shed on earth (blood, hair, foreskin). Did Christ take all of these with him in the resurrection? Or was it true (as "some say") that Charlemagne received the foreskin from an angel, and that it resided now in the Santa Sanctorum of the Lateran Basilica? Lotario demurs: "Better to commit all things to God, than to dare to define something else." The desire to take hold of Christ's flesh—on an altar or in a reliquary—articulated a central theological desire of Christianity to unite the human and divine materially. A few years later, Lotario, now Pope Innocent III, would preside over a council in that same Lateran basilica that made transubstantiation—the belief that Christ's true body and blood were present on the sacramental altar—the official doctrine of the Catholic church.
At the same time European Christians expressed their desire to breach the boundary of human and divine and grasp God's flesh, they also evinced fear of breached boundaries. As Miri Rubin has documented, the doctrine of transubstantiation brought with it a new and horrible slander against the marginalized Jews of Europe: accusations of host desecration, the torture of Christ's body anew by perfidious Jews seeking to reenact the Passion. The fear that God's body, once reproduced on earth, could be hijacked and subjected to renewed tortures articulated a more generalized (and, as Rubin points out, gendered) fear of bodily, and religious, vulnerability. Yet as the visualizations of artists and mystics throughout this period show, that body stolen away into illicit Jewish space was already imaginable as a circumcised, and therefore Judaized, male body. The foreskin of Christ, that theologically innovative relic, might allow Christians to imagine, in complex fashions, their relationship to Jews and Judaism, and even imagine Christ in that Jewish matrix. Medieval western Christians struggled to negotiate a host of complicated boundaries: between Christians and non-Christians, religious and lay, men and women, flesh and spirit. The luminescent and strange relic of Christ's foreskin allowed Christians to peer beyond these boundaries, to internalize difference, to imagine an otherness within.
Ancient considerations of the foreskin of Christ are far less dramatic and ubiquitous. Typically Christians before the sixth century focused their attention on the question of why the Christian savior would submit to the indubitably Jewish ritual of circumcision. That is, Christians before the rise of Islam focused more on the ritual of circumcision than on its remainder. Modern seekers of the "historical Jesus" have, since the 1970s, taken to casually affirming the Jewishness of Jesus, and so find his submission to circumcision unproblematic. Bart D. Ehrman, in a popular book on the historical Jesus, remarks easily: "There's probably no reason to belabor the point that all of our sources portray Jesus as Jewish—he came from a Jewish home, he was circumcised as a Jew, he worshiped the Jewish God, he kept Jewish customs, followed the Jewish Law, interpreted the Jewish Scriptures, and so on. . . . The tradition of Jesus' Jewish origin and upbringing is firmly entrenched in all of our traditions at every level." This assertion relies on modern notions of historical reconstruction, on a "historical Jesus" who did not exist in this way before the modern period. Ancient Christians more commonly agreed with the remarks of Cyril, the fifth-century bishop of Alexandria: "You might rightly be amazed at this: that he [Christ] of necessity came down from above into the land of Judea, among those by whom he was mocked impiously; there he was born according to the flesh. But, in truth, he wasn't a Jew, insofar as he was the Word, but rather from both heaven and his father."
If Jesus was, to ancient Christians, not a Jew, why was he circumcised when he was "born according to the flesh"? What purposes—theological, cultural, social, and political—did Christ's circumcision serve? The ways in which Christians answered this question take us into the heart of early Christian ideas about flesh, spirit, and the haunting permeability of religious boundaries that stand at the heart of this book.