Circumcision and the Holy Foreskin: Reading time approximately 4 minutes.

What’s the importance of circumcision?

Circumcision was a very contentious issue from the very beginning of the Christian religion. It was an important Jewish tradition and the early followers of Jesus—who were all Jews—wanted to require it for non-Jewish, or gentile, converts as well.

Circumcision involves the removal of the sheath of skin and subcutaneous tissue near the head of the penis. The part that’s removed is called the foreskin or more technically the prepuce. It was the physical sign of the covenant between the Yahweh (the Jewish name for God), and Jewish men.

From the little we’re told in the New Testament about the early Christian church, the disciples of Jesus wanted to spread the religion primarily to Jewish converts who believed Jesus was the long-expected Messiah. Paul of Tarsus had other ideas. His mind was set on spreading the religion to the gentiles.

The Bible tells us that was a very divisive plan. We don’t know the intensity of this debate because the book of Acts skims over it and says that Paul eventually did take Jesus’s message to the gentiles and that they were excused from following Jewish traditions such as circumcision.

The history of circumcision

Circumcision is the oldest-known surgical procedure and today it’s also the most common one. Ancient cultures in Africa, Asia, Meso-America, Australia, and the South Pacific islands were known to be practiced circumcision. The tradition apparently came to the Jews through a circuitous route.

In the Middle East, where we are most familiar with the procedure from the Bible, circumcision may have begun on the Arabian Peninsula in the fourth millennium BC. It was initially a hygienic procedure, a blood sacrifice, or both. From Arabia, the practice spread to the major city of Ur, near the Persian Gulf in southern Iraq. There, the Semitic people, the forefathers of the Hebrews, adopted the custom and brought it with them to what is now present-day Israel. The practice also spread west from the Arabian Peninsula into the African regions of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt.

The book of Genesis says that Abraham, the forefather of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, was the one who brought the practice to Israel. From that time onward, we can assume that Jewish boys were expected to be circumcised. The tradition came to be required on the eighth day of life—seven days after the boy’s birth, unless health reasons prevented it. In Islam, circumcision is also required, but there is no definite timeframe. It could be on the seventh day after birth, the seventh year of life, or at some other time.

In Judaism, the procedure is often performed by a Jewish cleric who has been well-trained for the procedure. In Islam, medical personnel usually perform the procedure.

The Christian relic

Paul assured his early converts that they could become Christians and go to heaven without the need for surgery. That assurance removed a large obstacle for them and opened the doors to the spread of Christianity in Europe.

Although Christians were not required to be circumcised, that didn’t stop them from wondering what happened when Jesus was circumcised. They knew he was a Jew, and tradition tells of his circumcision on the eighth day of his life. In AD 336 Emperor Constantine declared that the celebration of the nativity of Jesus would take place on December 25. That shifted the “historical” date of Jesus circumcision to January 1, when it is now observed by the Roman Catholic Church.

The obvious question arose about what happened to the foreskin. After all, it was the only part of Jesus, except for some unsubstantiated relics of dried blood, that remained on earth after his ascension to heaven. (I won’t even elaborate on his placenta, umbilical cord, or fingernail clippings.) In the Middle Ages the trade in Christian relics was very profitable. If the foreskin was recoverable, that would be about the best relic anyone could possess.

The story of the Holy Foreskin

Well, leave it to the relic-hunters to “find” it. It was thought to have first been mentioned around AD 800. It was said to have been a gift from Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, to Pope Leo III, when Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. Charlemagne said that he had received the Holy Foreskin, or Sanctum Preputium, from an angel in Jerusalem.

Tradition tells that a German soldier in the mutinous army of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V looted the foreskin during the sacking of Rome 1527. Italians captured the soldier in the village of Calcata, north of Rome, and the relic remained there as a pilgrimage attraction.

More about the relic

During the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church require an important relic for major churches to give them legitimacy, and especially to enable them to provide miracle cures. As a result, Calcata became a popular pilgrimage town, drawing devotees to its annual celebration.

Aside from Calcata, that Holy Foreskin would turn up again and again in Christian churches to lore people to devotion and donation. At one time, there were as many as eighteen “Holy foreskins” in Europe for pilgrims to visit.

In 1900, someone discovered another holy foreskin in France. That was too much for even the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Leo XIII declared in exasperation that he would excommunicate anyone who even mentioned the relic again.

Still, Calcata’s annual celebration continued until 1983, when the relic and its tabernacle mysteriously disappeared. Some say agents from the Vatican stole it to follow up on Pope Leo XIII’s discomfort with the whole foreskin business. With its theft, Calcata as a pilgrimage town went out of existence, but it was later resurrected as an artistic community.

An interesting theory

The history of the relic deserves one last mention. By 1610, Galileo had invented the telescope and discovered there was a band of rings encircling the planet Saturn. Leo Allatius, a seventeenth-century theologian, came up with a theory that the Holy foreskin wasn’t on earth after all but had instead ascended into the heavens like Jesus and become the rings that Galileo discovered.

Realistic 3d rendering of Saturn planet with its rings.
Today’s perspective

The hygienic benefits of circumcision may be the reason the procedure was first initiated over eight thousand years ago. And today, medical researchers have determined that the procedure is usually beneficial. It greatly reduces the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and cancer in both males and their female partners.

That’s why circumcision is becoming more requested among the general population, although it does have some risks. There is the risk of urinary tract infections, for example. Researchers have  found the risk to be two to four times higher when the procedure is performed by trained religious clerics in a clean environment compared to physicians in a sterile environment.

But getting back to the “why” of circumcision. The Bible says that  God created man in his image and in perfection. If that is so, then I wonder why the procedure is necessary at all.


One Comment

    • I M InAgreement

    • 1 year ago

    So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

    Yet ancient man could see God’s error. Ancient man created a circumcised male, superior to Gods image.

    This is an example of why it is important to study the ancient text. The ancient humans knew more than God and certainly more than modern man.

    As for your discussion of the Holy Foreskin it seems too easy to scoff at such nonsense. Surely humans are not as gullible in the modern age, are they? It seems not much has changed.

    Religion and Politics are best studied to reveal humanities utter stupidity.

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