The Fourteen Foreskins of Christ and Mary’s Hymen

The Fourteen Foreskins of Christ and Mary’s Hymen September 9, 2014

Friedrich Herlin, Circumcision of Christ (detail), 1466.
Christianity, not for the squeamish: Friedrich Herlin, Circumcision of Christ (detail), 1466.

One of my readers asked the following legitimate question in response to Nudus Nudum Christum Sequi: On Christ’s Genitalia:

History proves that it's not so irreverent at all.
History proves that it’s not so irreverent after all.

I wonder how you would feel if someone wrote a similar post discussing and depiciting [sic!] your wife’s genitalia. Have some respect for Jesus’ Holy Body.

I’m sure I wouldn’t mind if I could concoct a salvific significance to writing about my wife’s genitalia (topic for a future post?). On the other hand, there’s always been a salvific dimension to discussions of Christ’s Holy Body during ALL periods of Christian history.

It grows out of the following principle, variously formulated by the Church Fathers, here captured in the words of Gregory of Nazaianzus:

What has not been assumed has not been healed; it is what is united to his divinity that is saved. . .

The implication is that everything is assumed and significant for theology–including what we might call the naughty bits. The controversies surrounding the Second Person of the Trinity becoming incarnate in a functioning male body have not even escaped modern theologians. There was an explosive debate among feminist theologians about the implications of this fact for women. It is best exemplified in the title of a chapter of Rosemary Radford Reuther’s mostly outdated Sexism and God-Talk. The chapter title zeroes in on the problem: “Can a Male Savior Save Women?”

So yes, this has been a legitimate theological question forever and will continue to be so despite any Docetist hatred for, and squeamishness about, the body. For example, during the Middle Ages, according to David Farley in his An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town, there were anywhere between eight and fourteen foreskins of Christ (make of that what you will!) circulating throughout Europe’s lively medieval relic economy.

The fold of skin, also known as a prepuce, was ubiquitous enough for Andrew S. Jacobs to write a whole scholarly book on the topic: Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and DifferenceThe book opens up with the characterization of a rather lively period of Holy Prepuce devotion:

Yes, it's a broad and wide enough topic for a scholarly volume devoted solely to it.
Yes, it’s a broad and wide enough topic for a scholarly volume devoted solely to it.

Catherine of Siena, a lay mystic in the 14th 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 14th century, reported that she had visions of swallowing the sacred relic ‘hundreds of times.’ Brigitta, who founded the Bridgettine Order of nuns in 14th 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).

He concludes:

Very quickly, it seemed, the foreskin was on everybody’s mind (and lips).

Less incarnate religions don’t have the same problems. If you are squeamish then perhaps you should consider a less messy cult?

Speaking of messy, you should know that the people who were contemporaries of Jesus were not as fixated negatively on the workings of the body as we moderns are. Yes, there is a book about this too, and it has a title that’s hard to swallow: Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus. Here is what we learn about Jewish toilet practices of that time and how they imply different attitudes toward the body than the ones we hold:

Modern Westerners tend to view the ancient world through a highly sanitized lens. In fact, despite sophisticated aqueduct systems and other technologies, the Roman world was a filthy, malodorous, and unhealthy place, certainly by contemporary standards. If we could be transported back in time, it is unlikely that most of us would survive exposure to the widespread dirt and diseases, to which we lack immunity. Human waste fouled the streets and sidewalks of even the most advanced Roman cities. Because toilet facilities serve one of the most basic human needs and toilet habits are deeply embedded within cultural and social norms, few of us realize that our modern Western obsession with toilet privacy and hygiene was not shared by ancient peoples.

The basics of life.
The basics of life.

Therefore, when Jesus walked the Earth, things were, if you will, much more out in the open, including his own things no doubt.

If that’s not enough exposure for you, I’d like to remind you, and my squeamish reader, how big a part gynecology has played in orthodox theology. Kenneth Baker, SJ is not known for being enthralled by postmodern fashions for immodest curiosity about body parts of the Holy Family, in fact, he was forced out of Seattle University in the 70’s for being somewhat conservative. The following passage from his Fundamentals of Catholicism: God Trinity, Creation, Christ, and Mary demonstrates that in fact there’s nothing modern or immodest about such curiosities when it comes to Mary, specifically her hymen:

Simply stated, it is the common teaching of the Fathers of the Church, often repeated over the centuries, that Mary gave birth to her Son without any violation of her virginal integrity. The teaching merely asserts the fact of the continuance of Mary’s physical virginity without determining more closely how this is to be physiologically explained. In general, the Fathers and the Scholastic theologians thought of it as non-injury to the hymen, and accordingly taught that Mary gave birth in a miraculous fashion without opening of the womb and injury to the hymen, and consequently also without the normal pains of childbirth…. It is important to recall that the Church vouches for the fact of Mary’s virginity during the birth of Jesus; how it is to be explained has not been decided, so there is a certain freedom here for theologians.

Death has never looked so good!
Death has never looked so good!

There is one important rule when it comes to theology: whenever there is freedom there will be endless discussion. That’s where my posts on Christ’s genitalia and other anatomical oddities of Christianity come in.

At some point I’ll dig into how Christianity transformed how we approach sexuality. I have two books in mind: the recently published From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity and the classic The Body and Society.

There’s also the whole tradition of decorating ossuaries and charnel houses meticulously documented in Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs and The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses.

Buckle up, Catholicism is a messy religion with its foundations securely anchored in a Holy Body that is a human body. Because of this things might get uncomfortable and complicated:


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