Whatever happened to Jesus’ foreskin?
The Apocryphal Gospels reveal that shortly after his birth, Jesus’ mother gave it to an old Hebrew woman who had the prescience to preserve it in a jar of nard. Fast-forward one millennium, to a time when spiritual relics are all the rage and an idea takes hold that, in between rising from the dead and ascending to heaven, Jesus may have left a little piece of himself behind—a snippet of flesh; the Santissimo Prepuzio; the Holy Foreskin.
An Irreverent Curiosity
It started turning up everywhere. Italy, France, and Belgium all claimed to have possession of it. Charlemagne made a present of it to Pope Leo III. Saint Catherine wore it as a wedding band to symbolize her status as the bride of Christ. Several other versions surfaced, keeping the relic dealers happy, the church embarrassed, and quite a few people scratching their heads in wonderment.
Eventually the holy foreskin was found again, this time in the sock drawer of one Don Dario, parish priest of Calcata, Italy. Roughly half the size of a football field, Calcata was declared unsafe and was subsequently evacuated in the 30s (the medieval town was built on a series of cliffs), only to be repopulated in the 60s-70s by hippies who installed a mural of Jimi Hendrix in the village square. Once discovered in Calcata, however, the private piece of Christ was allegedly stolen from Don Dario. David Farley went to find it; An Irreverent Curiosity (Penguin, 2009) is the chronicle of his long, strange trip.
Anne Pelletier (Rail): It didn’t take much prodding to get you to set off on this adventure. Your wife said, over coffee, “Remember that weird hill town in Italy where that strange relic, the foreskin of Jesus, was supposed to be kept? You love that sort of thing. Why don’t we go there?” And then you’re off, spending a year, living there, searching for the thing. I guess I need to ask: Why? Is it a love of mysteries? Of relics? Of foreskins?
David Farley: Perhaps all of the above. I had been wishing for a few years that I would come across an intriguing idea for a book, so once I put Calcata and the Holy Foreskin together I was sold. I studied medieval history as an undergrad with a focus on saints and holiness, so I already had a solid understanding of church history and had long had a curiosity about relics. So it all came together perfectly. Also, picking up and moving abroad is something I had already done a few times in my life (to Prague, Paris, and Rome), so it’s not much of a leap for me to decide to move to, say, a medieval hill town in Italy and then just go do it.
Rail: Tell me about Don Dario. He seems the most mysterious player in the whole story. When you talked with him about the Santissimo Prepuzio, why wasn’t he more forthcoming? Why would he have stored such an important piece of church history in his closet? Any thoughts about the mysterious strangers who absconded with the foreskin or where it could be now?
Farley: Don Dario’s official excuse about why he can’t talk about the Holy Foreskin is the papal decree from 1900 which states that anyone who speaks of or writes about it will face excommunication. But his reliance on that law just underscores the shadowy nature of this case. He says he brought the foreskin from the church in Calcata and put it in his armoire for fear of it being stolen. Then, oddly enough, it was stolen from his house. It’s all very murky, but I try to lay out my theory about what was really going on in the last couple of chapters of the book.
Rail: Do you think it really looks like a chickpea? Or more like a calamari? That’s what I picture when I think of St. Catherine wearing it as a wedding band. Are there any other descriptions? Any food-related?
Farley: The description of the Holy Foreskin being the size and color of a red chickpea comes from a centuries-old document that I unearthed in the Vatican Library. The locals in Calcata said that if you were a believer the Holy Foreskin glowed and if you weren’t it just looked like three balls of ash, which is how it was often described to me by people who managed to catch a glimpse of it before it disappeared.
Rail: Exactly how many foreskins were there? How many existed simultaneously? Is this a mystery like the Trinity?
Farley: How many there were is a complicated question. The first recorded reference is in the 1070s, that in the year 800 Charlemagne presented the Santissimo Prepuzio to Pope Leo III. After that, historical records show Holy Foreskins popping up in various towns and monasteries in northern Europe (particularly France). Later, when cynical historians wrote about it, they’d mention all the places associated with it as places that had claimed to have it. But my theory is that some of these places may have hosted the relic for a short time before it moved on. So the number grew to at least 18. In fact there were probably fewer than half of that. Still, that’s a lot of Holy Foreskins floating around.
Rail: What strikes me about your responses is that you seem to imply the existence of the foreskin. Am I getting this right? Because from your book I got the feeling the question was a lot murkier.
Farley: When people ask me, as they often do, whether I think it really was Jesus’ foreskin, I tell them that it’s beside the point; that for centuries people believed it was and treated it as such. Then of course I tell them that it’s likely not the true flesh of Christ. There’s no real provenance for it, as the relic was first mentioned a thousand years after Christ lived. But I believe in respecting history, which means granting people of the past their beliefs, no matter how outlandish they may appear to us looking back from the 21st century. One thing I learned from writing An Irreverent Curiosity is the extraordinary power of belief. People’s sense of belief is so strong, it will contradict any evidence.