Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and Difference

Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and Difference

Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and Difference

Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and Difference


In the first full-length study of the circumcision of Jesus, Andrew S. Jacobs turns to an unexpected symbol--the stereotypical mark of the Jewish covenant on the body of the Christian savior--to explore how and why we think about difference and identity in early Christianity.

Jacobs explores the subject of Christ's circumcision in texts dating from the first through seventh centuries of the Common Era. Using a diverse toolkit of approaches, including the psychoanalytic, postcolonial, and poststructuralist, he posits that while seeming to desire fixed borders and a clear distinction between self (Christian) and other (Jew, pagan, and heretic), early Christians consistently blurred and destabilized their own religious boundaries. He further argues that in this doubled approach to others, Christians mimicked the imperial discourse of the Roman Empire, which exerted its power through the management, not the erasure, of difference.

For Jacobs, the circumcision of Christ vividly illustrates a deep-seated Christian duality: the fear of and longing for an other, at once reviled and internalized. From his earliest appearance in the Gospel of Luke to the full-blown Feast of the Divine Circumcision in the medieval period, Christ circumcised represents a new way of imagining Christians and their creation of a new religious culture.


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 . . .

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