Over the years writing  religion articles for newspapers, I have been skeptical about faiths with claims of possessing authentic fragments of Christ’s experiences on earth.  The Roman Catholic Church is said to possess an incredible range of items from the scene of  Christ’s crucifixion, including particles of the cross, Jesus’  loin cloth and Mary’s cloak.   There’s a dizzying list of relics in the bowels and vaults of the Vatican and in possession of Catholic churches. “Jesus’ baby blanket” is said to be in Aachen, Germany. There are many claims of having nails or fragments of nails from the cross.  A Belgium basilica is said to  have a vial of blood from Christ’s body pierced by a soldier while he hung on the cross.

Then there are the claims of possessing the foreskin excised from Jesus on the eighth day of his life on earth, when, according to Jewish traditions, he was circumcised.  “The Holy Foreskin” or “Holy Prepuce” supposedly was preserved somehow and guarded down through history — never mind all the amazing logistics that that would require. Never mind how such a small slab of flesh could not be desiccated to dust by air, devoured by bacteria and otherwise dissolved by forces of time.  Then, of course, is the matter of who at that time had the forethought, expectation, physical facilities and psychic power to realize that this baby’s foreskin should/must be set aside and kept for millennia for  veneration.  Short of fail-proof DNA of Christ, who really can believe witnesses to Christ’s birth or his resurrection were far-sighted souvenir-savvy archivists lurking to sweep up all the evidence, like 21st century scavengers at a U.S. presidential inaugural?

I just finished David Farley’s non-fiction book, “An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town.”  The journalist spent a year in Italy, mostly in an off-the-beaten-path town of Calcata , not far from Rome. There in an obscure town of eccentrics with deep roots, Farley investigated the history of how it came to be the place where the foreskin relic came to be kept and protected. The book (Gotham Books, 2009, 291 pages, $25) is a well documented odyssey of Farley’s relentless and crafty efforts to find the right people, get them to talk or point him to others with a least part of the story of how the foreskin came to Calcata, how it then disappeared in 1993 and what role the Vatican may have played in it.  While it remains a huge question as to whether it truly is Jesus’ prepuce, Calcata is a real place with a true history of having such a relic. The writer documents his research sources and does a remarkable job tracing Italian and Roman Catholic Church history and intrigue.

Writes Farley, “In centuries past, the Christian  faithful relied on relics to do things that medicine, the government, the lottery and recreational drugs do today. Relics granted wishes. They gave fortune and restored health. They eased pain and sorrow. They even produced visions for the devout … When a relic showed up in a town or monastery for the first time, worshippers would watch  carefully for possible miracles.”

What’s with the foreskin of Jesus?  According to the logic, aside from  hair  that might have been naturally cut from his body over his 33 years, all of Christ’s body ascended into heaven in his resurrection except for the foreskin removed from him as an infant. It  “wasn’t just the residuum of any holy human — nor was it just any body part,” Farley wrote. “It was the foreskin of Jesus Christ, the only piece of the Redeemer’s body that he could conceivably  left on earth  after his ascension  into heaven, jealously guarded over in this secluded medieval hill town for the  past four and a half centuries.”

Later Farley writes, “Jesus’ circumcision, known as the Holy Circumcision, was given more attention in the so-called Apocryphal Gospels. Some scholars argue that these ‘lost books’ of the Bible, mostly written from the second to fifth centuries after Christ, were meant to be part of the New Testament, but were edited out by early church leaders who wanted the a new church’s doctrine to conform to their vision of Christ and Christianity.”  By one account, “Jesus’ foreskin is given to an old Hebrew woman, who puts it in an alabaster jar filled with aromatic nard — an oil known for its preservative qualities. She then gives it to her son, a druggist, and says, ‘Take heed, do not sell this alabaster box of spikenard ointment, even should you be offered three hundred pence for it.'”   Mary Magdalene is then said to have been in receipt of it and “poured forth the ointment out of it upon the head and feet of our Lord Jesus and wiped them off with the hair of her head.”

Farley asked, “What then happened to the Holy Foreskin after that and why id disappeared for hundreds of years, only to reemerge centuries later is anyone’s guess. … After Christ’s death, the apostle Paul, keen to convert the gentile world to the cult of Christ, quickly realized that the difficulty of getting adults  to undergo the procedure in order to become Christians would seriously impede the spread of the faith.”  The writer said Paul “ingeniously  reinterpreted the covenant God had made with Abraham centuries earlier by morphing physical and spiritual circumcision, writing in his letters to the Galatians that “…if you let yourself be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. … For in Jesus Christ, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.  The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Galatians 5:2-6.

And so Farley, an American journalist,   chronicles that church history and the story of his own travels, even to France, seeking first-hand information. In the end, the fragile foreskin — actually one of several said to exist — is believed to have been sealed away in a crypt below the church in Calcata, with Vatican commands to stifle further talk and curiosity about it.

As a fierce critic of circumcision as a cruel act with no redeeming religious, health or cultural value, I find Farley’s book a useful history.  He documents how conflicted various societies have been about the torturous cutting, sometimes erratically practiced and abandoned, only to be retrieved and imposed on new generations.  Circumcision’s sordid history far predates Jews.  Carried out by tribes — often for symbolic rites of passage and as unmistakable   tribal markings on genitals that will serve to perpetuate them — circumcision tragically has had a modicum of “credibility” or “legitimacy” by being  embedded in religion. But so have slavery, misogyny and genocide.  We constantly have to battle with shallow arguments that “well, if Jesus was circumcised, it has to be OK” or “the Bible sanctions circumcision.”  Whether we are talking about “Catholics Against Circumcision,” or “Jews Against Circumcision,” or “Mothers Against Circumcision” and countless other advocates against it, the agonizing cutting of minors’ genitals cannot be justified.

What all here need to understand is that God created man in his image and that image should not be tampered with through routine cosmetic surgery on the helpless and indefensible.  Circumcision comes with disfigurement, pain, death and permanent changes in the mechanics of sexuality.   Christ’s foreskin probably was discarded on the eighth day.  Today’s boys should be able to take theirs to their graves after a lifetime of luxuriating in the prepuce’s 20,000 nerve endings, rolling dynamics, silky protection and a sense of wholeness.