Blogging the Age of Faith

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Arius and the Death of Arius

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Arius (AD ca250/256 - 336, of Alexandria) was an early Christian theologian, who taught that the Son of God was not eternal, and was subordinate to God the Father (a view known generally as Arianism). Although he attracted considerable support at the time (and since), Arius's views were declared heretical at the Council of Nicaea, leading to the formation of the Nicene Creed. Arius is also known as Arius of Alexandria.

Reconstructing the life and teachings of Arius can be problematic and controversial. None of Arius' writings are extant; many were destroyed by his opponents. Indeed, our only record of his teaching is found in writings of those who opposed him and denounced him as a heretic - sources which are obviously far from dispassionate. Yet these, as the only surviving references to him, are all the scholars have. These few remaining works credited to him are Epiphanius' recordings of his letter to Alexander of Alexandria, Theodoret's recording of his letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, and Athanasius' recording of fragments of Thalia, a popularized work combining prose and verse.

Early life and personality
He was possibly of Libyan and Berber descent. His father's name is given as Ammonius. Arius was a student at the exegetical school in Antioch, where he studied under the school's founder Saint Lucian.[1] He was made presbyter of the district of Baucalis in Alexandria in 313. Although the character of Arius has been severely assailed by his opponents, Arius appears to have been a man of personal ascetic character, pure morals, and decided convictions. Warren H. Carroll (paraphrasing Epiphanius of Salamis, an opponent of Arius) describes him as “tall and lean, of distinguished appearance and polished address. Women doted on him, charmed by his beautiful manners, touched by his appearance of asceticism. Men were impressed by his aura of intellectual superiority.”[2]

Arius starts a controversy
The historian Socrates Scholasticus reports that Arius first became controversial under the bishop Achillas of Alexandria, when he made the following syllogism: "‘If,’ said he, ‘the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he had his substance from nothing.’" (Thus his actions were not the result of any jealousy on account of his unsuccessful candidacy for the patriarchate of Alexandria in rivalry with Alexander.)
It is believed that Arius' doctrines were influenced by the teachings of Lucian of Antioch, a celebrated Christian teacher and martyr for the faith. In a letter to Bishop Alexander of Constantinople, Alexander of Alexandria wrote that Arius derived his theology from Lucian. The express purpose of his letter is to complain of the doctrines Arius was then diffusing but his charge of heresy against Arius is vague and unsupported by other authorities, and Alexander's language, like that of most controversialists in those days, is vituperative. Moreover, Lucian is not stated, even by Alexander himself, to have fallen into the heresy afterwards promulgated by Arius, but is accused ad invidiam of heretical tendencies.

The patriarch of Alexandria was the subject of adverse criticism for his slow reaction against Arius. Like his predecessor Dionysius, he has been charged with vacillation. Yet it is difficult to see how he could have acted otherwise than he did. The question that Arius raised had been left unsettled two generations previously, or, if in any sense it could be said to have been settled, it had been settled in favour of the opponents of the homoousion. Therefore Alexander allowed the controversy to continue until he felt that it had become dangerous to the peace of the Church. Then he called a council of bishops and sought their advice. Once they decided against Arius, Alexander delayed no longer. He deposed Arius from his office, and excommunicated both him and his supporters.

Arius' doctrines
In explaining his actions against Arius, Alexander of Alexandria wrote a letter to Alexander of Constantinople and Eusebius of Nicomedia (where the emperor was then residing), detailing the errors into which he believed Arius had fallen. According to Alexander, Arius taught:
"That God was not always the Father, but that there was a period when he was not the Father; that the Word of God was not from eternity, but was made out of nothing; for that the ever-existing God (‘the I AM’—the eternal One) made him who did not previously exist, out of nothing; wherefore there was a time when he did not exist, inasmuch as the Son is a creature and a work. That he is neither like the Father as it regards his essence, nor is by nature either the Father’s true Word, or true Wisdom, but indeed one of his works and creatures, being erroneously called Word and Wisdom, since he was himself made of God’s own Word and the Wisdom which is in God, whereby God both made all things and him also. Wherefore he is as to his nature mutable and susceptible of change, as all other rational creatures are: hence the Word is alien to and other than the essence of God; and the Father is inexplicable by the Son, and invisible to him, for neither does the Word perfectly and accurately know the Father, neither can he distinctly see him. The Son knows not the nature of his own essence: for he was made on our account, in order that God might create us by him, as by an instrument; nor would he ever have existed, unless God had wished to create us."

He states something similar in Thalia:
“God has not always been Father; there was a moment when he was alone, and was not yet Father: later he became so. The Son is not from eternity; he came from nothing.[3]

Arius's concept of Christ
This question of the exact relationship between the Father and the Son, a part of Christology, had been raised some 50 years before Arius, when Paul of Samosata was deposed in AD 269 for his agreement with those who had used the word homoousios (Greek for same substance) to express the relation of the Father and the Son. The expression was at that time thought to have a Sabellian tendency, though, as events showed, this was on account of its scope not having been satisfactorily defined. In the discussion which followed, Dionysius, Patriarch of Alexandria, had used much the same language as Arius did later, and correspondence survives in which Pope Dionysius blames his brother of Alexandria for using such language. Dionysius of Alexandria responded with an explanation, which posterity has been inclined to interpret as vacillating. So far as the earlier controversy could be said to have been decided, it was decided in favor of the opinions later championed by Arius. But this settlement was so unsatisfactory that the question would have been reopened sooner or later, especially in an atmosphere so intellectual as that of Alexandria. For the synod of Antioch which condemned Paul of Samosata had expressed its disapproval of the word homoousios in one sense, and Patriarch Alexander undertook its defense in another.

Arius formulated the following doctrines about Jesus:

that the Logos and the Father were not of the same essence (ousia);
that the Son was a created being (ktisma or poiema); and
that though He was the creator of the worlds, and must therefore have existed before them and before all time, there was a "time" [although Arius refused to use words meaning time, such as chronos or aion] when He did not exist.

The subsequent controversy shows that Arius' avoidance of the words chronos and aion was adroit; when defending himself he clearly argued that there was a time when the Son did not exist. Moreover, he asserted that the Logos had a beginning. By way of contrast, Origen had taught that the relation of the Son to the Father had no beginning and that, to use Dorner's words (Person of Christ, ii. 115), "the generation of the Son is an eternally completed, and yet an eternally continued, act" - or in other words, the Father has, from all eternity, been communicating His Being to the Son, and is doing so still. However, Arius seems to have further support in his view as his is purely intellectual, whereas those claiming the eternity of the "begotten" (i.e. created, made, or produced) Son need textual revelation to back their belief, which they have not been able to gather.

Arius was obviously perplexed by this doctrine, for he complains of it in his letter to the Nicomedian Eusebius, who, like himself, had studied under Lucian. It is to be regretted that so much stress should have been laid in the controversy on words, but this is understood under the influence of Greek philosophical thought, with concepts such as "substance" that are alien to the Jewish religious experience of the Divine. Arius also contended that the Son was unchangeable (atreptos). But what he thus gave with the one hand he appears to have taken away with the other. For so far as we can understand his language on a subject which Athanasius seems to have admitted that it was beyond his power thoroughly to comprehend - he taught that the Logos was changeable in Essence, but not in Will. The best authorities consider that he was driven to this concession by the force of circumstances. He was doubtless confirmed in his attitude by his fear of falling into Sabellianism. Bishop Macedonius, who had to a certain extent imbibed the opinions of Arius, certainly regarded the Son and the Spirit in much the same way that the Gnostic teachers regarded their aeons. Arius undoubtedly drew some support from the writings of Origen, who had made use of expressions which favored Arius's statement that the Logos was of a different substance to the Father, and that He owed His existence to the Father's will. But the speculations of Origen were then, as well as currently, considered as pioneer work in theology, often hazarded to stimulate further inquiry rather than to enable men to dispense with it. This explains why in this, as well as other controversies, the authority of Origen is so frequently invoked by both sides.

Wider Church reaction and The Council of Nicaea

The Christian church had by this time become so powerful a force in the Roman world that Constantine found himself unable to keep aloof from the controversy. He therefore sent Hosius, bishop of Córdoba-the one who reportedly instructed him in the faith just before his march to Rome--to investigate and to put an end, if possible, to the controversy, armed with an open letter from the Emperor: "Wherefore let each one of you, showing consideration for the other, listen to the impartial exhortation of your fellow-servant." But as it continued to rage, Constantine took an unprecedented step: he called a council of delegates, summoned from all parts of the empire, to resolve this issue (possibly at Hosius' recommendation[4]).
All of the secular dioceses into which the empire had been divided, Roman Britain only excepted, sent one or more representatives to the council, the majority of the bishops coming from the East. Pope Sylvester I, himself too aged to be present, sent two presbyters as his delegates. Attending the conference, there was the already mentioned Eusebius of Nicomedia, and Alexander, patriarch of Alexandria. There was also the historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, as well as the young Athanasius, who was to eventually spend most of his life battling Arianism.
This was the First Council of Nicaea, which met in 325, near Constantinople. Some twenty-two of the bishops at the council, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia, came as supporters of Arius. But when some of the passages from Arius' writings were read aloud, they are reported to have been denounced as blasphemous by most of the council participants.[5] Under the influence of Emperor Constantine, the assembled bishops agreed upon a creed. This creed, which is known as the Nicene creed specifically included the word homoousios--“consubstantial,” or “one in being,”-- which was incompatible with the beliefs of Arius.[6] On June 19, 325, both council and emperor issued a circular letter to the churches in and around Alexandria. Arius and two unyielding supporters (Theonas, and Secundus [7]) were deposed and exiled to Illyricum, while three other bishops, who had also been supportive of Arius, namely Eusebius of Nicomedia, Theognis of Nicaea, and Maris of Chalcedon, were unwilling signatories of the document, but affixed their signatures in deference to the emperor. However, Constantine found some reason to suspect the sincerity of Eusebius of Nicomedia, as well as that of Theognis and Maris, for he soon after included them in the sentence pronounced on Arius. Eusebius of Caesarea defended himself in a letter as having objected to the changes in the creed which he had originally presented, but finally accepted them in the interests of peace (Theod. H. E. i. 12).

After the Council of Nicaea

The neutrality of this section is disputed.Please see the discussion on the talk page.
That the apparent public unanimity of the council (Secundus and Theonas of Lower Egypt being the only dissenters) masked a considerable amount of divergent opinion is indisputable. Doubts over the use of a term which had been previously denounced as Sabellian weighed on the minds of many. Eusebius of Caesarea has been charged by many later writers as having embraced Arianism. But his moderate attitude throughout the following period suggests that his objections to the decision, which he allowed his love of peace to overrule, owed more to the dread of possible consequences than to the decision in itself. And his allusion to the proceedings at Nicaea in the letter just mentioned shows that his apprehensions were not altogether unreasonable. For he remarks how the final consensus emerged after considerable discussion that the term homoousion was not intended to indicate that the Son formed an actual portion of the Father - which would have been Sabellianism pure and simple, a fear which fed much of the dissension to the adoption of the creed. On the other hand, Athanasius was convinced that unless the essence of the Son was definitely understood to be the same as that of the Father, it would inevitably follow that the Son would at best be no more than the highest of a series of Gnostic aeons.
The homoousian party's victory at Nicaea was short-lived, however. The controversy recommenced as soon as the decrees were promulgated. When Alexander died at Alexandria in 327, the election of Athanasius in his place was secured despite his not meeting the age requirement for a bishop. Soon after, Eusebius of Nicomedia was reinstated in his see, after having written a diplomatic letter to the emperor. Arius, who had taken refuge in Palestine, was also soon permitted to return, after reformulating his Christology in an effort to mute the ideas his opponents found most objectionable. It was not long before the Nicomedian Eusebius regained his influence with the emperor, which led to a complete reversal of the position of the contending parties. Eustathius of Antioch, one of the staunchest supporters of Athanasius, was deposed. If Theodoret is to be trusted, one of his accusers, when seized by a serious illness, retracted her accusation in a sensational manner. But Socrates Scholasticus and Sozomen are reticent about the nature of the charges, and only tell us that Eustathius had been unfortunate enough to get involved in a controversy with Eusebius of Caesarea. Marcellus of Ancyra was the next victim, a friend and champion of Athanasius, found it impossible to defend the Nicene decisions without falling into Sabellianism; he was deposed in 336. In the meantime, Eusebius of Nicomedia turned against obdurate Athanasius. Following Arius' restoration to the emperor's favor, the emperor commanded Athanasius to readmit Arius to communion. Athanasius refused - leading to accusations of treason against the emperor.

Athanasius was exiled to Trier, and Alexander of Constantinople was ordered to receive Arius back into communion. Alexander dared not disobey the command, but he was opposed to Arius' reinstatement. He requested the prayers of his fellow Nicene Christians that either he or Arius might be removed from the world before the latter was admitted to communion. The prayer was, Henry Wace notes, a strange one. Meanwhile, Arius was summoned before the emperor and found to be suitably compliant. And yet, the very day before he was to be readmitted to communion, Arius is reported to have died suddenly. Socrates Scholasticus describes his death thus:

It was then Saturday, and . . . going out of the imperial palace, attended by a crowd of Eusebian [Eusebius of Nicomedia is meant] partisans like guards, he [Arius] paraded proudly through the midst of the city, attracting the notice of all the people. As he approached the place called Constantine's Forum, where the column of porphyry is erected, a terror arising from the remorse of conscience seized Arius, and with the terror a violent relaxation of the bowels: he therefore enquired whether there was a convenient place near, and being directed to the back of Constantine's Forum, he hastened thither. Soon after a faintness came over him, and together with the evacuations his bowels protruded, followed by a copious hemorrhage, and the descent of the smaller intestines: moreover portions of his spleen and liver were brought off in the effusion of blood, so that he almost immediately died. The scene of this catastrophe still is shown at Constantinople, as I have said, behind the shambles in the colonnade: and by persons going by pointing the finger at the place, there is a perpetual remembrance preserved of this extraordinary kind of death.

Whether Arius' death was miraculous, as many Nicene Christians believed, or he was the victim of poisoning by his enemies, is a matter of supposition, but the extraordinary death of Arius, followed as it was a year later by that of Constantine himself, led to a temporary lull in the controversy.

This article uses text from A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies by Henry Wace.

Friday, February 02, 2007

More on That Foreskin

Holy Prepuce
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Holy Prepuce, or Holy Foreskin (Latin præputium or prepucium) is one of several relics attributed to Jesus. At various points in history, a number of churches in Europe have claimed to possess it, sometimes at the same time. Various miraculous powers have been ascribed to it.

circumcision of Jesus
As a Jew, Jesus would have been expected to be circumcised on his 8th day after birth.
According to the apocryphal Infancy Gospels, after Jesus' circumcision in a cave, Mary's midwife placed the foreskin in an alabaster jar filled with spikenard, a preservative, which she gave to her son, admonishing him "Guard well this jar of aromatic nard and do not sell it, even when they offer you 300 denarii". [1]

According to legend, the prepuce was eventually given to St. John the Baptist by Mary Magdalene. [2]

Since the circumcision removed his foreskin, this raises the question of what happened to it once Jesus had ascended forty days after his death. Some ancient Christians believed that Jesus ascended bodily, hence implying that Jesus' foreskin would be one of the few physical remainders of Jesus left behind on Earth, unless it had been restored to him during his resurrection, and by the fourth century this became the traditional stance.

There was also some theological dispute as to whether Jesus can really be said to have ascended wholly into Heaven if this part of his body was actually missing. This was resolved by noting that his foreskin was no more an obstacle to this than the hair and fingernails that he had cut throughout his life or the blood he shed. The Jewish custom of burying the foreskin in the earth would, however, seem to argue against its preservation, and hence its ability to be a relic.
Some argue that when God achieves something by miracle, it is arbitrary to propose limits to what that miracle can restore. In Mark 12:18-25, Jesus responded to the Sadducees' question about marriage after the resurrection, saying that "For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven." (KJV) This suggests that the resurrected dead may have certain anatomical differences that may make the question irrelevant. But then again, he may have restored the foreskin in heaven without taking the discarded one away from earth.

The act of circumcision was a ritual of profound religious significance to Jews, and marked their membership in the covenant community. The New Testament contains extensive discussions about whether circumcision was needed for Gentile converts, and concludes that it was not; the position settled upon is that Jesus' crucifixion established a new covenant for Christians for which the rite was not necessary.

The modern, peri'ah style of circumcision did not become the standard mode until around the time of the revolt led by Simon bar Kokhba in AD 132–135, whereas the style of circumcision practised by Jews in Judea prior to bar Kokhba removed only the 'tip' of the foreskin, not all of it. Thus modern, and probably medieval, ideas of what Jesus'foreskin would be like were, and are, wide of the mark.

"Depending on what you read, there were eight, twelve, fourteen, or even 18 different holy foreskins in various European towns during the Middle Ages". [3] The relic was originally said to have been given to Pope Leo III on December 25, 800 by Charlemagne on the occasion of his coronation; he in turn is said to have claimed that it had been brought to him by an angel while he prayed at the Holy Sepulcher (although another version of the story says it was a wedding gift from the Byzantine Empress Irene). The Pope placed it into the Sancta Sanctorum in the Lateran basilica in Rome with other relics. [4]

In addition to the Holy Foreskin claimed by Rome, other claimants in history have included the Cathedral of Le Puy-en-Velay, Santiago de Compostela, the city of Antwerp, Coulombs in the diocese of Chartres, France as well as Chartres itself, and churches in Besançon, Metz, Hildesheim, Charroux, Conques, Langres, Anvers, Fécamp, Puy-en-Velay, Calcata, Santiago de Compostela, and two in Auvergne. [3]

According to legends of the village of Calcata, in 1527 a soldier in the German army sacking Rome looted the Sancta Sanctorum; when he was eventually captured in the village he hid the jeweled reliquary containing the Holy Prepuce in his cell, where it was discovered in 1557 and officially venerated by the Church since that time, offering a ten year indulgence to pilgrims. Calcata thus became a popular site for pilgrimmage.[4]

The abbey of Charroux claimed the Holy Foreskin was presented to the monks by Charlemagne. In the early 12th century, it was taken in procession to Rome where it was presented before Pope Innocent III, who was asked to rule on its authenticity. The Pope declined the opportunity. At some point, however, the relic went missing, and remained lost until 1856 when a workman repairing the abbey claimed to have found a reliquary hidden inside a wall, containing the missing foreskin. The rediscovery, however, led to a theological clash with the established Holy Prepuce of Calcata, which had been officially venerated by the Church for hundreds of years; in 1900, the Church solved the dilemma by ruling that anyone thenceforward writing or speaking of the Holy Prepuce would be excommunicated. In 1954, after much debate, the punishment was changed to the harsher degree of excommunication, vitandi (shunned); and the Second Vatican Council later removed the Day of the Holy Circumcision from the church calendar .[5]
In 2007 A headstone in the shape of a cross was noticed by a visitor to the Mount of Olives Cemetery. On the cross was written "To The God Jesus Christos" in Greek. Some think that this might be the burial place of the Holy Prepuce.

Most of the objects reputed to be the Holy Prepuce were lost or destroyed during the Reformation and the French Revolution. [5]

Calcata is worthy of special mention, as the reliquary containing the Holy Foreskin was paraded through the streets of this Italian village as recently as 1983 on the Feast of the Circumcision, which was formerly marked by the Roman Catholic Church around the world on January 1 each year. The practice ended, however, when thieves stole the jewel-encrusted case, contents and all. [5] Following this theft, it is unclear whether any of the purported Holy Prepuces still exist. In a 1997 television documentary for Channel 4, British journalist Miles Kington travelled to Italy in search of the Holy Foreskin, but was unable to find any remaining example.

According to 17th century theologian Leo Allatius (Leone Allacci), the foreskin may have divinely ascended to become the rings of Saturn.

Historical allusions and references to the Holy Prepuce
Apart from its physical importance as a relic, the Holy Foreskin is sometimes claimed to have appeared in a famous vision of Saint Catherine of Siena. In the vision, Jesus mystically marries her, and his amputated foreskin is given to her as a wedding ring. [6] However, this has not been traced any earlier than a seventeenth-century anti-Catholic parody, and as such is of dubious credibility.

Because the sweet scent that the relic was supposed to give off was reputed to enhance fertility and ease childbirth, when Catherine of Valois was pregnant in 1421, her husband, King Henry V of England, sent to Coulombs for the Holy Prepuce. According to this legend, it did its job so well that Henry was reluctant to return it after the birth of the child (the future King Henry VI of England).[6]

Saint Bridget was said to have received the Holy Prepuce from an angel, and would experience "orgasm-like sensations" when she would place bits of it on her tongue.[6]

During the late 17th century, Catholic scholar and theologian Leo Allatius in De Praeputio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Diatriba ("Discussion concerning the Prepuce of our Lord Jesus Christ") speculated that the Holy Foreskin may have ascended into Heaven at the same time as Jesus himself and might have become the rings of Saturn, then only recently observed by telescope.
Voltaire, in A Treatise of Toleration (1763), ironically referred to veneration of the Holy Foreskin as being one of a number of superstitions that were "much more reasonable... than to detest and persecute your brother". [7]

Umberto Eco, in his book Baudolino, has the young Baudolino invent a story about seeing the holy foreskin and navel in Rome to the company of Friedrich Barbarosa.

Making a Relic Out of Jesus

Fore Shame! Did the Vatican steal Jesus' foreskin so people would shut up about the savior's penis?

By David Farley, Dec. 19, 2006

In 1983, as the residents of Calcata, a small town 30 miles north of Rome, prepared for their annual procession honoring a holy relic, a shocking announcement from the parish priest put a damper on festivities. "This year, the holy relic will not be exposed to the devotion of the faithful. It has vanished. Sacrilegious thieves have taken it from my home." Not since the Middle Ages, when lopped-off body parts of divine do-gooders were bought, sold, and traded, has relic theft been big news. But the mysterious disappearance of Calcata's beloved curio is different.
This wasn't just the residuum of any holy human—nor was it just any body part. It was the foreskin of Jesus Christ, the snipped-off tip of the savior's penis, the only piece of his body he supposedly left on earth.

Just what the holy foreskin was doing in the priest's house—in a shoebox at the back of his wardrobe, no less—and why and how it disappeared has been debated ever since the relic vanished. Some suspect the village priest sold it for a heavenly sum; others say it was stolen by thieves and ended up on the relics black market; some even suggest Satanists or neo-Nazis are responsible. But the most likely culprit is an unlikely one: the Vatican.

And why not? Protestant doubt ("They couldn't let Christ's body go without keeping a piece," John Calvin quipped) and the scientific revolution, which changed our thinking from superstitious to skeptical, have taken their toll on a relic that once rested high atop the pious pecking order of blessed body parts. It's understandable that the 20th-century church began feeling a bit bashful about the idea of its flock fawning over the 2,000-year-old tip of the redeemer's manhood. Still, when I arrived in Calcata six months ago, the idea of a Vatican theft of Jesus' foreskin sounded more like a ganja-induced brainstorming session with Dan Brown and Danielle Steele. But some transplanted bohemians, a deathbed confession, and a little historical context have convinced me otherwise.

Even before its disappearance, the relic had a strange history. It was discovered in Calcata in 1557, and a series of miracles soon followed (freak storms, perfumed mists engulfing the village). The church gave the finding a seal of approval by offering a 10-year indulgence to those who came to venerate. Lines of pilgrims stretched from the church doors to beyond the walls of the fortress town. Nuns and monks from nearby villages and monasteries made candlelit processions. Calcata was a must-see destination on the pilgrimage map.

That is, until 1900. Facing increasing criticism after the "rediscovery" of a holy foreskin in France, the Vatican decreed that anyone who wrote about or spoke the name of the holy foreskin would face excommunication. And 54 years later, when a monk wanted to include Calcata in a pilgrimage tour guide, Vatican officials didn't just reject the proposal (after much debate). They upped the punishment: Now, anyone uttering its name would face the harshest form of excommunication—"infamous and to be avoided"—even as they concluded that Calcata's holy foreskin was more legit than other claimants'.

But that wasn't the end of the holy foreskin. In the late 1960s, government officials, worried that crumbling cliffs and threatening earthquakes might doom the village, decided to build a new town. Hippies discovered the newly abandoned town, which was awaiting a government wrecking crew, and squatted in, then legally purchased, the vacated buildings. Some of the bohemian transplants were intrigued by Calcata's relic, which was now only shown to the public during the village's annual New Year's Day procession (even though the Vatican II reforms removed the Day of the Holy Circumcision from the church calendar). The new residents began writing about the quirky event and relic for newspapers in and around Rome, and Calcata's scandalous prepuce was isolated no more. And the church took notice.

Was this the reason Dario Magnoni, the local priest, brought the relic from the church to his home? Who knows. Magnoni refuses to speak about the relic, citing the 1954 threat of excommunication. Magnoni's predecessor, Mario Mastrocola, didn't want to talk about the relic, either, but when asked if he was surprised to hear it had been stolen, he shook his head. When pressed, he said, "The relic would not have been taken away from Calcata if I were still the priest there."

Mastrocola's ambiguous words—while not directly incriminating anyone—hinted at underhanded church dealings (interview requests with the Vatican went unanswered). And later, I found myself sitting in a wine cellar halfway up the hill between the old and new villages of Calcata. Capellone, the cellar's owner and a lifelong Calcatese, told me about his close relationship with a former local bishop, Roberto Massimiliani. Ailing in bed, the bishop told Capellone that when he was gone, so too would be the relic. Bishop Massimiliani passed away soon after, in 1975. Eight years after that, the relic disappeared. "To me, it almost felt like a confession," said Capellone. "Like he needed to tell someone before he died."

Could the "sacrilegious thieves" Magnoni mentioned in his 1983 announcement about the relic's disappearance actually have been Vatican emissaries? The thought of masked, black-clad Vatican agents on a mission to steal Jesus' foreskin does sound alluring. But for residents like Capellone, who swear the Vatican now has the relic, the thief could be Magnoni himself. Some locals claim they saw him go to Rome the day before he made the announcement, generating speculation that the Vatican asked for it and Magnoni not only failed to stand up to them, he delivered the relic himself.

Sold, stolen, or delivered to the Vatican—or even all three—the holy foreskin of Calcata is probably gone for good, even as some residents persist in the hope that it will return. And the church is certainly breathing a sigh of relief. While most of the other copies of the relic were destroyed during the Reformation and the French Revolution, Calcata's holy foreskin lived long past its expiration date, like a dinosaur surviving the meteoric blast of the scientific revolution.
But if it had survived, it would have been only a matter of time before someone wanted to clone it. And that could have given the Second Coming an entirely new meaning.