Letter 97 of Severus of Antioch to Caesaria the hypatissa (noblewoman), sent between 519-38 C.E.


English translation adapted from that of E.W. Brooks in the Patrologia Orientals 14.1 (1920): 194-99. For educational uses only; please do not reproduce without permission.


Severus was bishop of Antioch who opposed the Christological decree of the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE), which declared the the person of Christ was "one person out of two natures," preserving the distinction between divinity and humanity in the incarnate person of Jesus Christ. Severus and his allies (often called "monophysites," means they emphasized the "single [composite] nature" of Christ) debated among themselves how best to conceive of the divine-human person. A former ally of Severus, named Julian, proposed that that divine nature infused Christ's human body to the extent that the flesh was itself incorruptible in the manner of human flesh. Severus found this position to be heretical, and called them "phantasiasts," and associated them with other heresies (such as Manicheans) who believed Christ's body was simply an illusion (docetists). This letter responses to a very specific query that emerges out of this debate about Christ's divined body as described in the New Testament.


And the other thing which you ask about is a question of the Phantasiasts, who uphold the opinions of the Manicheans. They think they are propounding and saying something against which it is impossible to argue: "If our Lord was circumcised according to the Law, 'when [as the gospel says] eight days were accomplished for circumcising him, and his name was called Jesus' (Luke 2:21), what then happened to the foreskin?" For those wretched men think that they are driving us into a corner, and do not understand that it would be an act of their own godless lack of intelligence for us to refuse to acknowledge things that are written on account of things that are not written.


It is not the gospel only which testifies through these words which have been cited that Christ was circumcised according to the Law, but Paul also, who, in writing to the Romans, says, "For I say that Christ became a minister of the circumcision on behalf of the truth of God, that he might confirm the promises made to the fathers" (Rom 15:8). For to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob our fathers both the covenant of circumcision was given and the promise was made, "In your seed shall all the rest of the nations be blessed" (Gen 22:18); now Christ was their seed. Therefore also in writing the letter to the Galatians he says, "But to Abraham were the promises made and to his seed; for he did not say 'and to seeds' as to many but, as to one, 'and to your seed,' which is Christ" (Gal 3:16).


In order to carry out the accomplishment of those promises therfore Christ came and really underwent circumcision of the flesh, and to carry out the dispensation that consists in this: for the whole principle of the dispensation is dispensation and service; and so he caught all the nations by faith in him and made them Abraham's sons. Since therefore the God-inspired Scripture says that he was circumcised in reality, who is he who presumes to say that the did not undergo circumcision? A thing which those who teach the fantasy seek to deny along with the other things! Because nothing was written about the portion of himself that was cut off (I refer to the foreskin) we will not as a consequence refrain from confessing that he was really circumcised. It was he who said, "For so it becomes us to fulfill all justice" (Matt 3:15), and was in everything made like us except in sin. Perhaps indeed some God-befitting miracle was performed with regard to the portion that was cut off, which Scripture left unknown to us; and for us to guess about unknown matters is a thing of great danger!


But what we certainly know is this: when he rose from the dead, he took that [piece] also, insofar as it is a piece of the whole body, an he preserved it with this without corruption according to ineffable methods which he understands. For we also shall receive our own body complete at the resurrection, not carrying the diminution caused by sores and other injuries, but whole and perfect. It is a good thing to ask the impious men who think that by such questions they frighten those who believe rightly, so as to reduce us not to acknowledge that our Lord suffered real sufferings in the body, what they themselves say about the blood which came out from the pure rib mixed with water. Did it reach the earth? For this also not explicitly stated by the holy Scriptures of the gospel.


But let them be frightened by the fear of loss; and it is consistent for them to say that the blood was poured out in semblance only, and did not flow in reality. But John, who became bishop of Constantinople and was a preacher of the true dispensation with all bold speech, in the homily entitled, "Concerning the cross and concerning the robber, and concerning the fact that we should frequently pray for our enemies," he was not frightened by fear of these impious men, but said that the blood dropped upon the earth and purified the whole of it, in as much as he wrote this: "But why is he slaughtered at the height of the true, and not under a roof? In order to purify the nature of the air, therefore it is done high up, without a roof above him, but heaven. For the air was purified by the sheep being sacrificed high up. But the earth also was purified; for the blood dropped from the rib upon it." So then, if by comparison with this the foreskin that was cut off touched the earth, it assuredly also sanctified it, and by methods which he himself understands who was voluntarily circumcised, he assuredly (as I said before) preserved it; and at the time of the Resurrection he rose with the whole body complete and without corruption, having this portion also undiminished, although he showed the scars of the nails and the lance; with which he will also appear to those who pierced him, according to the unerring words of the God-inspired Scripture (John 19:37).