Early Christianity: A Growing Fondness for Bones

16 Dec

My early Christianity reading has, to date, taken me nearly a year just to work through the fourth century – and not all of the fourth century at that, just from about 314. There’s more from the fourth that I want to go through at some point, in particular the Cappadocians and, for example, how John Chrysostom’s rhetorical training in Libanius’ school found use in his religious writings/orations/sermons. But it’s time to move back a bit earlier.

I mentioned when I first began that when reading I generally start from a period I’m familiar with and then work backwards chronologically, with the thought that I have a decent handle on the later period and can look at how earlier developments impacted what I’m familiar with. I’m going to deviate from that for a while. Since I’m relatively unfamiliar with all of the development of Christianity prior to the early 4th century, I’m going to go back to the beginning. I’ve just finished reading the New Testament with a more critical eye than I’ve done before by using an annotated bible. If you check my current reading list on the sidebar of this blog you’ll also see that I’m reading books concerned with the first and second centuries.

Before I get to this, I want to post about an interesting change between very Early Christianity and Early Christianity, from a religion focused almost exclusively on the soul as the seat of holiness, to one which imbues physical, tangible items with spiritual powers. In particular, I want to talk about relic-centered reverence.

At some point during the reign of Trajan, Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, was arrested and taken to Rome where he was executed, becoming one of the earliest Christian martyrs. During this trip he wrote several letters. These letters are a very important source for the early Church. Among other things it contains one of the earliest references to the Eucharist as a formalized Christian ritual. 1 However what I want to discuss is what this may reveal about a change in Christian relic-reverence.

Icon of Ignatius of Antioch, being eaten by Lions. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a lot in these seven letters. One of the most compelling themes is that he repeatedly implored with Christians not to save him, that he wanted to die for Christ. He was an elderly man and appears to believe that he could be saved from death if others interceded, However one of the most interesting items for me is in his Letter to the Romans where he asks that his body not be preserved. 2

I write to all the Churches, and signify to them all, that I am willing to die for God, unless you hinder me. I beseech you that ye show not an unreasonable good-will toward me. Suffer me to be the food of wild beasts, by which I may attain unto God. I am the wheat of God: and by the teeth of wild beasts I shall be ground, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather encourage the wild beasts, that they may become my sepulchre, and may leave nothing of my body; that when I sleep I may be burdensome to no one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body. 3

Those familiar with this blog will know that I’m very interested in Hagiography. Martyr accounts are an obvious precursor to Saints’ Lives or Vitae. Reverence for relics and a belief in the miraculous powers of, not just the physical remains of a saint but pretty much anything associated with him or her are a prominent theme throughout the Medieval Period.

Not for Ignatius. He believes that his body should disappear, nothing physical should remain. This will allow him to become a being of pure spirit. As his flesh is eaten by the beasts of the Roman arena it will become equivalent with the bread of the Eucharist, “the pure bread of Christ.” He will be in communion with God.

At some point this changed, possibly not in the very distant future, from Ignatius’ perspective. It certainly had changed by the fourth century, as evidenced by Eusebius. The Martyrdom of Polycarp (died c. 155) displays a reverence for his remains to such an extent that the Devil, “… did his utmost that not the least memorial of him [Polycarp] should be taken away by us, though many desired to do this and become possessors of his holy flesh.” And, “Accordingly, we afterwards took up his [Polycarp’s] bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold …” 4 These quotes have been among those used to support arguments that The Martyrdom of Polycarp, while likely having been originally written by an eyewitness, was probably redacted later by someone with a different perspective on the value of physical remains.

Engraving of Polycarp from about 1685 by Michael Burghers. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

In essence, between the early second century and the early fourth, the Church had changed from what I view as a very spiritual organization which did not place much value on things to one which determined that items and places could be considered sacred. Ignatius does not stand alone. There is little (I’d say nothing but I can’t swear to this) in the New Testament which places mystical value on relics. Christ’s body was tended to as would be expected for any respected Jewish man’s. Beyond grief, there is nothing remarkable about the burial of the first martyr, Stephen. 5

I can heartily recommend Kim Bowes, Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity for a discussion of this change with regard to places. I hope – and expect – that as I read more on 1st-3rd century Christianity that I’ll learn more about how this evolution occurred with regards to the relics of the Saints. I suspect I’ll find that it had something to do with Christianity becoming a mainstream religion and therefore adopting Roman attitudes to items such as monuments, temples as sacred places, etc, in order to both recruit and reflect the values of its new members. But finding out exactly how this took place (or at least how historians believe it may have taken place) will be very interesting.

1 See Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians, XX. Ignatius is believed to have been martyred between 108 and 117.

2 For a more extensive discussion of this see Castelli (2004), pp 78-85.

3 Ignatius, Epistle to the Romans IV. You can find several translations online at the Early Christian Writing site.

4 The Martyrdom of Polycarp XVII and XVIII, respectively. These quotes are from Roberts and Donaldson, eds., (2004), pp 42-43.

5 See Acts VIII.2

Castelli, Elizabeth, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making, New York: Columbia University Press (2004). ISBN: 978-0-231-12987-9.

Chevallier, Temple, trans., Standard Works Adapted to the Use of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. Volume IV. A Translation of the Epistles of Clement of Rome, Polycarp, and Ignatius, and of the First Apology of Justin Martyr: With an Introduction and Brief Notes Illustrative of the Ecclesiastical History of the First Two Centuries, New York: New York Protestant Episcopal Press (1834). ISBN (Kessinger Publishing Reprint): 978-1-432-67787-9.

Coogan, Michael D., ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Edition With the Apocrypha, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010). ISBN: 9-780-195-28955-8.

Kleist, James A., trans., The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, The Fragments of Papias, The Epistle to Diognetus, Ancient Christian Writers Number 6, New York: Newman Press (1948). ISBN:0-8091-0247-1.

Leemans, Johan,, ‘Let Us Die That We May Live: Greek Homilies on Christian Martyrs from Asia Minor, Palestine and Syria (c. AD 350-AD 450). London: Routledge (2003). ISBN: 9-780-415-24042-0.

Moss, Candida R., The Other Christs: Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of Martyrdom. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010). ISBN: 978-0-19-991438-8.

Moss, Candida R., Ancient Christian Martyrdom: Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions, New Haven: Yale University Press (2012). ISBN: 978-0-300-15465-8.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.


Posted by on December 16, 2012 in Religion


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10 responses to “Early Christianity: A Growing Fondness for Bones

  1. Michelle Ziegler

    December 16, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    I wonder if relics of martyrs become more important as the numbers of martyrs decreases.

    Also, remember that that first generation expected the end of times in their own lifetime, so relics are less important if you expect the second coming at any time. Once it becomes apparent that the end of times is not coming within the first generation or so, there has to be a shift in thinking.

    Besides its unlikely that the disciples and first Christians revered the apostles and Stephan in the same way we do simply because they knew them personally (and they knew Jesus as a mortal who would have made them all pale in comparison). You might love and treasure a person and think they led a holy or inspired life, but it would be different than veneration that existed before you were born.

    • Curt Emanuel

      December 17, 2012 at 7:58 pm

      Thanks Michelle.

      The first point is possible but Saints (which IMO were a martyr replacement) became numerous pretty quickly, to the point where a Church couldn’t be consecrated without a Saint’s relic on site. Still, by the time relic translation started there were far fewer martyrs so martyrs like Babylas may have become more precious. By the 6th century it seems to have been the reverse – there were so many saints that to be without one was almost a mark of shame.

      The other two points are harder for me to assess. Apocalyptic thinking hung around for quite a while though I suppose it began to lose its flavor for the rank and file after a bit and I’m not sure how relics would have influenced that. I think it as likely that if you thought the world might end any minute that you’d want to surround yourself with as much holiness as possible. For the disciples and Stephen I think it more likely that they didn’t have regard for relics because it never would have occurred to them. It wasn’t part of their culture and the Gospels and Paul spent a lot of time talking about how the body wasn’t important. They weren’t going to worry about a bunch of bones and it would likely have repulsed many of the people they were trying to recruit.

      Though my putting forward any kind of theory is very premature. I have a bunch of reading to do.

  2. Joan Vilaseca

    December 17, 2012 at 4:00 am

    I like to look at christianity from a wider prespective. In the case of the relics, or the veneration or not of physical objects you are commenting, my opinion is that probably both traditions existed before and were adapted in the evolution of ‘cristian’ traditions. So maybe there was not a turning point between 2-4Cth, but the local prevalence of one of the tendences over the other?

    • Curt Emanuel

      December 17, 2012 at 7:46 pm

      Thanks Joan,

      I’m not aware of any widespread traditions. It certainly wasn’t the case in mainstream Roman society which considered Human remains unhealthy and avoided them, placing cemeteries outside the city walls and locating shrines to honor them in their homes. Other than on certain festivals, they avoided the dead. One of the prevalent criticisms against Christians by Pagans was that they chose to live among the dead (a bit misguided as Christians didn’t generally live near cemeteries, except for religious orders but they did build churches and worship around burial sites). Julian and, IIRC, Libanius had some rather pointed things to say about it.

      Judaism was a bit different as there are a couple of Old Testament miracle stories associated with relics but this was pretty rare and I’m unaware of any widespread belief in the miraculous powers of Human remains. So I guess I’m not aware of the prior existence of these traditions.

      A theory I’ve seen is that Christians followed the Jewish practice of saving the bones of the dead once the bodies had decomposed and storing them in catacombs and as they often worshiped in these places they came to develop a fondness for them. I tend to not believe it as oppression against Christians was never particularly widespread as to force this type of worship for extended periods of time but I need to read more before I discount it completely.

      That’s not to say that the formative years of Christianity should be separated from its precursors. There are plenty of children born of a God and a woman in Roman mythology before Christ and issues such as Christ resembling other proposed messianic prophets or how Christ’s life seems very similar to that of the Essene “Teacher of Righteousness” have to be considered. I’m just not aware of anything regarding relics that fits.

  3. jpg

    December 18, 2012 at 10:27 am

    The conventional key scriptural reference points for the cult of relics are the accounts of the prophet Elisha, whose body wrought miracles in death: see 2 Kings 13:21, and Sirach 48:15. You’re right that there’s nothing quite the same in the NT — the closest you get I believe are the references in Acts to miracles brought about by contact with items owned by the apostles.

    • Curt Emanuel

      December 18, 2012 at 11:11 am

      Yes – and there’s the Gospel story of someone being healed by touching the hem of Christ’s cloak – of course it was attached to him at the time. The fact that Jews considered contact with a dead body to be a source of impurity such that normal ritual cleansings wouldn’t result in purification is a pretty strong indicator that this sort of tradition for relics – at least where the relics were Human remains – didn’t exist in the 1st century. One of the factors in its becoming a major aspect of Early Christianity pretty much had to be when they reached the conclusion that they wouldn’t be accepted into mainstream Judaism. Or at least it would have been the removal of a major obstacle.

      But even that’s just a step. Once the obstacle was removed attitudes would still need to change. I’ll be interested to read more and find out if there’s any real evidence for how this came about. There may not be which will leave us with reasoned conjecture.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • Joan Vilaseca

        December 19, 2012 at 4:09 am

        Maybe the point is just that. ‘Saints’ (kings, gods, chamans, or any source of power, antiquity, prestige, etc) are not ‘Human’, that’s why ‘normal’ bones are impure but ‘holy’ one have never been (not only judeo-christian, think egyptian for example). The culte of the death is almost universal and predates any other historic cultural trait (ex: prehistoric ritual burials), the culte of relics it’s just a christian adaptation, not an essential innovation).

  4. Wesley Rose

    December 24, 2012 at 1:35 am

    I am always pleased to know of another interested in Christian History. It has such depth that a lifetime of study seems hardly enough. Indeed, as I beagn my studies it took only a few weeks to realize how little I knew. The journey I embarked upon was both daunting and somehow wonderfully appealing. It was like peering through one window of a giant shyskraper. I look forward to reading more and hope your interest only grows.

    • Curt Emanuel

      December 24, 2012 at 10:18 am

      Thanks for your comment. For me, there would be no way for me to really learn about it, completely. There’s so much there, though this is common of many aspects of history. I doubt I’ll remain completely focused on Christianity however when looking at any Medieval sub-period it’s impossible to ignore. The societal impacts are too integral.

      It does grab me though. When I decided to set other things aside and really concentrate on Christianity my primary objective was to gain a more complete perspective regarding the influence of classical Philosophy on early Christian thought (looking at, roughly, Origen/Neoplatonism through Augustine) and what this says about Late Antique Roman/classical continuity into the Medieval Period. But each time I start reading on an aspect of Christianity I want to dive into it. Much of this has been an exercise in self-restraint and even so, rather than an 8-12 month detour I suspect I’ll have two years invested before returning to 4th-7th century Western Europe.


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