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