After having written a series and reflection on icons and their development in Christian history I came to realise that one cannot really fully address it without some extended reference to relics. I was prompted to actually write something on this after seeing a thread by a Roman Catholic arguing for the practice based on a number of passages of scripture. You can view the thread itself below.

In short, the passages he mentioned are:

The definitive text, the individual in question states in the thread, is Acts 19:11–12 which details the healings that occur not just by the direct presence of the Apostles but articles of clothing they merely interacted with. I briefly touched on my own view on what one should do with these passages and indeed any miraculous account associated with an inanimate object in my concluding thoughts on the development of image worship in Christendom. I wrote…

Do I believe God works in relation to particular geography or objects? In a sense, but I believe this is not an inherent attribute of the object or geography in question. God heals in response to faith or in order to bring it about, Jesus did miracles his disciples could not and yet his refrain was a variation of “Go in peace, your faith has healed you” or “your sins have been forgiven”. It isn’t a one-way exchange and is dependant on God’s purposes. I cannot explain every account of every miracle and it is the nature of religious experience that there is an inherently contextualised and arguably subjective nature to it given it transcends so much of our ordinary experience. It’s an open question but one I think should not be forced either way.

Concluding thoughts on images in the Church

Notably in all the scriptural passages mentioned by apologists we see the use of artefacts or remains but not their worship, retention, or veneration. Elisha was still buried, Paul’s handkerchief was not worshipped and Paul himself was still alive at the time. As a result, I want to do a brief examination of the history of the Church’s relation to the remains and artefacts of significant figures in the faith, what are popularly understood to be relics today.

In my last series, I charted the development of image worship recognisably to the late 4th and early 5th century. It is my initial thought, at the outset, that the veneration and worship of relics begin to occur either slightly in advance of this, or alongside. We’ll see whether or not that is the case.

I will also endeavour to parse the difference between primary and secondary relics. Primary being the remains of individuals and Secondary being the items associated with them. This series will inevitably focus on the former of the two given it is recognised to be the more significant and I partially address the topic of the latter in my series on icons.

The Practice of Burial for the Underground Church

Ignatius of Antioch, 2nd Century

One of the earliest accounts of martyrdom we have is that of Ignatius of Antioch who died in 108AD. He actually outlines his request for his remains after his death in a letter to the Roman church.

I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless you hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep [in death], I may be no trouble to any one

The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans, Chapter 4. Allow me to fall a prey to the wild beasts

The surprising thing is that he seems rather indifferent to the fate of his remains after death. The degree to which he does display an opinion he wishes for nothing to be left behind. Whatever the means of his death he seems clearly expressing the desire for his body to be absent, ideally consumed in its entirety. It’s hard to imagine someone belonging to a church that practiced the collection and maintenance of relics as speaking in such a way.

What we do know about what subsequently happened with his remains is from a text apparently written by people who accompanied him which reports…

For only the harder portions of his holy remains were left, which were conveyed to Antioch and wrapped in linen, as an inestimable treasure left to the holy Church by the grace which was in the martyr.

The Martyrdom of Ignatius, Chapter 6. Ignatius is devoured by the beasts at Rome

The reference to the linen cloth was common practice at the time for the dead. Christ himself being wrapped in one and Tertullian elsewhere recounts the dream of an actress containing a linen cloth occurring shortly before her death. We hear from Jerome in the 4th or early 5th century that Ignatius’s remains were in-fact buried outside the city in the town cemetery.

When he had been condemned to the wild beasts and with zeal for martyrdom heard the lions roaring, he said I am the grain of Christ. I am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts that I may be found the bread of the world. He was put to death the eleventh year of Trajan and the remains of his body lie in Antioch outside the Daphnitic gate in the cemetery.

Jerome, On Illustrious Men, 16. Ignatius of Antioch

Together we can presume Ignatius was martyred, his remains wrapped in a burial cloth, transported back to Antioch, and buried outside the city in the cemetery. If we take everything as presented this seems remarkable given the conduct seems in no way to make sense if it was the custom to worship the remains of individuals like him by the church in this period.

Polycarp, 2nd Century

The next account worth considering is that of Polycarp who was martyred by being burnt to death by the Romans in the year 157AD. The account after his death reads…

We afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.

The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Chapter 18

At first glance this actually sounds much more like what we might expect when we hear of relic veneration with his bones being ‘more precious than the most exquisite jewels’. We hear his remains were placed in a fitting place, was this a reliquary? A grave? It could be either but without further input it seems prudent to assume the latter as the normative course when it comes to treatment of the dead given the precedent we have so far, from Ignatius, is that of burial.

What’s especially important to note is that this occurred in a time before Church buildings were common. The church gatherings of the time were in ‘house-churches’. Yet the commemorations of the deaths, or rather the ‘birthdays’ of martyred individuals, were celebrated amidst their graves. It’s important to note the given reason for the gathering, the martyrdom, is the cause given. The visiting of a grave on the anniversary of a loved one’s death is something many people still do today. Indeed, it was something many pagans did too during the 3rd century, as this funerary inscription from Mauretania reveals…

We all set out the furnishings suited to a worthy grave, And on the altar that marks the tomb of our mother, Secundula, It pleased us to place a stone tabletop, Where we could sit around, bringing to memory her many good deeds, As the food and the drinking cups were set out, and cushions piled around, So that the bitter wound that gnawed our hearts might be healed. And in this way we passed the evening hours in pleasant talk, And in the praise of our good mother. The old lady sleeps: she who fed us all Lies silent now, and sober as ever.

The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity by Peter Brown, Chapter 2: A Fine and Private Place

This quotation also highlights the fact that normally the family managed and tended to the grave of relatives. Yet we can see a tension in the description of Polycarp’s burial in that it is the church who seems to do this. The family and the church, of course, are not mutually exclusive but this interplay will go on to have an increased role in successive centuries.

As a final point, before we move on, it’s worth stressing that no mention exists here of the remains themselves bestowing any material benefit upon the votaries. Nor that the relics themselves play a central role in the commemoration of the martyr at this point.

Excerpts from the Epistles of Dionysius the Great, 3rd Century

The next reference worth considering is the descriptions given to the treatment of the martyrs remains from a series of letters we get circa 260AD which reads…

And of Eusebius I speak as one whom the Lord strengthened from the beginning, and qualified for the task of discharging energetically the services due to the confessors who are in prison, and of executing the perilous office of dressing out and burying the bodies of those perfected and blessed martyrs.

Epistles of Dionysius the Great, Epistle 1. To Domitius and Didymus

Which plainly describes the dressing out and burial of those martyred by the Romans. We see a similar statement in a later epistle which describes the experience of the Church in burying its dead in the wake of a plague that struck the empire.

And they took the bodies of the saints on their upturned hands, and on their bosoms, and closed their eyes, and shut their mouths. And carrying them in company, and laying them out decently, they clung to them, and embraced them, and prepared them duly with washing and with attire. And then in a little while after they had the same services done for themselves, as those who survived were ever following those who departed before them. But among the heathen all was the very reverse. For they thrust aside any who began to be sick, and kept aloof even from their dearest friends, and cast the sufferers out upon the public roads half dead, and left them unburied, and treated them with utter contempt when they died, steadily avoiding any kind of communication and intercourse with death; which, however, it was not easy for them altogether to escape, in spite of the many precautions they employed.

Epistles of Dionysius the Great, Epistle 12. To the Alexandrians

Which shows the contrast between the Church and the Pagans in their treatment of the dead at times of crisis. The bodies of Christians, whether the result of martyrdom or sickness, were dressed, treated with respect, and buried. This in contrast to the pagan dead who were largely left exposed during the plague.

An example of a Martyr burial during this time

Before moving on its worth asking what exactly did the burial of a martyr look like? Was it in a reliquary? How was the burial done? The account of one grave belonging to the martyr Hyacinth and a number of others who died between the years 257-9 in Rome reads…

In 1845 Father Marchi discovered the still undisturbed grave of St. Hyacinth in a crypt of the above- mentioned catacomb. It was a small square niche in which lay the ashes and pieces of burned bone wrapped in the remains of costly stuffs (Marchi, “Monumenti primitivi: I, Architettura della Roma sotterranea cristina”, Rome, 1844, 238 sqq., 264 sqq.). Evidently the saint had been burnt; most probably both martyrs had suffered death by fire.

Catholic Encylopedia, Sts. Protus & Hyacinth

For those who have visited the catacombs, or knows anything of them, this description reflects many of the burials in such places. It describes a burial that whilst respectful was not one designed for the purpose of display or suited to expose the remains in any way during the commemoration. The description of the remains themselves sounds very much like the burials of Ignatius and Polycarp.

The linked article also describes the later removal of remains surrounding the then undiscovered grave in the 9th century for the purposes of placing them in churches. This being indicative of the latter attitude and policy at work concerning the remains of the martyrs once the cult and veneration of saints was firmly established.

Anthony of Egypt, 4th century

A later example of how Christians approached their treatment of the dead can also be found in the death of Anthony of Egypt recorded by his student Athanasius the Great circa 360AD. Here Athanasius describes how Anthony did not want to die in Egypt precisely because of the Egyptian practice of not burying their dead…

But when the brethren were urging him to abide with them and there to die, he suffered it not for many other reasons, as he showed by keeping silence, and especially for this:— The Egyptians are wont to honour with funeral rites, and to wrap in linen cloths at death the bodies of good men, and especially of the holy martyrs; and not to bury them underground, but to place them on couches, and to keep them in their houses, thinking in this to honour the departed. And Antony often urged the bishops to give commandment to the people on this matter. In like manner he taught the laity and reproved the women, saying, ‘that this thing was neither lawful nor holy at all. For the bodies of the patriarchs and prophets are until now preserved in tombs, and the very body of the Lord was laid in a tomb, and a stone was laid upon it, and hid it until He rose on the third day.’ And thus saying, he showed that he who did not bury the bodies of the dead after death transgressed the law, even though they were sacred. For what is greater or more sacred than the body of the Lord? Many therefore having heard, henceforth buried the dead underground, and gave thanks to the Lord that they had been taught rightly.

Athansius the Great, Life of Anthony, paragraph 90

Anthony in his advice to his brethern implores them to bury him by pointing to the precedent given in scripture for the dead, including Christ himself before the resurrection, to be buried in tombs. This is presented in contrast to the practice of other Egyptians who despite being Christians (we can presume) took the bodies of good men and martyrs and didn’t bury them but placed them on display in their households (where church gatherings had historically taken place) for the sake of according them honour. Anthony described this practice as ‘neither lawful nor holy at all’. This indicates that the normative orthodox practice, at least between the burials of Ignatius and Anthony was underground and not subject to leaving them above ground as honorary household members. This also, presumably, excluded any use or display of their remains in a liturgical context. Yet we can see already this wasn’t a universal practice by virtue of Anthony’s cause for protestation.

When Anthony did die he was buried. We read of the account several paragraphs later…

Having said this, when they had kissed him, he lifted up his feet, and as though he saw friends coming to him and was glad because of them – for as he lay his countenance appeared joyful – he died and was gathered to the fathers. And they afterward, according to his commandment, wrapped him up and buried him, hiding his body underground. And no one knows to this day where it was buried, save those two only. But each of those who received the sheepskin of the blessed Antony and the garment worn by him guards it as a precious treasure. For even to look on them is as it were to behold Antony; and he who is clothed in them seems with joy to bear his admonitions.

Athansius the Great, Life of Anthony, paragraph 92

The fact that he was buried in an anonymous location only stressed the conduct of the Egyptian culture, and perhaps beyond, at the time of his death.

The other thing worth noting is the sheepskin entrusted to his attendants. Could this be an example of secondary relic? We hear nothing of its miraculous power but it was clear Christians prized those objects associated with those they considered beloved.


It is worth noting that the earliest noted request for the transfer of a persons remains for use as relics actually predated Anthony’s death. In 354AD Emperor Constantius Gallus ordered the transfer of the remains of the Martyr and Bishop Babylas of Antioch to purify a new church built on the site of a Pagan temple (what Byzantine historian Ernst Kitzinger called apotropaia in his text The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm). A couple of decades after Anthony’s death, we also start to see the more widespread requests for the remains of the dead to be transferred. Basil the Great in 373AD wrote to a peer ”If you send the relics of the martyrs home you will do well” (Letter 155). It is during this period that we can say the cult of the saints really starts to begin in earnest.

The Church, whilst it normally met in homes for much of this period before the onset of the 4th century also began to visit the burial sites of those important to the Church community. This was done on the anniversary of their deaths to commemorate them and take courage from their steadfast conduct. These were overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, the Martyrs.

The burial and commemoration of the dead explored in this entry raise a number of questions which I will explore in the next subsequent posts in this series:

  • What made the Martyrs so significant to church communities?
  • How did the Saints more broadly come to be seen as ongoing spiritual aides and guides to Christians after death?
  • How did this all change once Christianity was no longer so fiercely persecuted in the 4th century?

I will close this entry by saying that it is my view that the practice of relic worship, particularly that of the remains of men and women, comes across as something foreign to the minds of the earliest Christians. The later practice of exhuming remains seems to speak directly against the explicit desires of men like Ignatius of Antioch or Anthony of Egypt and the conduct of the church of earlier centuries. Those who made requests for their remains wished for them to become no feature of the life of the church. In the examples available this meant for them either to be consumed by the beasts that killed them or quietly buried. Whilst we see value ascribed to them, this is because of their confession and witness, we see no reference to adoration or worship of the remains themselves.

The dramatic shift in behaviour during the 4th century speaks to a qualitative change to the church’s relationship with it’s dead. It also speaks to the dramatic change concerning its relationship with broader Roman society. In the words of one historian…

Alongside the new relationship with the state, new patterns and habits of worship developed, which it is possible to sum up simply by saying that in this period Christianity became a religion. The Middle Eastern world in which Jesus and his first followers lived had a clear and distinct concept of “religion”: the temple cults in which ritual specialists, the priests, represented the people and sought divine favour through sacrifice. In its origin Christianity was a radical revivalist cult that rejected most of these things. By the end of the fourth century they were back again: holy buildings, priestly rituals, the language of sacrifice and mystery. A priest of Baal or of Isis or of Yahweh would certainly have recognized what kind of thing the Christianity of the late fourth century was. It was as part of this immense transformation that the cult of the saints came into new prominence and assumed new forms.

Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?: Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation. The Religious Revolution of the 4th Century, Page 7

In future entries, I’ll try and explore what shape these new forms took.

4 thoughts on “Christianity and Relics. Part One: Burial and the Dead

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