Archive for the ‘Relics’ Category

Martyrdom of Polycarp

March 29, 2013

The work called “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” is a story of martyrdom that is itself more historical fiction than historical account. That is not to say that Polycarp was not martyred. Rather it is to say that many of the details of the story are not accurate.

In The Myth of Persecution, Dr. Candida Moss makes several interesting observations, but one that particularly struck home (pp. 103-04):

In a similar way, the author describes religious devotional practices that didn’t really take hold until the third century. At the conclusion of the piece, after Polycarp’s body is burned for a second time, the Christians steal the fragments of bone and ash that remain and deposit them in an appropriate place for safekeeping. This is not just a concern for proper burial; the author describes Polycarp’s remains as “more valuable than precious stones” and says that the remains were placed somewhere that Christians could gather to remember the saints and prepare themselves for their own martyrdom. The situation envisioned here is the veneration of relics.

… Apart from the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the practice of collecting and venerating the bodies of martyrs is completely unparalleled in the second century. Our next earliest references to relics are from the third century and are much less developed. They may not even be firm references to relics so much as references to the distribution of mementos. In contrast, the Martyrdom of Polycarp does not just refer to relics; it provides an explanation for why the church in Smyrna doesn’t have the whole body. That it was necessary to apologize for the absence of relics again presupposes a situation in which relic veneration was already booming. It’s difficult to imagine the need to offer this explanation, if the audience wasn’t expecting more, and it’s difficult to imagine that the audience would have expected more before the third century.

Dr. Moss has a full paper on the dating of “the Martyrdom of Polycarp,” which can be accessed for free (at this link). Ultimately, Dr. Moss concludes that the current version of the story was probably composed in the early third century.

For people looking for examples of the kinds of problems that readers of patristics face, I encourage people to check out Dr. Moss’ paper. The work should also help confirm our position on the reliability of the New Testament itself, which is not subject to the same textual transmission difficulties as the story of Polycarp’s end.

I think it is worth noting that Dr. Moss dates the work earlier than some of the scholars whose work she is addressing. That said, as Dr. Moss notes in the paper (p. 19): “To my knowledge, no scholar who has regarded MPol as a forgery has ever been convinced that the extant version was written in the middle of the second century.”

All the above dove-tails with a point I was noting to someone (in the comment box at GreenBaggins, if I’m not mistaken) that the cult of the dead was not part of the apostolic tradition and only arose later. Even by the time of Augustine in the 4th and 5th centuries, it was not so highly developed as it was in later centuries, such as under King Philip II of Spain (1527-98), who apparently housed 8,000 relics (and over 1,000 paintings) within his palace, el Escorial (see discussion here).



John the Baptist’s Bones?

June 16, 2012

A recent press report indicates that some human bones have been dated to the 1st century.  The bones were found in a bone box.   Oddly, the bone box also contained some animal bones, and these bones were about 400 years older than the human bones.  Who knows whose bones these are.

The article reports:

The human bones in the box included a knucklebone, a tooth, part of a cranium, a rib and an ulna, or arm bone. The researchers could only date the knucklebone, because radiocarbon dating relies on organic material, and only that bone had enough collagen for a good analysis. The researchers were able to reconstruct DNA sequences from three of the bones, however, showing them to be from the same person, likely a Middle Eastern man.

Thus, this is quite unlikely to be the bones of John the Baptist.

Mark 6:17-29

For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife: for he had married her. For John had said unto Herod, “It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife.”

Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not: for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.

And when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee; and when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, “Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee.” And he sware unto her, “Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom.”

And she went forth, and said unto her mother, “What shall I ask?”

And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.”

And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, “I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist.”

And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her. And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother.

And when his disciples heard of it, they came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb.

There are two important things to note here. First, his head was separated from the body. The head was given to Herodias, and the corpse was taken by John’s disciples. Second, notice that John’s disciples buried his body. They did not maintain his body as a relic, but placed it in a tomb.

Thus, while it’s not impossible that someone collected his head from Herodias, and then dug up his remains to keep them as relics, it seems unlikely.

The article goes on to point out the abundance of forged relics. A particularly amusing note comes from a relic of a different kind:

Even Joan of Arc has been the subject of forgery. A 2007 study found that alleged pieces of her body kept in a French church actually belonged to an Egyptian mummy.

It’s possible that this relic has a similar origin.


Biblical Evidence for the Veneration of Relics Ignored?

August 14, 2008

Previously, I discussed (and rebutted) the claim that the Scriptural discussion of the transport of Joseph’s bones from Egypt to Canaan was evidence of the veneration of relics in the Old Testament (link). Now, I turn to a second favorite passage that relic-venerators tend to appeal to, as allegedly supporting their position. That passage is the discussion of the resuscitation of a man who touched Elisha’s bones.

The Scripture in question is as follows:

2 Kings 13:20-21
20And Elisha died, and they buried him. And the bands of the Moabites invaded the land at the coming in of the year. 21And it came to pass, as they were burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band of men; and they cast the man into the sepulchre of Elisha: and when the man was let down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet.

The point of this passage would seem to be an indication of the extreme poverty of the prophet, as well as a testimony to the reality of his divine appointment as a prophet.

1) Note that they buried Elisha. They did not place his bones in a synagogue or in the temple to be venerated.

2) Note that they buried Elisha in a place of the dead. This is confirmed by the fact that men who were burying a man (who is so unimportant as not even to be named in Scripture) found Elisha’s sepulcher at hand. Thus, it appears that Elisha’s sepulcher was not in a place of great importance, but in a place of the dead.

3) Note that Elisha’s sepulchre was open. If it had been a closed sepulchre, it would not have been convenient to dump a body into it. An open sepulchre was an unpleasant and foul thing, even though it had an important purpose. In fact, the Psalmist uses it to provide a negative picture of the sinful man’s mouth:

Psalm 5:9 For there is no faithfulness in their mouth; their inward part is very wickedness; their throat is an open sepulchre; they flatter with their tongue.

Notice the comparison there. An open sepulchre, as you can see, has the advantage of not smelling so bad at the mouth of the sepulchre, but inside is death: a carcase. We can deduce that these open sepulchres were either deep (to accomplish this smell prevention issue), and consequently the prophet Jeremiah likens the quiver of mighty men to an open sepulchre:

Jeremiah 5:16 Their quiver is as an open sepulchre, they are all mighty men.

Or possibly the idea is that open sepulchres were in essence mass graves: which would also make sense both in the context of 2 Kings 13 and Jeremiah 5 (although I am inclined to the former view).

Some have suggested that an open sepulchre is basically a crevasse in the earth, a deep, naturally occurring pit into which a body could basically be dumped, thereby saving cost in terms of the time spent having to dig up the earth for burial. This would make sense as well – the idea being in Jeremiah 5 that the mighty men have a basically limitless supply of arrows.

4) The sepulchre was not a rock-face sepulchre, like that in which Jesus was buried. Recall that the man was not simply tossed or placed into the sepulchre, but lowered into the open sepulchre. This “lowered” suggests that the sepulchre opened upward rather than laterally. Again, this confirms that Elijah was not buried in some elaborate tomb designed to honor him, but rather in a low-cost alternative.

Analysis of Verse with Respect to Veneration Hypothesis

With the analysis above in mind, we should examine the verse in view of the hypothesis that it has something to do with venerating relics. Frankly, of course, there is no hint of veneration. Indeed, the idea of placing (even carefully) an apparently dead body on top of Elisha’s would seem to show the opposite of veneration for him (dead bodies were unclean).

One might argue that the knowledge that it was the place where Elisha was buried shows some amount of honor, but it is the sort of bare honor that demonstrates that Elisha was at least not buried in an unmarked grave (as contrasted, for example, with the Muslims’ practices).

Rather than being used specifically for the purposes of showing veneration, some might argue this as showing the supernatural effects associated with the corpses of holy men.

Leaving aside the issue of whether Elisha was particularly holy, it is interesting to note that the passage does not explicitly say that the man about to be buried was dead. It says he revived, which is ambiguous (both in the original Hebrew and in our English translation) as to whether the man came to life or simply recovered from a state of apparent death (presumably folks wouldn’t bury an apparently alive person).

Either way, it is reasonable to infer that one of the reasons for the mention of the revival was to highlight this as a sort of posthumous miracle of Elisha. It is a reasonable inference, but not a necessary one. Regardless of whether it is a correct inference, all that it demonstrates is that God chose to testify to Elisha’s gifts in this particular way at this particular time.

In other words, we would have no logical or proper ground to infer a general principle from this isolated and Scripturally unexplained occurrence. It certainly does not teach the veneration of relics, nor does it provide a rational basis for endorsing the superstitious legends that have sprung up around various relics, within churches that engage in relic veneration.

In short, we can reject the theory that 2 Kings 13:20-21 in any way supports relic veneration or the churches that practice such activity. You might think, based on the explanation above, that no one would attempt to use such a clearly unhelpful passage as 2 Kings 13:20-21, but – in fact – we see such happening in papist apologetics (Dave Armstrong, for example, falsely claims that “In the Old Law we read of the veneration of the Jews for the bones of Joseph (Exodus 13:19; Joshua 24:32), and of the prophet Eliseus [Elisha] ….” (quoting with approval from Bertrand Conway) link; See also Steve Ray relying on Joseph and Elisha, Ron aka “Saint under Construction” similarly relying on Joseph and Elisha, and this anonymous article that has received Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur which relies on Elisha while wisely omitting reference to Joseph)

May the God of the Living keep us from this,


Two Interesting Posts on Relics

May 21, 2008

Erik, the Irish Calvinist, and Dr. James White, of Alpha & Omega Ministries, both have interesting posts today on the topic of relics. Erik’s post (link) focuses on the continued trade in relics, while Dr. White’s post (link) provides some additional comments addressing the fact that this is superstitious nonsense.

While the articles focus on Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy has its fair share of relics as well. I’m told that the remains of the supposed saint “John of Shanghai and San Fransisco” are the only viewable Orthodox relics in the U.S. (in San Fransisco). Wikipedia provided the following photograph which purports to be a photograph of his partly decomposed corpse. (No venerating, please.)

Praise be to the God of the Living!


Armstrong vs. Aquinas – Classifying Reformed Christians

April 9, 2008

As recently noted by the “Shrine for the Holy Whapping,” a Catholic blog, Aquinas quoted with approval, the following (link to source):

“We believe that the bodies of the saints, above all the relics of the blessed martyrs, as being the members of Christ, should be venerated in all sincerity” and “If anyone holds a contrary opinion, he is not accounted a Christian, but a follower of Eunomius and Vigilantius.” (citing De Eccles. Dogm. xl)

Lay Catholic Dave Armstrong has asserted: “I would note that the official Catholic position is to acknowledge Protestants as Christian brothers, whereas many Protestant groups either are officially anti-Catholic or contain within themselves a strong legacy of anti-Catholicism which is then passed down almost unconsciously. ” (source)

Let me be clear: the body (in whole or in part) of no Christian whatsoever should receive religous veneration of any kind, whether alive or dead. Furthermore, religious veneration of corpses is open necromancy (in the broad definition of that word). Nevertheless, that does not mean that we cannot treat corpses with respect, or that we cannot hold funerals, etc. Thus, religious worship (such as Catholic veneration of relics) is to be distinguished from non-religious consideration. In view of these statements, it should be apparent that I hold a contrary position to that of Aquinas expressed above. According to Aquinas’ standard, I should not be accounted a Christian.

On the other hand, Armstrong broadly defines Christianity this way: “[A]nyone who is a trinitarian and who adheres to the Nicene Creed is (doctrinally) a Christian (that is basically the official Catholic position on other Christians)” (source – including all bracketed material).

So, now the question is this:

1. Is Aquinas out of touch with the Official Catholic Position?


2. Is Armstrong out of touch with the Official Catholic Position?


3. Has the Official Catholic Position changed? (If so, when and by whose authority?)


4. Are Aquinas and Armstrong somehow reconciliable? (If so, how?)


5. It doesn’t matter / no one can understand Catholic theology, except people who agree with me / some similar cop-out


6. Your views are not contrary to those of Aquinas.

That last option seems utterly implausible.

Option 5 is self defeating.

Option 4 doesn’t seem possible, but I’m open to attempted explanations.

Option 3 is my thought as to the best guess – with the Vatican II era being the place where the tide shifted in favor of people who think it is a species of necromancy to venerate the “relics of saints.”

Option 2 is presumably the answer that traditional Catholics, especially sedavacantists, would give.

Option 1 would take a great deal of gumption, but perhaps someone will try to make that claim.

NOTE: Although I enunciate very quickly the objection to veneration of alleged relics, this is not the post for that debate. This post is questioning whether modern Roman Catholicism (and/or Dave Armstrong) defines Christianity the way that Aquinas did.


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