Athanasius on the cult of the martyrs

Skimming through the Coptic letters of Athanasius in my last post but one, I came across this interesting letter (letter 41, p.41f.) from 369 AD discussing the habit of digging up the bodies of the martyrs to create cult objects.  Considering that the Coptic church was to do a lot of this, Athanasius’ remarks are interesting.  (I have translated the French of Lefort).

In fact they [the Meletians] don’t leave the bodies of the martyrs, who fought nobly, in the earth, but they have begun to place them on beds and trestles, so that any who wish to do so may contemplate them.  They do this ostensibly to honour the martyrs, but in reality it is an insult; and they do it for despicable purposes.  Although they possess no body of a martyr in their own town, and not knowing what a martyr is, they have plotted to steal their bodies and remove them from the cemetaries to catholic churches.  In fact, when the reproach of having denied … [some kind of typo here].  They beg the bodies of the martyrs and confessors from those who come to bury them, they move them so that, even with their bodies, they have the means to deceive those whom they mislead.  But “error is not the part of Israel” and our Fathers have not handed down such a custom; on the contrary, they consider that such a practice is illegitimate.

Superstition, it seems, is a powerful force in the 4th century, after the legalisation of Christianity.  It is telling that Athanasius believes that the Fathers condemned such practices.


8 thoughts on “Athanasius on the cult of the martyrs

  1. I don’t know about that — to me it sounds more like “Athanasius on the Meletians’ Rotten Practice of Stealing the Relics of Saints To Validate their Schism and Deceive the Weaker Brethren.”

  2. And now for something completely different:

    Roger, I sent an email your way a while ago, about publicizing “Eusebius of Caesarea – Gospel Problems and Solutions” and using it in a video-lecture, but didn’t get a reply. I promoted it in the video anyway, though, without strictly quoting from it. (The translation of “Ad Marinum” I use in the video-lecture is the result of reading your preview-pages, Kelhoffer’s rendering, and Burgon’s rendering, plus my own attempt at translating the text.)

    Anyway, it’s on YouTube:
    “Mark 16:9-20 & the Abrupt Ending – Part Three.”

    Please let me know if this is okay or not okay.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

  3. Thanks, Roger. It is very interesting.
    I don’t understand from Saint Athanasius’ writing that he is talking about “the habit of digging up the bodies of the martyrs to create cult objects.” I think he is condemning a habit of the Meletians’ by which, as he says, rather than burying the bodies of martyrs and confessors in earth they used to “place them on beds and trestles, so that any who wish to do so may contemplate them.” This is not about digging up bodies that have already been buried a long time but about not burying freshly dead bodies. The Meletians, Saint Athanasius says, “beg the bodies of the martyrs and confessors from those who come to bury them,” and most probably his statement that the Meletians “plotted to steal their bodies (of martyrs and confessors) and remove them from the cemeteries [of][1] catholic[2] churches” means stealing dead bodies of martyrs soon after they had been buried in tombs in order to display them.

    The Coptic tradition since Saint Mark’s days has been to bury the bodies of martyrs, and this is what Saint Athanasius seems to defend. Often the tombs of these martyrs would become destinations of pilgrimage and a martyrium is usually built on the spot on one. This is what had happened with the bodies of, e.g., saints Mark the Evangelist (in Alexandria) and Ptolemy (in Middle Egypt). Even the fresh remains of a martyr, such as those left of the martyr’s body after much has been consumed by fire or eaten by beasts, are buried. The same has happened with other saints, such as Coptic patriarchs and ascetics, who are often buried in burial vaults with others rather than in individual tombs in the earth.

    Copts has the habit of collecting old remains of martyrs, ascetics and patriarchs whom they consider saints – and such relics can be found all over Egypt in its churches and monasteries. The relics, mostly small pieces of bones, are kept within a casket covered with fine fabric and put on a stand outside the sanctuary, in the choir or nave of the church. Occasionally a naturally preserved body of a martyr is found and then the mummified body is displayed in transparent caskets, usually dressed up but not completely covered, at churches and monasteries with the intention of reminding the faithful of the sufferings of the martyr and to strengthen the faith of current Copts who live in a still hostile world. The finding of the bodies of such martyrs is often a matter of chance such as the recent finding of the bodies of the Martyrs of Akhmim (who were massacred during the persecution of Diocletian in the 4th Century) and the body of the neo-martyr, Saint Sidhom Bishai who was martyred at Damietta in 1845 during the reign of Muhammad Ali. The commonest way of finding such bodies is when new structural changes are being made to churches and monasteries and workers dig up some remains, often in a very much preserved state as has been the case in the cited examples.

    In conclusion, I think Saint Athanasius condemns the Meletian habit of not burying the bodies of recently dead martyrs and confessors and, in place, displaying them to their followers. This is different from the Coptic (and I must say also Roman Catholic) tradition of collecting and honouring relics and mummified bodies of saints who had been buried for a long time. The relics are believed to possess some miraculous power and the preserved bodies of saints are taken as prove of their sainthood.

    I write this without getting involved in discussion about the morality or not of such practices.

    [1] I have changed your “to” to “of” as I think it is a typo.
    [2] By “catholic” of course is not meant the Roman Catholic Church; however, it does not exclude it.

  4. Hi Dioscorus,

    The example that comes to mind immediately here is that of Peter I which is described in a number of different versions of his martyrdom (Greek, Latin, Arabic etc.). There is a reference near the end of each narrative where the members of the St Mark’s church in the Boucolia fight over the body with what end up being the members of the Orthodox Church in the main city of Alexandria (the church was just outside the walls of the city). Those who steal away his body ultimately bury it far away from the eastern shores of Alexandria. Scholars often call into question the reliability of the Acts of Peter of Alexandria because the earliest texts that have come down to us are from the fifth century. I think Athanasius’s testimony seems to imply the ‘natives’ who fight the Orthodox to retain the body are Meletians. Meletians, the followers of Meletius of Lycopolis are mentioned in various ways in the tradition. Indeed in the Latin text I believe the name of one of the centurions who arrests Peter is ‘Meletius.’ Meletius also sat on the throne of St. Mark before Peter came back from fleeing the persecutions.

  5. Thanks, Stephan. The Meletians are very interesting group. They were regarded as you know as schismatic sect and a bit extreme but not heretics until later on we are told they joined forces with the Arians. Many theories have been advanced about them perhaps a reflection of how little we know of them. Perhaps the best person who wrote about them is C. Wilfred Griggs in his “Early Egyptian Christianity: from its origins to 451 C.E.” I think in his book he suggested that the Meletians might have represented the “native” Christians v. the Greek Christians thought to have been represented by Peter and Athanasius, the Bishops of Alexandria. I don’t think there is any evidence to this theory. The natives stood with the official representatives of the Church and the Meletians were rejected with the majority of the native Egyptians, particularly by their monastic establishment.

  6. This happens today in the “Christian” Church of The West (Catholic) and of The East (Orthodox), making money with exposing body parts of the so-called martyrs, in Romania for example there is a flourishing business of the Church with “saints” bodies and body parts…abominable…

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