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.