How Early Were Relics Venerated?

Martyrdom of Sts Chrysanthus & Daria
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Two skeletons attributed to two married martyrs from the third century could be authentic, say researchers taking part in a new National Geographic Society documentary.

“All of the evidence we have gathered points toward the relics having belonged to Chrysanthus and Daria,” said investigation leader Ezio Fulcheri of the University of Genoa. “This has been a very rare opportunity to be able to study bones and other relics that relate directly back to a legend that has been passed on for almost 2,000 years. The completeness of the skeletons is also rare for martyrs of this era, implying that these relics were protected and venerated in their entirety at a very early point in history.”

The remains of the saints, martyred around 283 A.D. for spreading Christianity, are said to have been interred in the crypt of the cathedral in the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia since the 10th century.

via National Geographic documentary examines relics of third-century saints :: Catholic News Agency (CNA).

Pretty interesting, if I do say so myself. How early, then, can we assume relics were venerated?

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6 Replies to “How Early Were Relics Venerated?”

  1. Very early.

    From the account of the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp (martyred in 165; written, apparently, by an eyewitness):

    “Accordingly, 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.” (ch. 8)

    This is from the account of the Martyrdom of St. Ignatius (martyred 107; possibly written by an eyewitness as well):

    “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.”

    I would dare say that the veneration of relics extends even to the first century, as the practice seems, from these references and others, to have been a very firmly established one. Of course this makes sense given the mystical/sacramental worldview of early Christians.

    1. David, I wonder if veneration could be traced some how into Judaism? I note the Maccabean books and their beginnings of praying for the dead

      1. I think that’s a very good possibility. I haven’t done much research in this area so most of this is conjecture but: I would assume that Judaism contributed to the early Christian veneration of relics if not in actual practice at least in the foundational ideas that such veneration involves, such as a belief in the sanctity of the human body and, obviously, a belief in the resurrection of the body. Both of these were intensified in early Christianity — the former by the belief that Jesus Christ is God become man (thereby further redeeming and sanctifying humanity; see, for instance, St. Irenaeus on recapitulation) and the latter by Christ’s Resurrection, which was the defeat of death and the assurance of the general resurrection (in other words, the assurance that one is permanently and intimately to their physical body).

        As for whether the actual practice derived from Judaism, I don’t know. I know that Jews today have shrines that stand on the tombs of prophets and other important figures of Jewish history; how ancient this practice is and whether or not they actually venerate the bodies I’m not sure of, though. It certainly would make sense in a Jewish worldview, I think, for such veneration to be present.

        1. It might be an interesting comparison to examine the tombs of the David, Rebekah, etc… which while not relics, were venerated in such a way as to be holy. Even today, we find evidence of that. The only difference, then, maybe the veneration of bones instead of places, which is a symbol of the Christian acceptance of the Resurrection and the ending of the laws regarding ritual cleansing.

          1. Very good observation there. I hadn’t thought of the way that laws regarding ritual cleanliness would have had an effect on the Jewish practice or non-practice of veneration.

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