The veneration of holy relics has been an important part of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox worship for many centuries now.
The term “relic” derives from a Latin word meaning “remains,” or “something left behind.” A relic can be a portion of the body of a saint (part or all of a skull, tibia, femur or finger bone, for example), or something from a saint’s personal effects (say, a prayerbook, cane, or article of clothing).
But the desire for such tangible links to holiness and the divine extends far beyond Christianity: Buddhists revere teeth and bones from the Buddha. The Topkapi Palace museum in Istanbul preserves the mantle of the Prophet Muhammad (about which an enormously popular Arabic poem was written in the 13th century), his sword and hairs from his beard, as well as Abraham’s pot, the patriarch Joseph’s turban, Moses’ staff and King David’s sword.
Within Christendom, advocates of relic veneration point to biblical precedents. In 2 Kings 13:20-21, for instance, a dead man is restored to life when, during his burial, his body brushes against the bones of the deceased prophet Elisha. In Mark 5:25-34, a woman is miraculously healed by simply touching the hem of Jesus’ robe. And, in Acts 19:11-12, as soon as sufferers come into contact with “handkerchiefs or aprons” touched by the apostle Paul, “the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them.”
These advocates are quick to point out that relics as such contain no intrinsic power. They’re not magical. For the faithful, though, relics are reminders or vehicles of divine grace — rather like the icons or images that are so plentiful and so treasured in Eastern Christendom. Thus, consecrated altars in Catholic churches everywhere always either contain a relic or have a relic closely positioned nearby. (Not every altar in a Catholic church is consecrated as such.)
Roman authorities during the first centuries after Jesus Christ would typically have regarded Christian martyrs simply as criminals, meaning that their bodies deserved no honorable burial. The corpses would have been burned, and their ashes dumped without ceremony in the nearest river.
Sometimes, however, devout early Christians plainly prevented such disposal of the bodies of their leaders and martyrs — perhaps by theft or through bribes. When the apostle Paul was beheaded at Rome, for instance, his body was buried in a cemetery along the road running from Rome to the port of Ostia. Today, the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls marks that traditional location. And, of course, St. Peter’s Basilica, the most important church of Catholic Christendom, stands atop the likely tomb of the apostle Peter on Vatican Hill, near the site of the arena where tradition says that he was martyred.
An anonymous letter from the middle of the second century may contain the earliest explicit mention of Christians rescuing the remains of a martyr. During the anti-Christian persecutions under Emperor Marcus Aurelius, St. Polycarp, the aged bishop of Smyrna (modern-day Izmir, Turkey), was burned at the stake — and devout local Christians were quickly on the scene. “We took up his bones,” the letter says, “which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.”
The nature of relics can vary widely, as can, of course, their authenticity. The universal economic law of supply and demand operates here, as everywhere else. Thus, when relics have been in high demand, there have also been those of greater or lesser honesty ready to supply such relics.
Mark Twain once quipped that there were enough fragments of the True Cross scattered across Europe to rebuild the Spanish Armada. Bodies of the Holy Innocents, the infant boys whom King Herod murdered in the tiny ancient town of Bethlehem in his attempt to kill Jesus, were especially popular during the European Middle Ages. There are hundreds of them. So were the nails used during the Crucifixion. More than 30 churches claimed one or more such nails. One medieval church owned the shield of Michael the Archangel, while another had a feather from the wing of the Holy Spirit.
Human greed, gullibility and dishonesty are constants over time. But so is the human desire for contact with the transcendent — and the history of relics illustrates both.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation, and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.