Relics, Saints, and the Assumption of Mary

Aug 15th, 2012 | By | Category: Blog Posts

My conversion to the Catholic faith was a slow process, and contained many surprises along the way. One of the biggest surprises was the change in my thinking about relics, saints,  and the Virgin Mary. As a good Presbyterian, I had naturally grown up with a revulsion to such things.  The derision of Calvin’s Treatist on Relics expressed my own sentiments perfectly. How then did this “disgusting” practice of venerating the dead come to have such a profound and beneficial impact on me?  My graduate study focused precisely on Calvin’s rejection of medieval devotion. For this reason, I spent a good deal of time studying not only Calvin’s theology, but the theology and devotion of those he attacked. In the end, I saw who had the better argument.


The Assumption of the Most Holy Mother of God
Pietro Cavallini

As a seminary student, I was superficially aware of the cult of saints in Christian antiquity. I had read Augustine’s Confessions with their favorable mention of the practice. I knew something about the cult of martyrs in the Church. But, I dismissed these as as sort of periphery to the “real heart” of Christianity: grace and justification. I benignly tolerated Augustine’s belief in relics the way I tolerated his Neo-Platonism: an unfortunate hold-over from his pagan environment. The first real blow to this interpretation came when I read Peter Brown’s book, The Cult of Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity.

Brown challenged my view that the place of saints and relics in the church was a mere holdover from paganism, and that the practice was somehow peripheral to true Christianity. Instead, Brown painted a picture of ancient Christianity and paganism in which relics were indispensable to the former, and repulsive to the latter. Far from a holdover from paganism, the place of relics in the Church appeared as something intensely Jewish, Hebraic, and Old Testament. Pagans, like Julian-the-Apostate, found the practice revolting and legislated against it. (Paganism, with its notions of ritual purity, had strictly delimited the realm of divine worship and neatly separated it from the realm of corpses and the dead.)

Peter Brown:

 On this point, the rise of Christianity in the pagan world was met by deep religious anger. We can chart the rise to prominence of the Christian church most faithfully by listening to pagan reactions to the cult of martyrs. For the progress of this cult spelled out for the pagans a slow and horrid crumbling of ancient barriers.1

The more I thought about this, the more I realized that it posed a problem. It is one thing to dismiss something as peripheral to the faith of the ancient Church, but to dismiss something that was ubiquitous and central to devotion and even to liturgy? G.J.C. Snoek had made just this point in his monograph Medieval Piety from Relics to the Eucharist: A Process of Mutual Interaction. Snoek showed just how much the Christian liturgy itself had been influenced by the ancient cult of relics.  I began to realize that dismissing saints and relics was to dismiss the same Church that gave us the Ecumenical councils, Augustine’s doctrines of grace and justification, and the canon of Scripture. I needed to look into this more carefully.

Saints and Relics as Biblical

As I explored this conundrum, the first thing I began to appreciate was just how biblical the practice really was. I realized that the veneration of relics, belief in their miraculous powers, and in the intercession of departed saints and angels was deeply Hebraic and Jewish. We find testimony to it in such places as 2 Kings 13:20-21, 2 Maccabees 15:12-16, and Tobit 12:12-15, considered especially in comparison to Revelation 5:8. (At this point, it was immaterial to me whether Maccabees and Tobit should be considered canonical texts. It was enough that they expressed a historic Jewish belief in these concepts.)

To take my favorite example:

2 Kings: 13:20-21:

 Elisha died and was buried. At the time, bands of Moabites used to raid the land each year. Once some people were burying a man, when suddenly they spied such a raiding band. So they cast the dead man into the grave of Elisha, and everyone went off. But when the man came in contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet.

Archeological evidence confirmed that this “cult of the dead” was deeply ingrained and widespread in ancient Hebrew Religion. Here is Elizabeth Bloch-Smith, in her book Judahite Burial Practices and Beliefs about the Dead:

 [Archeological studies suggest] a widespread, flourishing cult of the dead, practiced in Jerusalem as in the rest of the country, which persisted throughout the Iron Age. A ‘cult of the dead” is here taken to mean that the Judahites believed the dead possessed powers and acted on that belief.2

Brown and others have shown that these practices continued in Judaism into the era of the New Testament, and of the Midrash and Talmud. Especially important in this regard is J. Jeremias’s untranslated work, Heiligengräber in Jesu Umwelt. (Göttingen, 1958) Jeremias shows that this cult was both extremely important to Jews, and of great significance for the development of the relic cult in early Christianity. Likewise, Josef W. Meri in The Cult of Saints among Muslims and Jews in Medieval Syria shows that the Jewish practice continued with Jews in Babylon, Syrian, North Africa, and elsewhere, and included pilgrimages to the tombs not only of Biblical figures, but even more contemporary “saints,” like Maimonides. Cultic visits to the resting place of the ancestors continue in Israel to this day.

Why?

Why did the Jews believe and practice such things? And why were Christians so amenable? There are two important Hebraic and biblical concepts to understand: that of the Zaddiqim (or saints) and the doctrine of zekhut avot (or merits of the ancestors).

Zaddiqim:

In Judaism, the Zaddiqim are the “Holy Men of Old” who are given special powers because of their close relationship to God. Think of Moses with his Shekinah glory, and of Elijah with all his miracles. As we saw from the passage of 2 Kings, these powers were understood to endure after death. And, given the Hebrew view of the body, its sanctity, and dignity, and the concomitant belief in resurrection, it is no wonder that these powers were believed to inhere even in the flesh.

Again, Elizabeth Bloch-Smith:

 Following death, these individuals were thought to possess special powers and to maintain intimate contact with Yahweh as they had during their lifetimes. Given the presumed posthumous powers of the dead, it was important for the supplicant to know the location of the burial in order to petition the deceased.3

St. James gives New Testament testimony to this belief in Zaddiqim his epistle:

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (James 5:16-18)

Not only do the powers adhere to the flesh, but they can be transferred to physical objects. 2 Kings 4 recounts that Elisha raised the dead by commanding that his staff be laid on a corpse. In the New Testament, Peter’s power of healing extended even to his shadow, and to his handkerchief. (Acts 5, Acts 19). Is it any wonder that Augustine accepted accounts of the miraculous cures attributed to relics in his own day?

Zekhut avot

 The doctrine of zekhut avot is the doctrine of the “merits of the ancestors.” Meri summarizes the doctrine of Zekhut avot, and its relation to the Zaddiqim this way:

 The doctrine of zerkhut avot or ‘merits of the ancestors’ holds that the people of Israel were favoured not because of their own merits, but because of those of their ancestors, particularly biblical heroes, the Patriarchs and other righteous ancestors. Ancestral merits and good deeds are required for the salvation of the soul. Jews held the zaddiqim above the ministering angels (Sanh 93a) and believed that they possessed divine powers which they employed of their own volition. (Sanh.65b).4

As I mentioned above, this is a very biblical doctrine. We find throughout the Old Testament the idea that God metes out reward and punishment to the many on behalf of the righteousness or disobedience of the few. Consider a few examples:

Exodus 20:6

I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand {generations} of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Sharing Responsibility and Punishment:

Joshua 7: 1-24:  Israel is punished for Achan’s Sin.

2 Samuel 12:10: For David’s sin – the sword will never depart from his house.

Lamentations 5:7: “Our fathers sinned, and are no more; It is we who have borne their iniquities.”

Sharing in Reward/Blessing/Clemency:

Genesis 18:26ff: “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

Exodus 32:13: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.”

 The Concept of Corporate Identity in One

2 Samuel 20:1: “We have no share in David

Galatians 3:27:  the baptized are “clothed in Christ.”

Romans 8:1 : No condemnation for those in Christ

2 Corinthians 5:17 – If any man is in Christ he is a new creation.

To Be in Christ

This idea of corporate, covenant responsibility and identity is the necessary theological background for the Christian and New Testament doctrines of being in Christ, of the atonement, of satisfaction for sins, and of sanctifying grace. The Old Testament clearly taught the idea of shared responsibility and merit, but none of the Old Testament saints could merit for us the beatific vision. In order to receive a share in God’s own life, we need a suberabundance of merit that only the Son of God can provide. We receive this by being in Christ. Corporately connected to the head, we share in his merits and benefits. Thus, in medieval devotion, the Holy Eucharist is the relic par excellence.

The key to the New Testament doctrine of the saints is not to destroy the older Hebraic doctrine of shared merit and responsibility, but to elevate it to an even greater place. Through Christ, and because of his infinite merits, the finite merits of the saints can now take on an eternal significance. This is why, far from detracting from Christ, the Christian belief in the intercession of saints enhances, fulfills, and completes the doctrine of Christ’s infinite and sufficient intercession.

Remember Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”  As members of Christ’s body, the Saints now share in his divine life and participate in his work of intercession.

From the NT perspective, it is fitting that the grace of Christ should be distributed in this way, through the Church. This is because the whole point of the redemption we have in Christ was to overcome the problem of human alienation – man alienated from God, and from one another. This is why saint Paul can speak in such glowing terms of the Church in Ephesians: both as the revelation of God’s mystery, reconciling all things, and also as the Body of Christ. Hence St. Gregory of Nyssa’s famous saying, “He who beholds the Church beholds Christ.” Understood in this way, the Biblical doctrine of saints, and relics expresses our conviction that the redeemed are truly a part of Christ and therefore connected to us. God does not want us to be saved without them.

Mary and the Assumption

How does all of this relate to the doctrine of Mary and the Assumption? At one level, my discovery of the saints was a necessary precondition for understanding the doctrine of Mary. Once I came to accept the place of the saints in the Church, it was much easier to understand Mary’s role as one of the saints. If devotion to the saints in general is acceptable, then how much more so devotion to the Theotokos? But naturally, there is more going on in Catholic Mariology than just devotion. There is what St. Thomas calls Super Devotion(hyper dulia).  And here, it was John Henry Newman who helped me most.

Newman, in his famous essay on Mary, pointed out that the fundamental Patristic doctrine on Mary was that she was the second Eve. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that this was the teaching of Justin, Tertullian, Ephrem, Ireneaus, Cyril, Epiphanius, Jerome, and others. But why? To the fathers, particularly in light of the biblical idea of corporate responsibility and the exalted role of Biblical heroes, it was obvious that Eve must have her counterpart in the work of redemption. Next to the second Adam, there must be a second Eve. Thus, Eve’s No was undone by Mary’s Fiat mihi.

If you are committed to the doctrine of sola scriptura, this may not be persuasive for you. However, if you are open to the witness of history, to the faith of the Church, to what has been held semper, ubique, et ab omnibus¸ then the Patristic doctrine on Mary makes perfect sense and fits with the whole trajectory of Hebrew Religion. From the doctrine of the second Eve, furthermore, all the other Mariological doctrines flow – her preservation from original sin, her virginity, and even her assumption. Mary is the prototype of the Church, the woman “clothed with the Sun,” who enjoys and figures proleptically the fullness of the redemption of the whole Church.

On this feast of the Assumption, I wish to conclude by tying together the teaching on relics and saints with one key fact from the life of the Virgin. As Calvin and other Protestant polemicists pointed out, medieval Catholic Europe did not lack for spurious relics. Multiple heads of John the Baptist, even foreskins of Christ, circulated on the relic market, to the amusement of some and disgust of others. But in the whole history of Christendom, no one ever came forth with a putative first class relic of the Blessed Virgin. The reason was plain.

St. John Damascene (d. 749) related the following story which explains why:

St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, at the Council of Chalcedon (451), made known to the Emperor Marcian and Pulcheria, who wished to possess the body of the Mother of God, that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles, but that her tomb, when opened upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven.5

  1. Brown, Cult of Saints, 6. []
  2. (Sheffield, 1992), 23. []
  3. op. cit., >111. []
  4. (Oxford, 2002), 63. []
  5. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02006b.htm []

37 comments
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  1. Council of Chalcedon (451): So that was when it was first stipulated that “Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles”…and yet none of them would make mention in their writings of such a significant event as the death and assumption of Mary?

    Jesus said: “Come to ME you who are weary…”.

    And when Jesus gave us an example of HOW we should pray (He didn’t say: “Pray this prayer”) He said to pray LIKE this: “Our Father, Which art in Heaven…”.

    So our prayer is addressed to God the Father, and we are bade to come directly to Jesus. Mary does not feature.

    We have God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Angels are referred to as “Sons of God”. The feminine mystique was something God created uniquely on this Earth. Not so? Also, in the Age to come we are “neither male nor female, but are like the Angels”…how then would someone be identified as “Mother of God” or “Queen of Heaven”? These are clearly figments of the human imagination.

  2. Dr. Anders,

    That was a great post. I was hoping you could go deeper into the concept of being “in Christ”

    Happy Feast Day!

    RRV

  3. Hi John
    Thanks for your note. I hope you can see from the post that the earliest Christians did not share your sentiments, nor did the Hebrews or the later Jews. And, I wonder, how do you know that Jesus didn’t enjoin other forms of prayer as well? Clearly, the Lord’s Prayer has primacy of place in Christian spirituality, but surely you don’t think we should limit ourselves to the Lord’s Prayer?

    And, no, the Council of Chalcedon is no the origin of these beliefs – merely one witness among many.

    If you are going to reject the intercession of saints and angels, you are separating yourself from the Church of the Fathers, the Church which defined the Dogma of the Trinity, and the Church which defined the canon of the New Testament. Are you prepared to say that 1,500 years of Christian history got it wrong, only to be enlightened by Luther and Calvin? I used to think this way, to be sure. But it sure doesn’t seem to wash with the promises Christ made to his Church, now does it?

    Thanks again for writing.
    God bless,
    David

  4. Rodolfo,

    Thanks for the note.

    God bless,
    David

  5. Mr. Anders,

    “Instead, Brown painted a picture of ancient Christianity and paganism in which relics were indispensable to the former, and repulsive to the latter. ”

    >>> If Christianity is to mean the religion of the Jewish prophets fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Son of God you have no basis whatsoever for saying that, “relics were indispensable to the former”. Levine contrasts the Patristic Church with the Jewish tradition in his book The Ancient Synagogue:

    “The remains of Jewish art known to us today are far more modest. There is no Jewish equivalent of the Ravenna churches [Patristic Churches depicting iconography]. Besides the Dura synagogue, no other Diaspora building has anywhere near the same kinds of figural remains, and the six Palestinian synagogues with the helios and zodiac design, in addition to about the same number featuring a biblical personality (Gaza, Susiya, Na’aran, Sepphoris, and perhaps Merot) or a biblical scene (Bet Alpha and Sepphoris) are a distinct minority of the synagogue remains discovered throughout Israel. Most synagogues appear to have had minimal decorations, and these contain, for the most part, only floral and geometric designs of greater or lesser sophistication. Thus, in the overwhelming majority of synagogues from late antiquity, the possible functions of art to stimulate historical memory, to highlight ritual symbols and through them certain Jewish religious observances, to complement the instruction that took place in religious institutions, and to instill messianic hopes-could hardly be realized.” (pg. 565-566)

    To make your argument is to basically give huge concessions to Jewish apologists against Christ. Second, your use of paganism here seems misleading at the least. To use the broad term paganism and say that relics are “repulsive” is simply ridiculous.

    “the place of relics in the Church appeared as something intensely Jewish, Hebraic, and Old Testament.”

    >>>I just showed that this was not the case. True, the temple had plenty of imagery but their function was nothing like what your relics function as.

    “Pagans, like Julian-the-Apostate, found the practice revolting and legislated against it. ”

    >>>He found the idea of relics revolting or he found the religion those relics represented revolting?

    “ I began to realize that dismissing saints and relics was to dismiss the same Church that gave us the Ecumenical councils, Augustine’s doctrines of grace and justification, and the canon of Scripture. I needed to look into this more carefully.”

    >>So when Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18, destroyed the brazen serpent he was dismissing the Jewish Church and Moses and the prophets who gave him the scriptures?

    “intercession of departed saints and angels was deeply Hebraic and Jewish”

    “We find testimony to it in such places as 2 Kings 13:20-21”

    >>>Can you show me where veneration of this man’s bones is commanded here? Second, don’t you guys say that the power of the departed dead’s body stems from the incarnation of Christ? If so, the 2 Kings 13:20-21 passage would then not apply to your doctrine seeing that Christ had not yet been incarnated.

    “Rev. 5:8 ”

    >>>The book of revelation also mentions the Ark of the Covenant 11:19. Do you then have the ark of the covenant at your church for worship purposes? If so, I think a lot of archeologists would like to know that and quite frankly I will be on a plane next week to come visit your church to see it. Rev 5:13 mentions animals praising God. So animals can speak now? Do you bring your animals to church with you for worship? Zech 1:12 mentions mediation of angels. Does that mean that we should pray to angels as well?

    “Brown and others have shown that these practices continued in Judaism…”

    >>>I don’t remember Levine or Vitringa (The Synagogue and the Church ) saying anything about this going on in the Jewish Synagogues.

    “And, given the Hebrew view of the body, its sanctity, and dignity, and the concomitant belief in resurrection, it is no wonder that these powers were believed to inhere even in the flesh.”

    >>>But Mr. Anders, Christ had not been incarnated nor resurrected.

    >>>The James 5 passage says nothing of any power inherent in his flesh that produced anything supernatural. I mean to even use this passage in this context you would have to say that rain came out of his body.

    >>>Your next few verses just show that God believes in Patriarchalism and not social contract theory. So what?

    “Genesis 18:26ff: “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.””

    >>>There were no Jewish roots in Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot was the first generation of God’s people in that city and notice that the threat was to be appeased by righteousness not by blood relation.

    >>>Your next verses that prove federal representation prove what Mr. Anders? That God doesn’t believe social contract theory?

    “This is why, far from detracting from Christ, the Christian belief in the intercession of saints enhances, fulfills, and completes the doctrine of Christ’s infinite and sufficient intercession.”

    >>> Let me fill in the assumption you are making for any onlookers. You are saying that there is a distinction between Christ‘s mediation of redemption and Christ’s mediation of intercession. You think that Christ is the only mediator of redemption but there are many mediators of intercession, namely, the saints. Yet the point of Hebrews 7, 9, 10, and Romans 8:34 is that Christ, the High Priest of the New Covenant entered into the holy place, heaven itself, offering his own blood for the sins of his people once for all and based upon this alone he is the intercessor and mediator of these people. You are seeking to import many other mediators and have no scriptural support for it. The scriptures say in 1 Tim 2:5 that there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. You want to make a division in his mediation and fall victim to the way of the Socinians. The Socinians denied the deity of Christ and divided his person into his natural essence which was merely human and his office as the Word or spokesman for God which is merely his function. This distinction is used to explain the scriptures that speak of Christ as God. “In his commentary on the Johannine prologue, Socinus insisted that the ‘Word’ ‘did not refer to his ontological nature but to his office as the one who ‘expounded the evangelical word of his Father’ (Pelikan, 4:327).”

    In the same way, those who affirm more mediators and intercessors with this distinction trample upon the perfect nature of Christ’s intercession, and therefore trample upon the nature of Christ himself.

    “Mary was that she was the second Eve”

    >>>So Eve gave birth to Adam? So Adam had sex with his mother in order to further the human race?

  6. Mr. Anders,

    “Are you prepared to say that 1,500 years of Christian history got it wrong, only to be enlightened by Luther and Calvin?”

    >>Are you prepared to say that the Church got the doctrine of God wrong for 5 centuries or more with the Non-Athanasian creed and the Filiqoue innovation? That the one God is not the Father almighty, but is a Monad with three neoplatonic manifestations; Father Son and Holy Spirit?

  7. Hi, John,

    Just a quick correction. In Matthew 22:30 Jesus said that in the resurrection we will not marry nor be given in marriage. He did not say we wouldn’t be male or female.

    Tim

  8. Hi Tim

    Ouch! You’re right. My apologies to all for that horrible error :-(

    Thanks for pointing it out.

    John

  9. Thanks David

    My concern is that during the first 300-500 years a lot of error may well have crept into the church. You said: “Are you prepared to say that 1,500 years of Christian history got it wrong…”, but I feel certain that you’d at least agree with me that if something passed on 1,900 years ago was altered 1,500 years ago, that it would still be wrong today?

    Even in Paul’s letters we see indications of people trying to introduce heresy into the church, so it’s important for us to distinguish truth from error. How do we do that? By accepting anything that has been around long enough? Silly question, I don’t think you believe that.

    I don’t see how we can be sure of the truth if we go beyond what has been written? But I do question the significance of Revelation 12, where it speaks of the “…great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars…”. Who else could it be talking about, but Mary? (Since it goes on to describe Jesus as her child).

    So this is not a topic I take lightly. It is just one that I do not want to get wrong. I think “drake” above makes some very good points too. I will continue to research this, please feel free to suggest good sources.

    In the hope for truth,
    John

  10. Dear Drake,

    You wrote:

    ” If Christianity is to mean the religion of the Jewish prophets fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Son of God you have no basis whatsoever for saying that, “relics were indispensable to the former”. Levine contrasts the Patristic Church with the Jewish tradition in his book The Ancient Synagogue”

    Well, yes, that’s what I mean by Christianity – among other things. And, I think I did show that there was some basis for saying this. It’s one thing to say you think I have misconstrued the data. It is another thing to say, “No basis what so ever!”

    As far as your references to Synagogue worship – this really isn’t at issue in the post. I don’t remember mentioning synagogue worship or Jewish art. Really, the post has nothing to do with that.

    Rather than go point by point from here on, let me restate the central focus of the post – which I think you misconstrue.

    Ancient Jews and Hebrews believed that some people were gifted with miraculous powers due to their close relationship to God, those powers sometimes adhered even to their corpses, and such power is echoed in the book of Acts. James merely cites Elijah as Zaddiqim. (I din’t say he endorsed the cult of saints explicitly.) The deuterocanonical texts also clearly reflect belief in the post-mortem intercession of those Holy Men. Archeology and extra-scriptural evidence also show that the Jews and Hebrews inferred a cult of the dead from those facts above, and that this Hebrew cult is a direct antecedent to the Christian veneration of martyrs, saints, and their relics.

    Now, what you do with that information will depend to a large extent on your background presuppositions.

    Thanks for writing,

    David

  11. Hi John (#9),

    Well, now we are beyond the point of the post and into material that we have treated elsewhere on the site. Did you read “Is Certainty a Bad Thing?’ I think this question of certainty is very, very interesting. However, I think that “Not going beyond what is written” – if you mean, reliance on Scripture alone – has produced anything but certainty in the life of the Church.

    On the contrary, relying on the authority that Christ instituted (namely, the Church – in union with Peter) has produced a great deal of certainty.

    The question of whether or not the Ancient Christians were in error cannot be answered until we know what standard or rule to judge them against. And, I contend, we must judge them against the Rule established by Christ in Matt. 16:18 – not the fictitious rule of Martin Luther.

    -David

  12. I had a quick question about Jews and relics. How do we as Catholics understand relics in Judaism in light of Numbers 19:11 “Whoever touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days”? If the Jews had relics of Old Testament Saints, were they just careful not to touch them or does Numbers 19:11 refer to something else and the relics of the Saints did not make them unclean? I don’t get the impression the man who touched Elisha’s bones was unclean but I’m trying to see how we understand relics in Judaism in light of Numbers 19:11. I have some possible answers but was wondering what other Catholics thought about that.

  13. Thanks David, I’ll continue to read more on this site.
    John

  14. Dr. Anders:

    Thanks for this article. I’ll have to check out the Brown book, and the other sources you mention. I’ve often wondered about what worldview presuppositions made relics such an early feature in the Church. One quibble (doing my Ph.D. in historical theology)–I think I read that there was a relic of the Virgin’s milk somewhere in the late medieval period? This would be contra to your statement that there was never any relic of the Virgin. Sadly, I can’t remember the source of my information.

    Thanks,

    Gregory Soderberg

  15. “The question of whether or not the Ancient Christians were in error cannot be answered until we know what standard or rule to judge them against. And, I contend, we must judge them against the Rule established by Christ in Matt. 16:18 – not the fictitious rule of Martin Luther.”

    Hi David,

    I’m a Lutheran, so I guess your above statement sort of gives me the opportunity to “jump into the fray.” Luther would not have shied away from appealing to Matthew 16:18 in support of sola scriptura. After all, irrespective of whether the “rock” referred to Peter in his person or Peter in his confession, both are *synonymous* or *equivalent* for Luther sums up the whole person who is justified before God. IOW, faith = Christian. And faith alone (sola fide), was for Luther, a co-relate of scripture alone (sola scriptura). Sola fide presupposes and implies sola scriptura and vice-versa. Thus, sola scriptura is not at odds with Matthew 16.18.

  16. David,

    You wrote:
    “The doctrine of zekhut avot is the doctrine of the “merits of the ancestors.”

    I do not object to your appeal to extra-biblical sources but I do not see how the biblical verses you have quoted speak of the “merits of the ancestors” — at least not explicitly at all. Both Genesis 18-26 and Exodus 32-13 could just as well be construed as (referring to) the *promises* of Yahweh (apart from any merits) in a specific time and place to a specific audience.

  17. Dear CTC,

    Thank you for your hospitality. My comments over at Green Baggins re Jason Stellman have been somehow mysteriously deleted. Have never actually commented over there before. Granted I approach from a different, i.e. Lutheran (sacramental, liturgical) perspective …I try to be more engaging with Roman Catholicism as proceeding from a common western catholic heritage … within the Reformation but yes, a different paradigm from the Reformed and Presbyterian. In fact, I have much sympathy for the agape paradigm propounded by Bryan Cross. Anyway …

  18. Dear Gregory Soderberg,

    Thanks so much for writing. One quick note: You are correct that there were putative relics of the Virgin’s Milk, her shawl, and various other accouterments. You’ll note above, what I said was, “no one ever came forth with a putative first class relic of the Blessed Virgin.”

    Traditionally, a first class relic is a body part. Second class relics include personal effects. I suppose breast milk might be considered first class. But I think you grasp the main point – that no one was producing a corpse from which to take first class relics.

    As far as world view presuppositions, I think you’ll find Brown’s book very helpful in this regard. For what it’s worth, though, Brown is writing as a secular historian, not as a Catholic. Thus, Brown is clearly uninterested in biblical theology or systematics, but rather in ethnography.

    One thing worth thinking about – I believe Protestants and Catholics have not done justice to the depth and variety of Hebrew attitudes towards death that are reflected in the Old Testament. Though I’m not a Wellhausian, I do think this is something where a bit of a historical-critical perspective can be enlightening. If you actually go look at the legislation and practice regarding burial, mourning, sheol, necromancy, and the like, and you try deliberately to prescind from any Neo-platonic biases you might have in looking at the data, I think the results can be surprising and sometimes alarming.
    I’ll leave it at that.

    However, in the post I do try to lay out something of the presuppositions from a biblical theology point of view – merit of the ancestors, zaddiqim, and so forth. Take a quick peak, also, at the wikipedia article on the tomb of the patriarchs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave_of_the_Patriarchs#Judaism

    Thanks again,

    David

  19. Hi Jason Loh,

    By merit(demerit) I mean “Something that justifies or deserves reward (or punishment).”

    I think you would probably agree that the examples of demerit above are unobjectionable – Achan and David’s sin merited punishment, which was in fact meted out on the people of Israel.

    What do you make of Genesis 18:26? We’re talking here of “righteous” pagans in Sodom. Not people with whom God made any specific covenant, beyond the covenant of Noah. Doesn’t it seem here that God promises to withhold punishment from the wicked, specifically because of the “merits” of these righteous, and also because of the supplication of Abraham? The theoretical “righteous” of Sodom (it seems there were in fact fewer than 10, doesn’t it?) don’t “merit” to be swept away with the wicked.

    Thanks,

    David

  20. Thanks for clarifying, Dr. Anders. I was indeed ignorant of the distinction between 1st/2nd class relics!

  21. Hi Jason (again),

    On Matt. 16:18 –

    My reference was meant as short hand for the whole paradigmatic difference between Catholics and Protestants on questions of religious authority, not as a detailed exposition.
    However, I was responding to the charge that the ancient church was in error because it departed from Scripture. Needless to say, the ancient Church would really not have seen it this way, and we can’t even settle the question until we agree on the provision Christ made for answering such questions.

    We’ve got other thread for this, but basically the question is, “What provision (if any) did Christ make for the authoritative, continuing exposition of the Christian faith down through the ages?”

    What do you think?

    -David

  22. Yes, David, you’re right on both accounts, viz. the “personal” sins of certain figures were “imputed” also as “social” sins that were to be borne by the people of Israel; and Genesis 18:26 has in mind pagans rather than believers.

    “Doesn’t it seem here that God promises to withhold punishment from the wicked, specifically because of the “merits” of these righteous, and also because of the supplication of Abraham?”

    Yes, it would seem so — re a natural reading of the verse/ text. Having said this, perhaps if I may put it this way … the merits of the “righteous” pagans of Sodom were “co-related” to the righteousness/ “merits” of Abraham the father of Israel. I wonder if a “typological” paradigm could be made that Abraham typified the Our Lord and Saviour as mediator – so that his (i.e. Abraham’s righteousness) could be “imputed” to any number of the pagans which “found favour” in the sight of God. IOW, Abraham’s (righteous) supplication was a necessary though not sufficient “cause” of the Lord’s will to withold punishment (of the city of Sodom).

  23. “However, I was responding to the charge that the ancient church was in error because it departed from Scripture. Needless to say, the ancient Church would really not have seen it this way, and we can’t even settle the question until we agree on the provision Christ made for answering such questions.”

    Dear David,

    I know where you’re coming from – yes, the “typical” attitude of Protestants (not specifically referring to any tradition or denomination) is that the *post*-apostolic church fell into grievour error, particularly with the institutionalisation of Christianity in the Constantinian empire. I disagree strongly with such an understanding of church history. However, having said that, I wonder, though, if Newman (as an example which I could think of at the moment) had probably gone too far in the other extreme (anachronistically speaking) with his “theory” of “doctrinal development.”

    “We’ve got other thread for this, but basically the question is, “What provision (if any) did Christ make for the authoritative, continuing exposition of the Christian faith down through the ages?”

    What do you think?”

    Again, I agree that the question of whether Christ made any provision for the authoritative and binding exposition of the Christian faith through the ages is crucial and critical. I have a few questions though (which I must admit is tinged with bias) whether the provision is to be found within the Church or outside. On the surface, this may sound frivolous but if magisterial authority is “intrinsic” to the Church, then the papacy in its present form (though developed over the centuries) especially vis-a-vis Vatican 1 represents an inner contradiction. IOW, the doctrine of apostolic succession ala Roman Catholicism, i.e. where Peter is, there is the Church (Ubi Petrus ibi Ecclesia) “presupposes” and “implies” *two* churches within the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church (as specifically referring to the Roman Catholic Church). This “situation” flows from the nature and character of the hierarchical structure of the Church.

    Hence, there is, ironically (in light of the Roman Catholic traditional critique of Protestant extrincism), a certain extrincism in the ecclesial union and communion between the magisterium and the laity — “where Peter is, there is the Church” means that whilst the *ecclesial* membership of the laity is “dependent” on Magisterium, the *ecclesial* authority of the Magisterium is “independent” of the laity. Pressing the logic further, if the pope is the Vicar of Christ, then the union and communion between the Head and Body seems to be Nestorian.

  24. David Anders,

    I remember you mentioning Robert Brown’s book on EWTN some years back. I recently bought it some weeks ago, and even-though it is mostly limited to the western Mediterranean region of early to mid-evil christianity, it was still an excellent read!

    Now you mentioned some more sources like G.J.C. Snoek, Elizabeth Bloch-Smith, J. Jeremias(too bad it’s un-translated, this would be a great source for me to have), and Josef W. Meri. I’ll have to put those on my wish list as well.

    I need to learn more about Zaddiqim(you are the second christian source I know that mentioned it) , you linked it with Moses and the Shekinah Glory. I find that very interesting, thanks for sharing!

  25. […] E. P. Sanders’ own work makes clear (in conjunction with some bloggers at C2C) held to the “merit of the fathers” idea.  This is hard-core semi-Pelagianism.  If […]

  26. @John Roodt – your arguments from the Biblical texts are Catholic ones too. They don’t apply to the veneration of Saints, but rather strengthen it.

    It would be really instructive to revisit the topic of relics, especially in the OT and the early Church, focussing on Martyrs’ relics, with an eye on the core concepts of Rene Girard about violence and the sacred.

    I’m not a huge expert on his work as a whole, but I know it through G. Schwager’s reading of the Passion of Christ in “Must there be scapegoats?” – http://www.amazon.com/Must-There-Be-Scapegoats-Redemption/dp/0062507664/ – sorry it appears ridiculously expensive in the US…!

    This book was instrumental in helping me get free of the futile arguments around violence and atonement in the Protestant communities in the UK.

  27. Thanks Michael.

    I also think that $213 is an insane amount. Hopefully that’s just a typo.

    Regards,
    John

  28. Dear all,

    This topic is one of the most debated and yet will never clarify the true faith that Catholics have in the practice. I will explain that after I support Dr. Ander’s claim. It was definitely not 1500 years before reformation took place. Reformation occurred, but did not become what it is today until Luther. Luther lived in a time when Church oppression was “less” (for a lack of a better word). Early Christian authors are found with lots of theology, many were condemned as heresy. A multitude of bishops opposed the Church very early on:
    *107AD – Ignatius of Antioch bones collected
    *305AD – Many Christians left organized church because of Iconics and Adoration
    *354AD – Augustine complained that monks were selling bones as relics.
    *486AD – Eastern church rejected celibacy
    *735AD Charlemagne points out that it was better to admire saints then to collect relics.
    *754AD 315 bishops condemn icons
    *1320AD John Wycliff
    *1415AD Jan Hus
    Then Martin Luther…

    It is very easy to point out the rituals that occurred through-out Christianity!
    This honestly does not prove that Catholics are participating in a pagan ritual that we can point out in history. If Catholics today are the same as they were for 2000/- years, they are God fearing, Jesus worshiping Christians.

    Lets assume for a second that the knowledge of Mary is correct in the Catholic Dogma – that Mary is the mother of God, that she was assumed into heaven. Also assume that the visitation of Mary to thousands of people are true. If you believe this, you would exalt God by venerating (deeply honoring) her.

    An example of “pagan” worship is to eat the flesh of Jesus. Those whom didnt agree with that practice for fear of pagan worship, Jesus didnt try to explain to them that it was only a figure of speech.

    If you belong to a cult of Christ, and you believe you are eating the real flesh of Jesus, does that make you a pagan? I would answer NO.

    Lets compare the Queen of Heaven in the Bible, to Mary. The Biblical Queen of Heaven was in no way associated with God, instead it was another god. They offered incense to this other god. Now if you believe like Catholics that Chrisitians are a real family, a royal sonship, and not adopted family like Protestant believe, you would believe that you are physically connected to God. If the believers (saints) in heaven are apart of God and are alive, this would provide a way to believe that your family in Christ in heaven is alive and perfected by Christ. You could then ask from above, your family to help you while you are struggling. In no way does this ritual mean the same thing as a pagan worship. A Christian heart is involved in this exchange. The love of a Christian with their heart in the right place: focusing on God, seeking God …”with all your heart…”, is right and it is the Catholic teaching.

    However, if a Catholic or any Christian has the wrong heart to seek Mary or Saints as an idol or god, they will be judged! As it is, know one but God and you can judge your heart. As the scripture goes – judge your heart before God does.

    I’m interested to here your comments.
    God Bless

  29. Interesting discussions.
    I am of the opinion however to stick with simplicity and what works.
    To that end, I’m very pleased the Catholic Church today practises increasingly rigorous control over Canonization and requires proven miracles beyond the ken of science.
    Relics figure into this, I’ll go with them.

  30. MTN, I’ve never met (or even heard of) a Catholic who “….seeks Mary or Saints as an idol or a God…”. If they did they would be, as you say, judged.

    Dr. Anders, I apologise if this is ‘off topic’ but it concerns the doctrine of Sola Scriptura which has arisen in the discussion. This is one Protestant doctrine that I just cannot understand how anyone believes it.

    If we were having this discussion in, say, the 2nd Century contributors might submit comments from the Gospel of Thomas to support their position – to be refuted, perhaps, by someone quoting from the Gospel of James. And, of course, there was no written New Testament at all in the decades immediately following the death and resurrection of Christ.

    A final irony: The Canon of the New Testament that our Protestant brothers and sisters quote so avidly and accept as their only authority was formed by the Catholic Church.

  31. Hello Dr. Anders,

    In your writing you referenced Newman’s essay on Mary, that Newman “pointed out that the fundamental Patristic doctrine on Mary was that she was the second Eve.” Can you give me a reference on this? This is a topic that I’d really like to pursue. If any of your readers want to respond to this question, please feel free to do so.

    Thanks,

    Ron Windham

  32. Hi Ron,

    try this link:

    http://www.christendom-awake.org/pages/marian/newman1.html

  33. Hello Dr. Anders,

    Thanks for your response. I noticed that in Newman’s comments on the Early Church Fathers’ reflections on Mary as a “Second Eve”, there was a reference to the first Eve being a virgin before the fall. All three of the Church Fathers cited (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian) seemed to hold this view. Is the idea of Eve being a virgin before the fall a part of Church teaching? Is this, too, a defined dogma of the faith? It seems that if Mary as a “Second Eve” is an idea from which all subsequent Marian dogmas flow, that it, too, be a part of those defined dogmas.

    Also, as a part of the creation story, God told our first parents to “be fruitful and multiply”. Is it reasonable to assume that Adam and Eve did not engage in marital relations before the fall, and only after?

    Thanks,

    Ron

  34. 2 Corinthians 11:3 ” But I’m afraid that , as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of deviation to Christ.”

  35. If Mary was without sin, why did she die? Wouldnt it follow that original sin led to death, and therefore someone without original sin would not die of original causes?

  36. Lucas, (re: #35)

    I recommend listening to the Feingold lecture (beginning around 43′ into the lecture) available in the post titled “Solemnity of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven,” and also taking a look at the last part of comment #160 in that thread.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  37. Bryan #36, will do thanks

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