Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Relics |
A natural and ancient instinct

Relics is drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 86, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Venerating the remains and artifacts of the martyrs became a Christian practice early on. Was it superstition? If it was, its biblical origins lie in both the Old and New Testaments

Relics - A natural and ancient instinct

Relics - A natural and ancient instinct
This gilt and silver reliquary containing the remains of the soldier-martyr Maurice is in the abbey and city in Switzerland bearing his name, St. Moritz.

The veneration of relics–treating with reverence the bodily remains of a saint after his or her death–spread both east and west during persecutions in the third and early fourth centuries, with the numerous bodies of martyrs providing both the opportunity and the material. Indeed, during the Diocletian persecution, the bodies of martyrs were thrown into the ocean in order to prevent their veneration.

Veneration of relics is found in many religions, particularly Buddhism, says the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, because “it is the natural instinct of men to treat with reverence what is left of the dead they love.”

Thus, in the Old Testament, miracles are worked through the bones of Elisha (2 Kings 13:21). Material that made contact with the body of a holy person is similarly revered and miraculous powers are attributed to it. The mantle of Elijah worked miracles (2 Kings 2:14). In the New Testament, a woman is healed by touching the hem of Jesus’ garment (Luke 8:43—44), healing is attributed to Peter’s shadow (Acts 5:15), and handkerchiefs and an apron that had touched Paul were used as instruments of healing (Acts 19:11—12).

Martyrs’ bodies were venerated from the earliest post-biblical times. The relics of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (see earlier volume, A Pinch of Incense, chapter 2), were carefully collected, and miracles were later attributed to them. In the catacombs, thanksgiving services were held over the tombs of saints.

Other practices included the building of martyria that sometimes rivaled church buildings, the burial of the pious near the saints, and the bringing of martyrs’ bodies into urban churches despite Roman law and religious taboo that kept the dead outside the sacred city.

By the end of the fourth century, the practice of veneration had become so widespread that Vigilantus, a presbyter from Gaul, initiated a movement to stop it. He was opposed by St. Jerome, who held that “the relics are honored for the sake of him whose martyrs they are.” While they lived, the bodies served the saints as organs of the Holy Spirit, concurred St. Augustine, and they should therefore remain dear to Christians.

This is the end of the Relics category article drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 86, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Relics from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at