Now here’s an intriguing topic I bet you’ve never thought about. Can you (should we?) consider early Christianity — and in fact Christianity as a whole, as a “cult of the dead”?
Kyle Smith is an associate professor and director of the History of Religions program in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Toronto (See: Kyle Smith | Department of Historical Studies (utoronto.ca). I have known Kyle for many years, since he was a PhD student in early Chrsitianity at Duke. Since then he has become a well-known scholar of Christianity in late antiquity, who already now at a relatively young age (compared to us geezers) has published six books. (Not sure if you know this, but many, many senior scholars publish only two or three for their entire careers.) Five of them are hard-hitting scholarship. His most recent one is for a general audience, Cult of the Dead: A Brief History of Christianity (University of California Press, 2022). I think it’s unusually interesting.
I thought it would be extremely interesting to have Kyle publish some blog posts on the topic, to get us all up to speed. If you like what he says, check out the book itself! Here’s the first post. Kyle will be happy to respond to your questions and comments.
Is Christianity a Cult of the Dead?
Short answer? Yes, Christianity is a cult of the dead. I know our minds go straight to the sinister, to the Jim Joneses and David Koreshes of the world, when we hear the word “cult,” but to call Christianity a cult of the dead isn’t to condemn it. It’s to celebrate the popularity of the martyrs and all the ritual practices by which they’ve been remembered and venerated—all the relics, shrines, feast days, miracles, and pilgrimages—that are the cultural centerpiece through which the story of Christianity itself can be told.
Think about it like this: as Christians have understood it, Jesus’s resurrection opened a bridge between the land of the living and that of the dead. In this way, all the apostles and martyrs who are said to have followed Jesus in death could continue to intervene in the world.
We can see the beginnings of this at work in the Martyrdom of Polycarp.
Lately on the blog, Bart has been discussing this text. Specifically, he has focused on questions about the date, authorship, and integrity of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, arguing that it’s likely a later forgery that wasn’t written by an eyewitness to the events it describes. My own scholarly work on early Christian martyrdom narratives often engages with similar sorts of questions, and I agree with Bart’s assessment of Polycarp’s authenticity—or lack thereof. That being said, I deliberately avoid the “so are these stories true or not?” sorts of questions in my newest book, Cult of the Dead: A Brief History of Christianity. Instead, I focus on the popularity of the martyrs and the long endurance of stories (like Polycarp’s) that have fundamentally shaped the culture of Christianity for centuries.
Recall what happens when Polycarp is about to be executed: he thanks God for deeming him worthy to share the cup of Christ with those who have been martyred before him. Then the fire is lit. But, like Daniel in the fiery furnace, Polycarp does not burn. The fire gracefully envelops him, “like a linen sail filled by the wind,” and from within his flaming cocoon, Polycarp’s body becomes “like gold and silver being refined in a furnace.” From the fire wafts the sweet smell of frankincense, which in the parlance of Christian martyrdom stories is the olfactory sign of his holiness. Once it is clear to those present that the fire will not kill Polycarp, his persecutors run him through with a sword. A torrent of blood quenches the flames.
After Polycarp’s death, the Christians of Smyrna set out to retrieve his remains. More than anything, they want “to have fellowship with his holy flesh.” The Jews, however (who are often maligned as bogeymen in Christian martyrdom stories), already know that Christians venerate the remains of their martyrs, and they convince the governor of Smyrna not to hand over Polycarp’s body, lest the Christians “abandon the crucified one and begin to worship this one.” The story’s narrator rejects this accusation, explaining that Christians worship Christ alone. Still, he admits, Christians do “love the martyrs as students and imitators of the Lord.”
Once the pyre is relit and Polycarp’s flesh is burned from his bones, the Christians swoop in to collect them, regarding such relics as “more dear than precious stones and more valuable than gold.” What then became of Polycarp’s relics we cannot say. We hear from the Smyrnaeans only that they were deposited “in a fitting place,” where Christians still gathered “to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom with exultation and joy.”
By the end of the fourth century, martyrs’ bones were increasingly being deposited in churches throughout the Mediterranean world. We hear, for instance, from Saint Ambrose of Milan in the year 386. In a letter to his sister, Ambrose recounts that a chorus of voices dogged him after he dedicated Milan’s new basilica. The Christians of his city, he explains, would not stop begging him to properly consecrate their new church by installing martyrs’ relics inside. They understood that the bones of God’s “very special dead,” as Peter Brown often called them, would immediately render the place holy. Ambrose understood this too, so he promised his congregation that he would comply with their wishes and sanctify their new church with martyrs’ bones—if only he could find some.
How Ambrose knew exactly where to look is not something he mentions in his letter, but he does tell his sister that a “prophetic ardor” entered his heart. Soon he found the telltale signs of two Christian martyrs and instructed some of his junior clerics to dig up the spot where the saints had been buried. Nervous at what they were being asked to do, they were overjoyed when they eventually discovered Saints Gervasius and Protasius, both nearly intact despite the many years that they had been entombed. The authenticity of their relics was confirmed when the saints healed a sick man who had been brought to the site. The following day, as the relics were being processed to their new home inside Milan’s basilica, a blind man in the crowd regained his sight.
Once the saints’ bones were safely deposited, Ambrose rose to address his congregation. He preached to them about the holy martyrs, who “declare the glory of God.” He pointed to the miraculous healings that his flock had just witnessed and reminded them of the power of Jesus and the apostles. Then he asked his listeners to recall from scripture how many had been healed just by touching the robes or even handkerchiefs of the saints (Acts 19:12). Likewise, he foretold, any garment “laid on top of the holy relics” of Saints Gervasius and Protasius would be imbued with the power to heal.
Seeing what Ambrose had done, Christians in other cities were eager for their own churches to be sanctified with the bones of a martyr, with newly acquired relics stored either in a crypt beneath the altar or directly inside it, within its plinth. Several church councils passed decrees requiring that a martyr’s relic be embedded in an altar as a condition of its proper consecration. With its martyr always there, the altar really was the place where heaven met earth, echoing the book of Revelation’s vision of the souls of the martyrs residing beneath the heavenly altar (Rev 6:9).
With their martyrs so nearby, Christian communities expected the blessings of their saint to be effective. But patronage was a two-way street. If a saint was somehow failing in the duty to bless and aid the community, then the saint was told so in no uncertain terms. On occasion, an ineffective martyr’s relics were humiliated, which is to say they were removed from their reliquary and piled on the ground. With the church’s candles snuffed out, there they were left—cold, alone, and exposed—as punishment for abandoning those who had prayed to the saint for help.
Clearly, martyrs’ bones were not dead: saints were still present in their relics. As many early Christian theologians put it, how else could relics work their miracles if the saints and their divinely granted power were not still there?
For Ambrose’s letter to his sister, see Letter 22 in The Letters of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, trans. H. Walford (Oxford: James Parker, 1881). For saints’ relics in an architectural context, including their placement in altars, see Anne Marie Yasin’s Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). Also helpful in this regard is Éric Palazzo’s “Relics, Liturgical Space, and the Theology of the Church” in Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe, ed. M. Bagnoli et al. (London: British Museum Press, 2010). Patrick Geary discusses the practice of punishing nonworking relics in his “Humiliation of Saints” in Saints and Their Cults: Studies in Religious Sociology, Folklore, and History, ed. S. Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).