Lost and Found: Celebrating the Recovery of Relics in Late Antiquity

On August 2nd, the Orthodox Church celebrates the 5th century “finding” and transferring of relics to Constantinople.  Specifically, those of St. Stephen, the first martyr (and also a deacon) mentioned in the book of Acts.  According to tradition, Gamaliel, a pharisee (and teacher of St. Paul, according to Acts) and Nicodemus, also a pharisee (who had believed in Christ–see John 7 and 19) were all buried in the same area, near Gamaliel.  So, it’s probably no surprise that the relics of Gamaliel and Nicodemus were also dug up and transferred to Constantinople, as well as the relics of Gamaliel’s son Abibas.

This was common practice and a way to solidify the significance of the new capital of the Roman Empire.  In fact, we know that Constantinople became such a holding source of relics and icons, that it attracted the looting of the Fourth Crusade (which sacked Constantinople).  On the one hand, this can be interpreted as merely consolidating power.  On the other hand, St. Helen, Constnatine’s son, had started the process from her devout piety.  So, in reality, the motives were not merely superficial power-grabbing, but more complicated, likely a combination of consolidating power by giving Constantinople the presence of many significant relics, and devotion and piety.

Today, we are more likely to question whether the relics transferred were really the actual relics, but I think we should keep in mind a couple of things.  First, oral history is not inherently unreliable.  It can become distorted over time, certainly, but religious oral history can be reliable.  Stories can be told and retold often to reinforce what went before.  Also, Christians had been living under some duress and persecution (even if sporadic) and so it was important to them to know who was buried where.  Finally, as we learned from some recent relics attributed to St. John the Baptist, which genetically we can now say did come from a first century male from that geographical area, we may need to start being more open to tradition than we might be accustomed.

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