Apostles, Martyrs, & Authenticity

A saint is someone whose life and actions were such that upon their death they were immediately believed to have entered heaven. The first saints were martyrs, those killed-often by the Roman state-for their beliefs. To these were swiftly added those biblical figures who, while not martyred, were closely associated with Christ, notably the Blessed Virgin Mary.

When the Roman state legalized Christianity in the early 4th century, Christians began to worship openly. The bodies of the martyrs came to lie at the hearts of their newly built churches. They became a focal point for the miraculous, a physical connection with the heavenly. Their bodies, their clothes, even the dust from their tombs, became precious relics. Most early miracle stories were associated with healing, but the saints were also considered intercessors with God who might act on behalf of individuals and communities.

A fragment of bone or a piece of cloth that had touched a saint was thought to hold the same power as their intact body. Our earliest indisputable evidence that the bodies of saints were divided into pieces is found in Roman North Africa around the year 300-the case of Lucilla, a wealthy lady of Carthage. Christians might visit the saint at their tomb-a pilgrimage-but the power of the saint could now be accessed in multiple places simultaneously via relics. But this raised a potential problem.

“And in a glas he hadde pigges bones.” Writing his Canterbury Tales in the late Middle Ages, the English poet Chaucer satirized a Church official who carried around a glass jar of pig’s bones but claimed they were saints’ relics. Chaucer was neither the first nor by any means the last to express his scepticism. Bishop Grimes was deeply concerned with the authenticity of the relics he brought to Ōtautahi. In fact, the main content of his ledger is a collection of certificates of authenticity provided by the senior Church officials-usually cardinals-who gifted the relics to him.

With a small number of exceptions, there is little reason to doubt that the apostles and early martyrs were themselves real people. In 1969, the papacy went so far as to suppress the cult of the 4th-century martyr Catherine of Alexandria: the earliest evidence for her existence dates to 500 years after her death. And yet St George, who certainly accrued many fabulous stories later in the Middle Ages including one famously featuring a dragon-is generally agreed by historians to have been an early martyr. But are his relics, and those of many others, genuine?

The earliest historical evidence for the relics of most apostles and early martyrs dates to the period following the end of Roman persecution. The same can be said of the Passion relics-that is, relics associated with Christ’s death and resurrection. With no earlier literary or physical evidence, whether a specific relic actually belongs to an apostle or early martyr is, ultimately, a matter of faith but it certainly remains plausible in some cases.

Bishop Grimes collected material connected with early Christianity that included items considered relics as a result of contact with saints, such as the True Cross and stone from the Virgin Mary’s tomb, fragments of bone from biblical figures, such as Philip the Apostle, and fragments of post-biblical martyrs. The latter ranged from Church leaders of the 1st century to virgin martyrs of the 4th. These relics were intended to provide the community of Christchurch with a deep connection to the spiritual roots of Christianity.