Beneath the Surface An Editorial Comment -- By: Richard Lanser

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 14:1 (Winter 2001)
Article: Beneath the Surface An Editorial Comment
Author: Richard Lanser

Beneath the Surface
An Editorial Comment

Richard Lanser

Relics and Archaeological Artifacts

What exactly is a relic? Coming from a Protestant background, for most of my life I would have defined it as “some old object worshipped by Roman Catholics.” Not a very good or technical definition, it seemed adequate to a young man with hardly a passing familiarity with the subject.

Recently, however, I’ve felt a need to understand this better. In the media, books and television programs, we repeatedly hear about objects like the Shroud of Turin and the Sudarium of Ovieda (the latter identified by its supporters as the face cloth of Christ, John 20:7). Aren’t these Catholic relies, which serious archaeology should spurn? Wouldn’t dealing with such items, steeped as they are in superstition, tarnish our claim to scientific objectivity?

To evaluate this, I thought it best to begin by getting a good understanding of exactly what a relic is. I went to an authoritative source—the online version of the Catholic Encyclopedia ( Here I found the official Catholic understanding of a relic: “...some object, notably part of the body or clothes, remaining as a memorial of a departed saint.” Since miraculous healing powers were attributed to these remains and the Catholic church encouraged their veneration, relic worship quickly nourished and was widespread by the fourth century.

This popularity was accompanied by unscrupulous fraud and greed. Doubtful relics became common, even more so because the concept of a valid relic gradually expanded beyond the immediate remains of a saint. It came to include items that simply came in contact with those remains, or were in some manner associated with the lives of the saints. There were also facsimiles and imitations made of the original objects, which then became venerated just as the originals. Before the year 350, Ciril of Jerusalem noted that the wood of the True Cross, supposedly discovered around 318 by Constantine’s mother Helena, had already been distributed piecemeal throughout the world! One wonders how many slivers of wood came from more humble origins. Other popular relics included filings from the purported chains of Peter, hair of St. James, oil from the lamps of a martyr’s church, even soil from the Holy Land! (Join one of ABR’s digs if you would like to collect your own sample.)

With this background of abuse, what are we to think about objects like the Shroud and the Sudarium? Can they be considered true archaeological artifacts, or are they merely relics of suspect background? And they are not alone; there exist numerous similar items. Carston Peter Thiede in The ...

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