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FIRST-PERSON: Living relics

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Early examinations of the ossuary reputed to have once contained the mortal remains of James, half-brother to Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, have sent ripples of excitement and expectation across the archaeological community. Could the box, dated to A.D. 63, actually have belonged to the biblical James?

By all indications the ossuary itself is authentic and a valuable find for scholars. It was cut from the limestone around Jerusalem, carved in typical Herodian fashion, and shows no sign of tampering by modern implements. It bears the Aramaic inscription “Ya’akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua,” which renowned paleographer Andre Lemaire confirmed was written in the first century.

The bone box belonged, as the inscription indicates, to a James, a son of Joseph and a brother to Jesus. What will forever remain unknown, regardless of the conclusions of scientists and theologians, is whether the James, Joseph and Jesus mentioned are our Lord’s earthly “father,” brother and our Lord himself. Although such a connection may be probable, we need not know for certain.

Paige Patterson, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Time magazine that while the discovery of the bone box, housed for years in the apartment of its owner, was “fascinating” and may be a useful evangelistic tool, Christians should avoid “building faith on archaeological discovery.”

Why? Because “faith” then becomes faith in an object, and true faith, by its very nature, doesn’t require evidence or proof.

The veneration of relics is a practice nearly as old as the church itself, but began in earnest after Bishop Ambrose of Milan displayed the relics of two martyrs in his church between A.D. 385-388. Veneration of the relics was thought then to aid in worship.

But by the Middle Ages, countless articles were visited upon the masses of Europe in ceremonial procession because the Roman Catholic Church believed that “holy relics” held miraculous power and could increase the faith of the flock. Hoards of peasants thronged to see splinters from the true cross of Christ and fragments from the table where Jesus presided over the Last Supper.

Others longed to see thorns from the Savior’s crown and even the head of John the Baptist. Wherever the relics went, miracles followed, or so the church claimed. Christian historians refer to the belief that such objects — or body parts — held magical power as “fetishism.”

Such belief is amusing considering that as many as five heads of John the Baptist floated around Europe. Fourteen churches claimed to possess the foreskin of the baby Jesus, and Martin Luther, who sparked the Protestant Reformation because of his belief that the “just shall live by faith,” lampooned the church when he wrote that enough splinters of the cross existed in Europe to build a mighty ship.

In the “Schmalkald Articles,” Luther wrote that relics were tomfoolery and that “even the devil has laughed at such rascalities.” The veneration of relics, he said, ought to be condemned because such practices were not contained within Scripture. They were “an entirely unnecessary and useless thing.” Luther wrote in his “Large Catechism” that relics were “lifeless, dead things that can make no man holy.”

But the Church of Rome continued to teach that beholding the relics conveyed salvific benefits. Lutheran historian Bernhard Lohse wrote that in 1517 that even Luther’s protector, Frederick the Elector, displayed relics, claiming that those who viewed all of them would escape the suffering of purgatory 127,800 years early.

I do not believe that Baptists, nor any Protestants for that matter, are in danger of becoming entangled in such beliefs.

What I find intriguing, however, is the enthusiasm of archaeologists and the public for the notion that this new relic might be a link to Christ, as if they would believe should the ossuary be authenticated. Some scientists have even suggested extracting DNA from the bone fragments in order to learn about the mother of James — Mary, also the mother of Jesus.

I am reminded of the words of Margaret Deanesly, who wrote in her book on medieval church history of Christians building churches over the graves of apostles. “The dust of the apostle who had seen with his own eyes and touched with his hands the very body of the Savior was itself a link with Christ, inexpressibly precious.”

Ironically, the owner of the bone box reportedly claimed that he withheld his name from public media because he feared his home would become a church where those seeking a tangible connection to Christ would venerate the ossuary.

Those who are looking for a link to Christ need not hope to build their faith by caressing a stone box or laying eyes on a bone fragment. They need to look no further than to the Christian. A relic, while it is a link to the past, is a memorial or testimony to the power of the individual to whom it belonged or belongs. That is precisely what Christians are — living relics.

John wrote in his first epistle that “the one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself … and this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.”

I wonder sometimes if the church forgets how simple that is. We are his workmanship, saved by grace, and we preach the written word and live the testimony of the living word. We live by grace, we love, we share, we build, we pray for peace and if need be we die for others. If the world doesn’t find Christ in us, it surely will not find him because his name is etched into a 2,000-year-old piece of limestone that may or may not have belonged to his relative.

    About the Author

  • Gregory Tomlin