Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation

Article excerpt

Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation BY ROBERT BARTLETT PRINCETON, 8o8 PAGES, $39-95

In 1981, in a slim volume called The Cult of the Saints, Peter Brown called for an honest reappraisal of the cult, and his book sparked an interest in the ways in which early Christians honored the saints. With Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Robert Bartlett, a professor of medieval history at the University of St. Andrews, contributes to a growing body of work on the cult and shows how far historians have come in recognizing its central role in the history of Christianity.

Post-Enlightenment critics such as Gibbon and Hume attempted to portray the cult of the saints as a vulgar accommodation of paganism within Christianity. Bartlett's book offers a helpful critique of this position. Educated bishops and their less-educated laity had comparable levels of enthusiasm for the cult. Criticism of the cult existed from time to time in the Middle Ages, and this early criticism often pointed out similarities with pagan cults. Functional similarity, however, is not the same as continuity. The Christian cult of the saints begins from different presuppositions.

The cult of the saints started with the martyrs. Christianity has a unique fascination with the dead. Pagan Greeks and Romans considered dead bodies defiled. Cemeteries lay outside the city limits, and cremation was a typical form of burial. Cremation symbolized the soul's ascent and the dissolution of the body. The death of Christian martyrs, however, testified to faith in the resurrection, and the Christian community testified to their own faith in the resurrection by caring for the martyrs' remains. Miracles attended these remains, and the saints began to function as patrons to the Christians who frequented their graves.

For early Christians, the veil between life and death was a flimsy one, which Christ's resurrection had torn. …

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