When did Christians first pray to the saints?

history

I’ve got a couple of blog posts in the works, but just now I wonder if readers can help me with a question. Here it is:

When did Christians first start praying to the saints?

I am not interested in Catholic / Protestant / Orthodox wars with this one. It is a real request for historical information and that is all I want. I recently read an article at an anti-Protestant website (I don’t usually read such things, but a friend suggested it), and the writer claimed that

“Asking the saints for their intercession is a basic part of all of historic Christianity.”

I was taken aback. All of historic Christianity!

As best I can tell, the practice of asking deceased saints to pray for us is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament. I have also never encountered the practice being encouraged or even mentioned among the earliest Church Fathers. So my question is really simple: When did Christians first start praying to the saints? Whatever you might think is a good or a bad practice, what’s the earliest documented example of the practice? That’s the question.

When I raised this question on Facebook, I was met with a reply consisting of a large chunk of text copied and pasted from what I gather was Catholic apologetics source. All that was offered in regard to the early church was a list of times when somebody had stated that angels and saints pray, and that they pray for people. If you are tempted to reply with this sort of evidence, please don’t. I am aware of that sort of remark in, for example, the Shepherd of Hermas, Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Cyprian (third century), who said that the saints in glory pray for others. The earliest example that really answered my question was from AD. 300, in an anonymous funerary inscription. The dead man is asked to rest in peace and to pray for us. So that is the beginning of the fourth century. When assessing the apologist’s claim that Asking the saints for their intercession is a basic part of all of historic Christianity, a first occurrence coming from an anonymous source at the start of the fourth century would appear to show, at the very least, that there is no evidence of this very strong historical claim.

Does anyone know of an example prior to the fourth century of Christians being enjoined to pray to the saints and ask for their intercession?

Please treat this solely as a historical question. Any barbs about differences between Catholics and Protestants will probably be removed. Also, please only provide a response and / or a source if it directly and explicitly answers the question. That may seem like a condescending thing to say, but when I first asked the question, the evidence supplied was actually evidence of a different claim, namely that Christians believed that saints on the other side prayed for us. That’s not the issue about which I am asking here. I only want to know when and where the practice began, and if there is a source demonstrating this earlier than the fourth century.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 31 comments… add one }
  • Chris Van Allsburg July 26, 2015, 6:23 pm

    Glenn,

    While I don’t know the time period and genesis of such a practice, my experience in Ethiopia with the Orthodox Church here has taught me that the practice of appealing to the intercessory power of saints is due to Monophysitism. In this doctrine, Christ’s two natures become one, and His humanity is subsumed (consumed?) by His divinity. Hence, the remains no longer a human intercessor for the Christian, and Mary, angels, and saints take that role. I hope that helps.

    Cheers,
    Chris

  • Blair July 26, 2015, 8:29 pm

    This is a very good posting offering some quotes from the early Church:

    https://lettersonorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/intercession-of-the-saints/

    There is a prayer to the Theotokos (Mary), “Beneath Thy Protection”, dating from about 250AD. Earlier than that, there are references to the veneration of relics in the Martyrdom of Polycarp. There are references in the Martyrdom of Ignatius to his intercession after death. The intercession of the dead in 2 Maccabees. And there are other references to angelic intercession in the Deuterocanon, as well as the Book of Enoch, which, while apocryphal, at least shows it as a Jewish custom. How widespread can only be speculated. But if you want something from the canon accepted by Protestants, Revelation has Saints under the altar interceding and wondering why God doesn’t wrap this whole thing up already. So there is plenty of support for the view that the intercession of the Saints is a doctrine held “always, and everywhere, by all”.

    Personally I find the “argument from silence” convincing regarding the seeking of Saints’ intercession, but you may not. It just doesn’t seem like it was a controversy that cropped up in any major way until the Reformation.

    Chris, I don’t think you are correct, Monophysitism only reared its head in the 5th Century, and the Chalcedonian Orthodox (ie. us Greeks, Russians, Antiochians etc.) from whom those cburches split also seek the intercession of the Saints.

  • Glenn July 26, 2015, 8:38 pm

    Veneration of relics is beyond the scope of my question, and as I understand the 2 Maccabees reference (you didn’t provide details), it’s a solitary case of a prayer being made for people who have just died (unless I am remembering it wrong), not a case of people asking the dead to pray for them (a second issue is that I have asked about Christians). As I said in the post, I only want sources that are directly about the question, because an issue like this can quickly skid out of control over all sorts of ecclesiastical disagreements. Remember, too, that the issue is not intercession, but praying to departed saints, asking them to intercede. I tried to almost over-stress this to make sure that the evidence was explicit and on target.

    So, with that point reiterated, Blair, it would appear that what you’ve offered falls outside of the issue I’m asking about. It still looks, then, like the fourth century is as early as it gets.

  • Blair July 26, 2015, 8:44 pm

    Should add one more thing – setting aside historical and even Biblical texts, the question boils down to whether the resurrection is REAL or not? Does Christ cause His Saints to live? Is He the God of the living or of the dead? If He is the God of the living (as Scripture clearly states), then we cannot believe in a walled Arcadia heaven, but a dynamic interactive heaven of union with Christ. Does He act alone or in concert? Again, Scripture tells us He does not act alone – He sent out the 70, and when He did so, nobody they came across said “no, I won’t accept your ministry and healing, I am waiting on Christ Himself!”. They accepted the help of the Saints as ministers of Christ on His behalf. They are alive, and remain alive, and with Christ they vivify the whole world.

  • Blair July 26, 2015, 8:49 pm

    Okay Glenn, fair enough but I mentioned a bunch of other things that did address your question. They are covered at the link quite comprehensively.

    I think you also need to recognize that if Saints do intercede, it is no stretch for us to ask them to do so. The onus would otherwise be on you to show why departed Saints can talk to God, and we can talk to God, but we can’t talk to the departed Saints!

  • Glenn July 26, 2015, 9:04 pm

    When it comes to historical questions that are requesting evidence, the issue of “onus” is irrelevant. The question is just: What’s the earliest evidence? The onus is on anyone who wants to answer. I almost removed your comment about the resurrection being real, Blair. Please, you must respect my request when commenting on this thread. I will not allow an ecclesiastical dispute to be implied here. There is one and only one question that I am willing to entertain here, and it is a very specific question about historical evidence. That is all.

    I have looked through the article that you linked to. As I’ve already said, I am aware of some earlier sources that claim that the saints pray for us, so the example of Ignatius doesn’t seem to hit the mark here. The same is true of the examples from Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Cyprian. These examples say that the departed saints pray for others, but that wasn’t the question here.

    The John Rylands Papyrus 470 is an interesting one though. It is fragmentary enough that there’s no context, but yes it would be the oldest candidate for any prayer intended to be heard by Mary, mid third-century. It wouldn’t support (not directly at least) any claim that there was a wider practice of asking the deceased saints for intercession, but it would be the first when it comes to Mary.

    But generally speaking, the article you linked to doesn’t answer this question. It answers the question of whether or not people in heaven pray for those on earth, which – as I noted in the blog entry – I am not asking about. (Sorry to harp on about it, but I did think I was explicit.)

  • James Nolen July 27, 2015, 6:45 am

    Since the Apostles. These are excerpts from the book, “The Lives of the Holy Apostles.” The book includes translations from “The Great Synaxaristes of the Orthodox Church” and “The Lives of the Saints in the Russian Language, According to the Menology of St. Dimitri of Rostov.”

    After they had performed the burial, they sat down by the apostle’s [Thomas] grave and wept. And, lo! The saint appeared to them, ordering them to return to the city and confirm the brethren in the Faith. He also said: “Tertiana and Migdonia, forget not what I have told you. Preserve your godly piety, and the Master Christ will help you.” Obeying this command from their teacher, the holy Apostle Thomas, both Siphor and Wazan governed the Church of Christ well, aided by his supplications. (Page 204)

    Some years later, one of the sons of King Mazdai became demonized, and no one was able to cure him, for the cruelest of demons inhabited him. The king was greatly grieved over the affliction of his son and bethought himself of opening the grave of the holy Thomas with the intention of removing one of the bones from his body and touching it to his son’s neck, that he might be delivered from the demon’s torment; for he had heard that St. Thomas had, during his lifetime, driven from men a multitude of demons. When the king desired to do this, the holy Thomas appeared to him in a dream and said: “Thou didst not believe in me when I was alive; thinkest thou to find help from me when I am dead? Do not remain in thine unbelief; My Lord Jesus Christ will be gracious unto thee. Take soil from my grave and put it on thy son, and forthwith he will be healed, for I am not one to remember wrongs.”
    This dream increased the king’s desire to open the grave of the apostle. Going to the site of the saint’s burial, Mazdai opened the grave, but did not find the relics there; for a certain Christian, having secretly removed the relics, had borne them away to Mesopotamia and there enshrined them in a fitting place. Taking up earth from that place, the king applied it to the neck of his son, saying: “O Lord Jesus Christ, through the prayers of Thine Apostle Thomas, heal Thou my son, and I will believe on Thee!” (Page 205)

    No sooner had the iron coffer with the precious relics been cast into the sea, than the saint [Matthew the Apostle] appeared at night to Bishop Planton, saying: “Go thou tomorrow to the shore of the sea, to the east of the prince’s palace, and there take up my remains, which will have been borne to the dry land.”
    … “And [the prince] falling down before the casket containing the relics of the saint, he besought the holy one’s forgiveness and expressed a heartfelt desire to be baptized. (Pages 215-216)

    There are many such stories from the saints and martyrs of the first several centuries.

  • Giles July 27, 2015, 7:26 am

    Glenn, you might wish to check out https://energeticprocession.wordpress.com/2011/07/29/prayers-to-saints-in-the-pre-nicene-era/. It cites an early 3rd century quote from Hippolytus “praying” to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, though this could be read as poetic licence. Also a quote from Origen about offering supplication to the saints, though it’s not 100% clear to me that he is referring to departed saints. Also the Rylands papyrus. The quotes from Hippolytus and Origen are likely to be earlier than the papyrus.

  • Glenn July 27, 2015, 1:07 pm

    Giles: Yeah, the Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego example does seem more poetic, as though asking courageous figures in the story to inspire us now with the same courage. I agree that the Origen example doesn’t obviously refer to departed saints.

    James, unfortunately your example of Thomas falls outside of the question I have asked, as it relates to the use of Holy Relics, not prayers tot he saints, invoking their intercession (unless I have misread). Incidentally, when did St Dimitri write that, and when is the earliest witness to it?

    I wrote the above before reading your second example, of Matthew. This, too, falls outside of the scope of what I have asked, as it is a case of the use of holy relics.

    So at this stage – based solely on the evidence – it looks like we have a fragmentary example from the mid-third century, which in context may have been a prayer to Mary, and it looks like the practice developed from there, with prayers to the saints more broadly beginning to appear in the fourth century.

  • Mick July 27, 2015, 3:27 pm

    It should be easy enough to track down. Just find the first century Roman tax department records and find the first christian businessman who received a notice they were going to audit his last 7 years accounts.

  • Wes Bancroft July 27, 2015, 4:53 pm

    Hey Glenn–

    This is great and challenging question and one that I have not pondered in a while. So I looked through some of my books and came up with what I think(?) meets your criteria which is: “Does anyone know of an example prior to the fourth century of Christians being enjoined to pray to the saints and ask for their intercession?”

    Here is what I came up with:

    EARLY CHRISTIAN INSCRIPTION
    “Blessed Sozon gave back [his spirit] aged nine years; may the true Christ [receive] your spirit in peace, and pray for us [Christian Inscriptions, no. 25 (c. A.D. 250)].”
    – Akin, Jimmy. The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church

    EARLY CHRISTIAN INSCRIPTION
    “Gentianus, a believer, in peace, who lived twenty-one years, eight months, and sixteen days, and in your prayers ask for us, because we know that you are in Christ [Christian Inscriptions, no. 29 (c. A.D. 250)].”
    – Akin, Jimmy. The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church

    EARLY CHRISTIAN INSCRIPTION
    “Pray for your parents, Matronata Matrona. She lived one year, fifty-two days [Christian Inscriptions, no. 36 (c. A.D. 250)].”
    –Akin, Jimmy. The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church

    RYLANDS PAPYRUS 470
    “Mother of God, [listen to] my petitions; do not disregard us in adversity, but rescue us from danger [Rylands Papyrus 470 (c. A.D. 300)].”
    – Akin, Jimmy. The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church

    ST. METHODIUS OF PHILIPPI
    [W]e pray you, the most excellent among women, who boastest in the confidence of your maternal honors that you would unceasingly keep us in remembrance. O holy Mother of God, remember us, I say, who make our boast in you, and who in august hymns celebrate the memory, which will ever live, and never fade away. [Oration on Simeon and Anna 7 (c. A.D. 300)].

    And also, O honored and venerable Simeon, you earliest host of our holy religion and teacher of the Resurrection of the faithful, be our patron and advocate with the Savior God, whom you were deemed worthy to receive into your arms. We, together with you, sing our praises to Christ, who has the power of life and death, saying, “You are the true light, proceeding from the true light; the true God, begotten of the true God” [ibid.]
    –Akin, Jimmy. The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church

    Secondly, though I would ask, what is the criteria required for a passage to meet the part of your criteria of “intercession”? Does it have to say “pray for us” or “be our patron” or “remember us”? Just curious as to what would meet that explicit requirement, because I could also site the Didache of looking to the saints:

    “And seek out day by day the faces of the saints, in order that you may rest upon their words.”
    – [The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles or Didache. (c. A.D. 50-150)].

    Lastly, I won’t go into, but I would bring up the notions about arguments from silence, positive evidence in relation to silence, or the conditions for silence to carry evidential weight, but you are a top notch philosopher so I know you know!

    – Pax Christi, Wes

  • Wes Bancroft July 27, 2015, 4:57 pm

    Oh one other thing! : )

    What is being asked here as well, seems to require that the scope of relevant data be artificially restricted (which is fine, since it is your question!) I would say that this form of epistemic reductionism applied to historical inquiry by which one excludes a priori the evidential relevance of proximate data on the basis of an assumed discontinuity (which is not what I am saying you are doing, but what some anti-Catholics do) is a violation of the principle that proximate evidence informs underdetermined evidence, because such reductionism presupposes discontinuity by interpolating discontinuity into the methodology. Likewise, the positivist methodology of historiography by which one presupposes that there is no evidence for an event or entity at time t, unless there exists presently documents written at time t about that event or entity is a violation of this principle, again because such a methodology unjustifiably loads the presupposition of discontinuity into the methodology by unjustifiably disallowing proximate data to count as evidence.

    I only bring this last point up, because I can site about 12 sources for intercession of the saints past within the 4th century.

    Cheers!

    – Pax Christi, Wes

  • Glenn July 27, 2015, 5:33 pm

    I do not know what the term “epistemic reductionism” means here, other than: Asking a question about a particular body of evidence. If that’s what it means, it seems like a perfectly fine thing to engage in.

    So, to your list of evidence (evidences?):

    You cite the Rylands Papyri and the example from Methodius, from the fourth century, which is consistent with what I’ve seen so far. Most sources give AD250 for the Ryland papyri, as I noted earlier.

    But the earlier sources are less clear. The Didache, for example, is definitely not an example of praying to the saints and asking them to intercede. Instead it is a case of believers being called to reflect on the words of the saints.

    Regarding the various inscriptions, we would need some context. For example, are these funerary inscriptions? If so, I don’t think we can read anything into them. Funerary inscriptions, even today, often contain farewell messages for the deceased that they are not expected to actually hear, but which we expect to apply to them nonetheless (for example “go to your reward,” “rest in peace” etc). If Christians believed that the departed continued to pray for us, then it wouldn’t be surprising to see such things there. But that would be different from a piece of writing, say, a year after the death of that believer, where somebody was petitioning them to pray for us. See what I’m getting at.

    So it still seems like Marian prayers possible began to arise in the mid-third century (I say possibly because we lack the context for the saying in the Rylands Papyri), and the practice of including other saints, as far as we can say for sure, began to occur from the fourth century.

    Again, just based on the written direct evidence, even if you find that reductionistic. 🙂

  • Tito Pereira May 5, 2016, 11:24 pm

    Due to the language barrier, do not dare make any contribution on the subject, under the penalty of embarrassment. But if I understand the request made and the comments made so far, any of you ever considered what has been said about the inscriptions in the catacombs of San Sebastian? ““Paule ed Petre Petite pro Victore”

  • Tito Pereira May 6, 2016, 2:12 am

    Or it doesn´t have anything to do with the subject?

  • Glenn May 9, 2016, 10:50 am

    Hi Tito – What you’re referring to is Graffiti, and it’s not an exact science determining when the graffiti was added.

    Still, the late third century is theoretically possible, and is later than the earliest example I’ve found so far (mid-third century). So it looks like we can’t find the practice of praying to saints any earlier than the mid third century.

  • Wesley Bancroft May 9, 2016, 11:48 am

    Saw some new comments so I thought I would contribute some more:

    Glen you said:
    “I do not know what the term “epistemic reductionism” means here, other than: Asking a question about a particular body of evidence.”

    When I am referring to reductionism, I don’t mean metaphysical reductionism or something like that, but rather just the reduction of data to an artificially rendered period of time.

    To expand more on what I had said, the principle I am referring to is that proximate data informs the interpretation of underdetermined direct data unless there is independent positive evidence of discontinuity (which is why I alluded to silent arguments.) If the data directly pertaining to the event in question is underdetermined with respect to its ability to indicate which of the available theses is correct, then data proximate to the direct data rightly informs the interpretation of the direct data, unless there is evidence of relevant discontinuity between the direct and proximate data. This means that when the direct data is such that from this data alone multiple explanations are possible, and the difference between the likelihoods of the explanations is inscrutable without presupposing what is in question, then all other things being equal, the explanation most compatible with data proximate in time and space is to be preferred unless there is independent positive evidence of a discontinuity between the direct data and the proximate data. As a consequence, the likelihood of an explanation of underdetermined direct data is increased by the existence of proximate data that comports with that explanation, all other things being equal.

    This is a positivist methodology of historiography, presupposing that there is no evidence for an event or entity at time t, unless there exists presently documents written at time t about that event or entity. As you know, positivism in general is a stance of disbelief in certain legitimate ways of knowing, and the attempt to prohibit these ways of knowing from being treated as legitimate or able rightly to relate us epistemically to reality. For this reason, positivism in general is a form of skepticism. Positivist historical methodology is likewise a philosophical form of skepticism, because it artificially and unjustifiably disallows proximate data to count as evidence. I would just point out that this question might adopt this philosophy – in practice – by arbitrarily restricting the temporal scope of data allowed to count as evidence, and then treating anything written outside that stipulated temporal scope as untrustworthy for providing insight into the conditions within that time period, and therefore the positive evidence from proximate data is made to seem to be refuted by arguments from non-evidential silence drawn from the data inside that restricted temporal scope. In this way the method presupposes discontinuity, and thus its results entail discontinuity. The discontinuity it ‘finds’ is loaded into its very methodology.

  • Wesley Bancroft May 9, 2016, 11:49 am

    “If that’s what it means, it seems like a perfectly fine thing to engage in.”

    Couldn’t agree more, which is why a put that little postscript about it being a fine question, since it is in fact the specific question you posed. Just curious, is the restriction of the historical data to the 3rd century somehow in relation to The First Council of Nicaea and Ante-Nicene Fathers? I imagine so, and you don’t have to divulge why, I am just curious. I mean, given this data, seems to be two distinct periods when the Church held to the belief that the deceased are actively praying for us, but then there seems to be a transition around The First Council of Nicaea when Christians began to pray to them.

    “Regarding the various inscriptions, we would need some context.”

    I agree. Here are some sources that I think could help to illuminate and provide contextual evidence for why I don’t think a 2nd or 3rd Century Christian would simply be writing these as passive, funerary inscriptions, but rather as supplications for intercession.

    Firstly, the historical and cultural background of early Christians which includes their Jewish context. Without getting to deep into this, I would point to this article on Called to Communion wherein David Anders lays out the case for strong Jewish belief in the cult of the dead. http://bit.ly/1ITzIH4

    Secondly, more direct contextual evidence surrounding epigraphs, ancient graffiti, and early inscriptions found in catacombs and cemeteries:

    “A special and fortunate case in this regard is the so-called Memoria Apostolorum in the archaeological complex of the funerary area of St. Sebastian on the Appian Way, where in hundreds of Greek and Latin graffiti the intercession of St Peter and St Paul is invoked or ritual meals eaten in their honour are recalled: “Paul and Peter, intercede for Victor”, “Peter and Paul, remember us”. It can be said that these epigraphs, apparently repetitive, are among the strongest evidence in support of the theory—advanced by some scholars—of the partial and temporary translation of the apostolic relics from their original sites on the Appian Way in the years of persecution under Valerian.

    Thus, these graffiti can be assigned to a well-defined chronological period between the second half of the third century and the first decades of the fourth, when the construction of the Constantinian basilica, in the same area but at a higher level, put an end to that custom followed previously by the faithful for rites in honour of the Apostles, thereby “sealing” all that belonged to that phase of its construction.”
    – L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English, 9 February 2000, page 6, URL: http://bit.ly/1hoFNRv

    While many funerary inscriptions do not invoke the dead to pray on our behalf prior to the 4th century, a handful seem to. However this cannot be an argument against intercessory inscriptions because the opposite is also true; namely that there are many inscriptions during and after the 4th century that do not include intercessory language, but are just general statements about the state of the person’s soul, etc.

  • Glenn May 10, 2016, 10:56 am

    “When I am referring to reductionism, I don’t mean metaphysical reductionism or something like that, but rather just the reduction of data to an artificially rendered period of time.”

    OK, that seems like a weird way to say it, but thanks. It’s an arbitrary time period I admit, based on a very vague sense of what just seems early. It’s very easy indeed to think of wayward practices developing after a couple of centuries – goodness, there were wayward practices in the first century! It had nothing to do with Nicea, no.

    I think some of your language in dismissing things is a bit unhelpful. For example, saying “reductionistic” to dismiss something even though it doesn’t really apply, or you say that the graffiti would not have been written as “passive” funerary inscriptions, whatever on earth that means (it certainly doesn’t sound like anything I said, nor do I know what it means. How does one write passively?)

    I’ll ignore the link to the Catholic apologetics piece in favour of seeing early Christians as having a cult of the dead. Sorry, but all I’m really interested in here are specific items of evidence. I’m also not really interested in discussions of positivism. Whether you like the method of asking for specific evidence for historical propositions or not, that’s what I’m doing. I’ve invited people to offer specific pieces of evidence if they know about them. We can talk endlessly about what we don’t know, and doubtless people are happy to reconstruct undocumented histories in ways that favour their position. Fine, but that’s outside the scope of what I’m asking for.

    “While many funerary inscriptions do not invoke the dead to pray on our behalf prior to the 4th century, a handful seem to.”

    Yes, this seems to be the case, starting (as far as we know) in the late third century, which agrees with the other evidence discussed in this thread. Whether you like this method or not, we only have evidence of Christians offering invocations to dead saints from this time.

  • Wesley Bancroft May 10, 2016, 11:32 am

    Thanks for the response Glenn!

    By passive I mean the writer was not asking for intercession. The multiple graffiti examples I provided clearly state “Pray for us”, and your theory (in your past comment if you recall) is that Early Christians were writing passive (opposite of active) inscriptions, meaning they are not actively asking for intercession:

    Your words were: “Funerary inscriptions, even today, often contain farewell messages for the deceased that they are not expected to actually hear, but which we expect to apply to them nonetheless (for example “go to your reward,” “rest in peace” etc).”

    But can you make make a sort of reverse-anachronistic example like that? Because modern persons write funerary inscriptions that simply “remember the dead” therefore that is the way that early Christians did may have also done it? I don’t really even see this as being pertinent linkage as we should simply focus on the historical and cultural backdrop of early Christians, and not attempt to inject the modern mindset. To further drive home the point about this line of thinking being faulty, there are modern Christian traditions who write epitaphs which ask for intercession of their beloved dead based on the ancient practice of intercessory epitaphs, namely the Eastern Orthodox. Therefore, saying what people do today is irrelevant. Secondly, that is why I linked to the “Catholic” article to show how I don’t think it is merely passive.

    “there were wayward practices in the first century…”

    Totally agree, and I am comfortable with that due to the strong concept of the development of Christian doctrine. So then, why is asking the question “what were Christians doing at time t” so important if we accept the principle of genuine developments contrasted with corruptions? Do you reject this principle? Just curious. Again, this is your blog, so if you don’t like the questions feel free to ignore them since they don’t touch on the exact original question you asked.

    Lastly, I don’t feel like dismissed anything in my comment and gave rationale and justification for everything I stated. I just think historiography and historical methodology should be where we start and not just tack on at the end. I do think your statement runs against this notion and feels a little dismissive actually:

    “It’s an arbitrary time period I admit, based on a very vague sense of what just seems early.”

    – Pax Christi

  • Wesley Bancroft May 10, 2016, 11:33 am

    Thanks for the response Glenn!

    By passive I mean the writer was not asking for intercession. The multiple graffiti examples I provided clearly state “Pray for us”, and your theory (in your past comment if you recall) is that Early Christians were writing passive (opposite of active) inscriptions, meaning they are not actively asking for intercession:

    Your words were: “Funerary inscriptions, even today, often contain farewell messages for the deceased that they are not expected to actually hear, but which we expect to apply to them nonetheless (for example “go to your reward,” “rest in peace” etc).”

    But can you make make a sort of reverse-anachronistic example like that? Because modern persons write funerary inscriptions that simply “remember the dead” therefore that is the way that early Christians did may have also done it? I don’t really even see this as being pertinent linkage as we should simply focus on the historical and cultural backdrop of early Christians, and not attempt to inject the modern mindset. To further drive home the point about this line of thinking being faulty, there are modern Christian traditions who write epitaphs which ask for intercession of their beloved dead based on the ancient practice of intercessory epitaphs, namely the Eastern Orthodox. Therefore, saying what people do today is irrelevant. Secondly, that is why I linked to the “Catholic” article to show how I don’t think it is merely passive.

    “there were wayward practices in the first century…”

    Totally agree, and I am comfortable with that due to the strong concept of the development of Christian doctrine. So then, why is asking the question “what were Christians doing at time t” so important if we accept the principle of genuine developments contrasted with corruptions? Do you reject this principle? Just curious. Again, this is your blog, so if you don’t like the questions feel free to ignore them since they don’t touch on the exact original question you asked.

    Lastly, I don’t feel like dismissed anything in my comment and gave rationale and justification for everything I stated. I just think historiography and historical methodology should be where we start and not just tack on at the end. I do think your statement runs against this notion and feels a little dismissive actually:

    “It’s an arbitrary time period I admit, based on a very vague sense of what just seems early.”

  • Glenn May 10, 2016, 11:40 am

    “Totally agree, and I am comfortable with that due to the strong concept of the development of Christian doctrine. So then, why is asking the question “what were Christians doing at time t” so important if we accept the principle of genuine developments contrasted with corruptions? ”

    I don’t think the concept of development should make us comfortable with the fact that wayward practices began to develop. I’ve made no appeal to the development of doctrine, so it doesn’t make sense to challenge me as to why I have asked what Christians were doing at time t. When I noted that wayward practices had more time to come about as history progressed, I was simply trying to help you see why I was insisting on a relatively early time period when asking about this practice.

    In any event, I never asked what Christians were doing at time t (where t, I assume, represents a specific time). Instead, I have asked when the earliest evidence for invocation of the saints comes from. I trust you see the difference, as well as why this is a worthwhile question to ask.

    Obviously historical methodology should be where we start, and it is not reasonable to portray us as disagreeing about this. But at some point any historian will roll up his or her sleeves and say OK, what data do we actually have, and how old is it?

    (Tangentially, I don’t think a general request for intercession can meaningfully be called “passive,” and it labeling my claims in ways that do not make sense does indeed look to me like a method of categorising and hence dismissing them.)

  • Wesley Bancroft May 10, 2016, 12:35 pm

    “I don’t think the concept of development should make us comfortable with the fact that wayward practices began to develop.”

    My reasoning here was just that Christian belief clearly developed, and some were are wrong and some are right, so asking when we have evidence of Christians believing something is interesting in an of itself, but then nothing further should be gleaned from it if your justification is that it “seems early” or it is “relatively early.” I am not implying you are trying to prove some anti-Catholic point with your question either, I just wanted to have a further discussion that the question shouldn’t be used to prove some further point about intercession being late and therefore bad. : )

    “In any event, I never asked what Christians were doing at time t (where t, I assume, represents a specific time). Instead, I have asked when the earliest evidence for invocation of the saints comes from. I trust you see the difference, as well as why this is a worthwhile question to ask.”

    Maybe I am just not seeing the difference between asking “What (what equals intercession of saints) were Christians doing before time t (where t equals before 4th Century)” and “What earliest evidence for invocation of the saints comes from”. Would you be able to expand on this?

    Maybe we are talking past each other on the term “passive”. I am not saying YOU are being passive! All I mean is that you seem to believe (correct me if I am wrong) that when early Christians were writing in their Graffiti and they said “Pray for us” or “intercede” they were not really asking for active prayer, rather they were asking passively. Hope that clears that up! : )

  • Glenn May 10, 2016, 1:25 pm

    “My reasoning here was just that Christian belief clearly developed, and some were are wrong and some are right, so asking when we have evidence of Christians believing something is interesting in an of itself, but then nothing further should be gleaned from it if your justification is that it “seems early” or it is “relatively early.””

    Where you see absolutely nothing, I see worthwhile avenues of thought. Just one quick example: If something was believed and practiced from the beginning, and in fact taught by the Apostles in Scripture, then we can glean that it was not a corruption or straying practice that developed later in error. If it didn’t develop (as far as we know) for a few centuries, such a corruption is more of a live option. I didn’t say in this article that this is what was happening here, but the suggestion that nothing further can be gleaned is not true.

    I noted that I wasn’t asking “what were Christians doing at time t” (your words).
    Just a small error, but in explaining that really I was saying something that amounted to the same thing, you’ve changed this to: “What (what equals intercession of saints) were Christians doing before time t (where t equals before 4th Century)”

    I trust you’ll see that I was asking something similar to (but not the same as) this second version, but I never asked anything like your first question, and it was the first question I objected to. So I don’t need to explain how my question differs from your second question. 🙂

    “I am not saying YOU are being passive!”

    Well obviously, I realise that! As I said, I just don’t see how asking for general intercession of the saints is a passive thing to do. Passive would be allowing someone to pray (or simply to be prayed for). Asking for it, whether specifically or generally, is active.

    But just to recap everything strictly on point I think you’ve brought here:
    First you defended the graffiti as belonging to the late third century. OK, granted.
    You also objected to a positivist approach to history. I think I’ve covered this, noting that my only purpose has been to ask for specific examples of evidence, which is something that every historian at some point has got to deal with. It never goes away when questions of fact are before us.

    You’ve also said that development happens, and so development of errors and of doctrine both occur. I granted this and it doesn’t make a difference. (Readers may disagree over whether the practice of invoking departed saints is one or the other.)

    So I *think* that wraps up our possible conflicts.

  • Michael December 13, 2016, 3:27 pm

    In addition to some of the secure sources you’ve already been pointed to, I can add a couple more 3rd century graffiti. It doesn’t take you much earlier than your original 4th century example, but it does seem to indicate that the popular practice of asking holy men and women who were believed to be in God’s presence to pray for us and for others was fairly well-established by the (probable) earlier date of Rylands 470.

    In the same necropolis that contains the tomb of St. Peter is a Valerian tomb with a graffito asking Peter to pray for the Christians buried near him (asking the dead to intercede on behalf of the dead!). Start at this image and scroll down for the information about it published a half century ago:
    http://www.stpetersbasilica.info/Necropolis/MG/TheTombofStPeter-8.htm#fig44

    Also from the mid-to-late 3rd century is a graffito from the catacombs beneath S. Sebastiano asking Peter & Paul to pray for someone named Victor. This one is so well-known that it even shows up in a basal Latin language texbook, Wheelock’s; cf. 23 for a plate. It is also used as evidence against the tomb under St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City being the actual tomb of Peter, since there was apparently a cult to Peter & Paul out along the Appian Way in the mid-third century. The whole next section of Guarducci’s book (linked above) is meant to discount that as evidence of the location of the saints’ bodies.

    While these are not examples of Christians being “enjoined to” ask for the intercession of those who have died, I think you probably have enough to safely say that Christians were in fact doing this by the mid-200s.

    Happy hunting!

  • Glenn December 15, 2016, 9:53 am

    Hi Michael
    Yes, as unfolded in the comments, the earliest evidence I can see anywhere is in a couple of examples (tombs) some time from the mid to late third century. How widespread it was of course we cannot tell from this. But that’s as far back as things go, and as for actual Christian writing from a Church Father (for example) that touches on it, there’s nothing from the era.

  • Guilherme January 22, 2017, 1:16 am

    Hey Glenn, I’ve been trying to find evidence on this matter too. And the earliest evidence that I found is this:

    Various (probably Philo and Agathopus who were with Ignatius):
    [After the death of Ignatius and in a dream] “… some of us saw the blessed Ignatius suddenly standing by us and embracing us, while others beheld him again praying for us, and others still saw him dropping with sweat, as if he had just come from his great labour, and standing by the Lord.” (Martyrdom of Ignatius [A.D. 107 – 116])

    You’ve mentioned you know about this source. What is your reason not to see it as an evidence from a time of early apostolic succesion?

    Me, I’m not sure what to do with this evidence, since it seems to be the only one from such an early period. But the fact that Ignatius stood in an early period of apostolic succesion, seems at least to support the possibility that the practice was common in the early 2nd century – a time very close to the time where the apostle John was still living. What you think?

    Again, as a Protestant I am still not convinced that this was an apostolic practice Would like to see more evidence too.

    Kind regards

    Gui

  • Glenn January 23, 2017, 10:24 am

    Hi Guilherme

    I don’t use that source because of what it is: A dream about Ignatius praying for people. It’s not an example of people praying to Ignatius.

  • Mike May 9, 2017, 4:26 pm

    Hi Glenn,

    My wife, who is Catholic, pointed out your blog to me (I am not Catholic) and I am fascinated. You seem to be asking an ad hoc question. When did Christians first start documenting their requests for saints to intercede on their behalf? The way you have defined the rules for answering the question, the answer is probably “sometime around 300AD”. So obviously, sometime not TOO terribly long after our Lord died and was resurrected (no more than about 250 years or so), Christians began asking for the departed to intercede on their behalf. They made the mistake of not recording it though. But if that was a mistake, then at least 500 early Christians made the same mistake – those who personally witnessed the risen Christ, because otherwise we’d have at least a couple hundred more Gospels. So what we KNOW is that at some point (300AD by your estimate), Christians began the practice. We also know that not all Christians recorded some PRETTY SIGNIFICANT EVENTS. So I’m going to go with “300AD” as my final answer, and then ask a follow up question . . . your point is?

  • Glenn May 10, 2017, 2:59 pm

    Hi Mike
    Many historical questions are as ad hoc as mine. You say that “they made the mistake of not recording it.” This is not something you know, however. We have to restrict ourselves to evidence-based answers, or at least that’s what I’ve decided to do here.

    As for your question “your point is?” I’m not sure I understand. I didn’t make a point. Rather this blog entry was a request, namely a request for evidence regarding the earliest documented appearance of this practice. Not everyone sees a point in acquiring such historical knowledge, which I suppose is fine. But if I had a point, it’s that I want to know, because I have witnessed some strong claims that, as far as I know, are not supported by the available evidence. This suspicion of mine has been confirmed and my question has been answered.

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