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October 7, 2017

In two previous articles (which you can access here and here), we have seen that:

First, St. Anthony denounced the practice of the Egyptians in his time of displaying the bodies of the departed martyrs and saints at their homes in an attempt to honour them.

Second, sometime in the Middle Period of our history – starting in the 10th century – the Copts began displaying bodies and relics of their martyrs and saints in their churches and monasteries. While the motive of honouring the bodies and relics must have continued, and I would add the need to be blessed by the presence of these sacred bodies and relics, a sinister motive developed: the bodies and relics of martyrs and saints were now displayed by some with the intention for financial gain – the more relics and bodies displayed, the more visitors and pilgrims.

St. Anthony was opposed to both practices. He was of the opinion that the bodies of martyrs and saints should be buried and not be displayed. Denouncing the practice of displaying the bodies of martyrs and saints at their homes by the laity as “neither lawful nor holy at all,” he explained his position in the following words:

“[T]he bodies of the patriarchs and prophets are until now preserved in tombs, and the very body of the Lord was laid in a tomb, and a stone was laid upon it, and hid it until He rose on the third day.’ … [H]e who [does] not bury the bodies of the dead after death transgresse[s] the law, even though they were sacred. For what is greater or more sacred than the body of the Lord?”[1]

St. Anthony’s position is clear. This position, however, cannot be taken against burial of martyrs and saints in churches and monasteries – his position was against the display of bodies and relics anywhere but not their burial. We know that from the Coptic Synaxarium under 2 Amshir, the day on which the Coptic Church celebrates the reposing of St. Pauli (often called Bola), the first hermit, and whose monastery is located a bit south to that of St. Anthony at the Red Sea.[2] The entry describes the difficult journey of St. Anthony looking for St. Pauli after an angelic apparition, the meeting of the two, the death of St. Pauli, and burial of St. Pauli’s body by St. Anthony, who also marked the grave. We are told that St. Anthony wrapped the body in a coat (حُلَّة) that St. Athanasius had previously given him, and buried it in a hole dug in by two lions, and marked it. He also took St. Pauli’s sleeping mat and his tunic which was made of palm leaves, as ‘a son inheriting his father.’ The Synaxarium, which took from earlier source, quotes St. Anthony:

“I then left and walked, and the Lord guided me to an easy road, and allowed me to reach Alexandria. I went into the Cell of Father Athanasius and told him of everything. And the Patriarch took the tunic of Abba Pauli, and used to wear three times every year: on the Holy Epiphany, Easter and the Ascension of Lord Christ.

And the Patriarch provided me with men and a cart[3], and said to me: ‘Go and bring me [the body of] Saint Pauli so that I may put him [it] with the body of Mark the Evangelist.’ And I took the men and went to the mountain[4]; and I spent several days looking for the site [of St. Pauli’s grave] and could not find it. I found the marks [on the road] and directions which I had made but the cave [in which St. Pauli had lived and was buried] I did not find.

And when we were in the mountain, Saint Pauli appeared to the Father, the Patriarch, in a dream, and said to him: ‘Send after the men and return them back to you; for it is not the will of God that my body is seen again by any person.’  And when the Patriarch woke up in the morning, he sent Eulogios[5] off, and said to him: ‘when you go to the desert, you shall see the track of the cart. Call Anthony and those who are with him back for it is not behoving that we make the body of Saint Pauli visible to any man until the appearance of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.’

And Eulogios went out, walked in the desert, found the track of the cart, and got us back to the city [Alexandria].”[6]

Here we note two things:

First, St. Athanasius wanted to add the body of the First Hermit, St. Pauli, to the body of St. Mark the Evangelist at the Church of Saint Mark in Alexandria. The body of St. Mark was buried and not displayed there. We know that from the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church. After the pagans of Alexandria had murdered St. Mark, they attempted to burn his body but heavy rain did not help them. What happened to the body of St. Mark is explained in the following passage:

“Then the faithful brethren assembled, and took the body of the holy Saint Mark from the ashes; and nothing in it had changed. And they carried it to the church in which they used to celebrate the Liturgy; and they enshrouded it, and prayed over it according to the established rites. And they dug a place for him, and buried his body there; that they might preserve his memory at all times with joy and supplication, and benediction, on account of the grace which the Lord Christ gave them by his means in the city of Alexandria.”[7]

Second, St. Anthony did not have any qualm about cooperating with St. Athanasius in his project to bring the body of St. Pauli to Alexandria and bury it in the main church beside the body of St. Mark. The motive for that could be gleaned from the passage above, to ‘preserve his memory at all times with joy and supplication, and benediction’.

No, St. Anthony was against the display of bodies and relics to onlookers but not to their burial in churches to help keep the memory of the martyrs and saints alive in the hearts of the faithful.


[1] From Life of Anthony by St. Athanasius.

[2] See: 2 Amshir in René Basset, Synaxaire arabe-jacobite (rédaction copte); Patrologia Orientalis (Paris, 1904 – 1929).

[3] The word in the Synaxarium ‘مخائل’ seems corrupted and meaningless. Basset ‘translates’ it into ‘chariot’. Perhaps, a cart may be more accurate.

[4] Mount Clysma at the Red Sea.

[5] Eulogios or its Latin form, Eulogius: it means somebody who speaks well. The name in the Arabic text is given as ‘اولوجيوس’.

[6] The English translation is mine.

[7] Severus of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria; Arabic text edited, translated, and annotated by B. Evetts. Part 1: St. Mark – Theonas (300 AD) (Paris, Patrologia Orientalis, 1904); pp. 147-8.

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