Athanasius’ St. Anthony on Relics

In the course of his third and intermittent exile (356–362, 362–364, 365–366), the famed Athanasius of Alexandria penned his biography of St. Anthony. Anthony was certainly not the first Christian ascetic, but he does seem to have helped put the monastic life “on the map” for Christianity in a new way through his legacy. Part of what spurred Athanasius to write Anthony’s vita was the bishop’s ongoing campaign to recruit monastic support in Upper Egypt, which appears to have been largely successful in the long run. Notably, Anthony is portrayed in the biography as an enemy to Athanasius’ own enemies: Arians, Melitians, pagan philosophers, etc. Raymond Van Dam has even suggested Athanasius was using Anthony as a kind foil for Eusebius’ version of Constantine.[1] Indeed, despite his patronage of Nicaea, Constantine had made an enemy of Athanasius by exiling the bishop to Gaul, not for Athanasius’ theology, but because he had been found guilty of having illegally “roughed up” (i.e. jailed and whipped) local theological rivals in Egypt. Historical corroboration of Athanasius’ guilt in this matter is fairly robust.[2]

Of course, none of that much affected Athanasius’ status in Christianity’s longue durée, and few patristic figures can rival Athanasius’ prestige as a bulwark of orthodoxy. In light of the ascendant cult of the saints, then, it is interesting to see what Athanasius reports about the end of Anthony’s life and specifically what the monk intended to be done with his body. According to Athanasius, Anthony feared the following:

The Egyptians are wont to honour with funeral rites, and to wrap in linen cloths at death the bodies of good men, and especially of the holy martyrs; and not to bury them underground, but to place them on couches, and to keep them in their houses, thinking in this to honour the departed. And Antony often urged the bishops to give commandment to the people on this matter. In like manner he taught the laity and reproved the women, saying, ‘that this thing was neither lawful nor holy at all. For the 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.’ And thus saying, he showed that he who did not bury the bodies of the dead after death transgressed the law, even though they were sacred. For what is greater or more sacred than the body of the Lord? Many therefore having heard, henceforth buried the dead underground, and gave thanks to the Lord that they had been taught rightly.[3]

Just before his death, Anthony reminds his disciples directly:

Ponder over these things and think of them, and if you have any care for me and are mindful of me as of a father, suffer no one to take my body into Egypt, lest haply they place me in the houses, for to avoid this I entered into the mountain and came here. Moreover you know how I always put to rebuke those who had this custom, and exhorted them to cease from it. Bury my body, therefore, and hide it underground yourselves, and let my words be observed by you that no one may know the place but you alone.[4]

We then read that Anthony’s wishes were carried out: no one except the two men who buried him ever knew the location of his body.[5] (Here Athanasius has even put in a few verbal echoes of Moses’ secret burial in the Septuagint version of Deut. 34:5-6.) No one knew, that is, until his relics were allegedly discovered and later transferred to Constantinople.[6]

Whatever implications Anthony’s/Athanasius’ instructions about relics may or may not have for the medieval cult of the saints, the more immediate context was the local Melitian wing of Egyptian Christianity. In addition to their penchant for apocryphal literature (see Athanasius’ frustration with this practice in Festal Letter 39), the Melitians were also major enthusiasts for martyr shrines, such that the martyrs were considered “a living presence in the community” that continued to exorcize the demons and speak oracularly to those who visited their tombs.[7] With these sources of live, ongoing revelation, one can see how the Melitians’ model of authority conflicted with the episcopally-driven ecclesiology favored by Athanasius and other fourth-century bishops.

  1. Raymond Van Dam, The Roman Revolution of Constantine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 318–9.

  2. Stephen J. Davis, The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity, (Cairo ; New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2004), 56.

  3. Life of Anthony 90, translated by H. Ellershaw, available at New Advent:

  4. Life of Anthony 91.

  5. Life of Anthony 92.

  6. In an hour of searching, I can find very little scholarly information about the discovery and translation of Anthony’s relics. Evidently, however, some believe relics of his reside in France. One example with photos:

  7. David Brakke, “Scriptural Practices in Early Christianity: Towards a New History of the New Testament Canon,” in Invention, Rewriting, Usurpation: Discursive Fights over Religious Traditions in Antiquity, ed. David Brakke, Anders-Christian Jacobsen, and Jörg Ulrich, vol. 11, Early Christianity in the Context of Antiquity (New York: Peter Lang, 2012), 273­–5. David Frankfurter, “Where the Spirits Dwell: Possession, Christianization, and Saints’ Shrines in Late Antiquity,” The Harvard Theological Review 103, no. 1 (2010): 30–3.


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