Notes about how the relics of the Old Testament Maccabees martyrs reached Rome

This is an interesting day liturgically. It is the Feast of the Holy Maccabees, Old Testament Martyrs, and it is also the Feast of St. Peter in Chains associated with the Basilica of St. Peter ad vincula in Rome. The connection between the two is that the relics of the Maccabees are in a sarcophagus in the crypt of St. Peter ad vincula. Of all the relics of Old Testament figures these are probably the most important because of their weight for both Christians and Jews. It is fitting that the Basilica is one of the places most visited by Jewish visitors to Rome, because of the mighty statue of Moses by Michaelangelo, intended for the tomb of Julius II, is housed there in.

I learned a long time ago, that it is best to believe the claims that certain things are where they have for centuries said to be. However, in the case of the relics of these Old Testament figures, I have often wondered about how they got to Rome, or were even preserved.

Interesting things about this interesting feast.

NLM has an interesting article on the Holy Maccabees: HERE

Fr. Hunwicke, about the Maccabees, cites Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, vol. II: HERE

I read a fascinating article HERE:  Margaret Schatkin, “The Maccabean Martyrs”, in Vigiliae Christianae Vol. 28, No. 2 (Jun., 1974), pp. 97-113.

Schatkin traces the Maccabee relics from interment after their death to their location in Rome. She uses Patristic sources as well as ancient Jewish writings. Some of the more modern scholarship she works with was, surprisingly, by Card. Rampolla, whose election as Pope after Leo XIII had been been infamously vetoed in the conclave to make way for the election of St. Pius X.

The place of the martyrdom of the Maccabees and preservation of their remains seems to have been Antioch, possibly at the Jewish Synagogue. Once Christianity was the official religion, Christians often seized synagogues and converted them to churches. The cult of the martyrs was well established in the East by the time of Sts Gregory Nazianzus and John Chrysostom and Augustine writes of their cult in Antioch (s. 300.6). It seems that Justianian translated the relics to Constantinople. However, perhaps some of the relics were moved from Antioch to Rome, which is why the Martyrologium Romanum on 1 August says that they were deposited in St. Peter in Chains during the pontificate of Pelagius I (d.561): Eorum reliquiae Romam translatae in eadem Ecclesia sancti Petri ad Vincula conditae fuerunt. It could be, according to sermons associated with or actually by Leo I, that there was a cult of these martyrs in Rome in the 5th c. The Leonine material says that the Feast of the Maccabees was joined to the Feast of the newly dedicated “Eudoxian Basilica” Sancti Petri ad vincula.

In 1867, a 5th or 6th c. sarcophagus was found under the altar of St. Peter in Chains. It had seven compartments each containing clothes containing ashes and bones which is consistent with what St. John Chrysostom said about them. There were also inscriptions on lead which indicated that also the their mother and Eleazar’s relics were included.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a treatise about why the Maccabees were privileged with a feast equal to Christian martyrs. (He seems not to have considered the Holy Innocents.) He argues that they were making a confession of faith, which is how the early Christian martyrs died. Chrysostom suggests that, because they were before Christ’s redeeming Sacrifice, and the greater fear of death, their martyrdom was superior to that of Christians.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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One Comment

  1. Semper Gumby says:

    Interesting, thanks Fr. Z.

    Perhaps there’s a Sword and Sandal movie in there somewhere. In the 6th century St. Ephraim of Antioch and Roman soldier Maximus hoist a sail from Antioch to transfer the Maccabee relics to Rome. Sea battles with pirates ensue. Arriving in Rome, intrigue at the Palace is thicker than a bottle of Garum sauce, broken wine amphorae and out-of-tune harps litter the floor. With the aid of two sisters, St. Callwen and St. Gwenfyl, the Romans are roused from their lethargy. Just in time, as the howling barbarians appear on the horizon to sack Rome again.

    Or, with Justinian’s Plague wreaking havoc, it could be a zombie movie.

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