Friday, May 18, 2007

More on the tomb of St John

You will know my mind is focused on the problem of the Tomb of St John at Selcuk in Turkey. Yesterday, a friend told me there was a story about the tomb having been opened and all that was inside blowing away in the wind. I tried googling this story and came up with nothing. Does anyone else know anything?

In the meantime, I found this piece of information repeated on the net in various places but with little detail:
When he [John] died, according to his will, he was buried on Ayasuluk Hill, which was a graveyard or necropolis. A wooden basilica was built over his tomb in the fourth century A.D. In the sixth century, with help from Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora, a larger basilica was built, the remains of which we see today. From 1920 to 1921, the Greek archeologist, Sotiriu, removed a skeleton from the tomb during his excavations. Many Christians consider this an important site.
But if he "removed a skeleton", to where was it removed?

An extended treatment is found on page 148-150 of John, the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend By R. Alan Culpepper (Published 1994, Univ of South Carolina Press), but this suggests that the tomb was found empty in the excavations by Sotiriu.

Again the question must be: why so little interest on the part of the Church? The article on St John in the Catholic Encyclopedia doesn't even mention the place of his death. Curiouser and curiouser...


At Friday, May 18, 2007 5:28:00 pm , Anonymous Lucian said...

So--considering what a great to do there is about the resting place of other great apostles, why is this holy place allowed to go unrecognised, unadorned, unkept, unvisited by pilgrims, uncelebrated by the liturgy, and just about un-everything else?

Should the final resting place of the beloved disciple, the guardian of the Blessed Virgin in her old age, the Divine Theologian of the most sublime Gospel and the resplendant Apocalypse, be forgotten?

Why--for goodness sake--wasn't the place still a living church with a constant throng of pilgrims?

Very easy: the body's missin'. (According to Greek legend, it gradually disappeared and simply vanished into thin air right in front of the people that burried it there [together with the bed it was lying on, if I remember correctly]). We don't possess the relics. They're not to be found anywhere.

What can we do about this?

Why, that's an easy one: find the [uncorrupted, wonder-working, sweet-smellin', precious] relics.

I'm not calling for another crusade or anything ...

Yeah ... right ... (and do You honestly want me to actually believe this??) :)

P.S.: I also observed that "i"'s from Your jorney-posts don't have dots on them. Do You know why ;) ? (And just in case You're wondering: all of the other "i"'s from all of Your other posts have the dots place above them).

At Friday, May 18, 2007 5:31:00 pm , Anonymous Lucian said...

No body, no case. Case closed.

At Friday, May 18, 2007 7:23:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

Okay, that pretty much concurs with what my friend said. And it explains a lot. But do you have any source for that legend? Why is there nothing of it in the "official" encyclopedia entries for St John? And why was a Church still built over the spot by Justinian if the conclusion is "no body, no case"? Is it not still a holy site? And what about this business of skeleton(s) being removed? I want a little more clarity on this (before the crusade starts! :-) )

And the reason the dots were missing on my Turkey posts is because I was using a Turkish keyboard which has about a dozen extra letters and commas and colons and other punctuation marks in odd places. I had to totally retrain my typing, which was not easy when tired and late at night or early in the morning. So I thought, since the "dotless i" was where the normal i usually is on our keyboard that we could just live without the dots. Now if it were scripture I was writing, one could be accused of removing one "tittle" from a "jot", I guess...

At Friday, May 18, 2007 11:21:00 pm , Anonymous Lucian said...

The un-dotted 'i' means 'î'. :)

My official surse was something a priest wrote somewhere (either on, or on -- they are official sites of the Russian, respectively the Greek, Orthodox Church in America) from Greek Tradition while treating upon a subject somehow related to John (easy way out: ask a Greek). :D

At Friday, May 18, 2007 11:48:00 pm , Anonymous Lucian said...

I was wholly unable to find or re-locate the specific article I was talking about, BUT here are 4 other official articles, all of which say the same thing:

At Saturday, May 19, 2007 4:22:00 am , Anonymous Lucian said...

Oh, yeah, ... and speaking of 'official' sources ... IT'S IN THE LIVES OF THE SAINTS !!! Try the entries for May 8, and September 26. ... Do I have to do EVERYTHING for You?? ;)

At Saturday, May 19, 2007 6:22:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

Okay, Lucian, you are referring to Orthodox "Lives of the Saints". I haven't found a similar statement in any Catholic accounts. I wonder why?

Anyway, here is what you wil find at Lucian's suggestion:

"Commemorated on May 8: The Church commemorates St John on this day because of the annual pilgrimage to his grave. When St John was more than one hundred years old, he took seven of his disciples and went to a spot outside the city of Ephesus. There he told them to dig a grave in the form of a cross. Then he climbed into the grave and told his disciples to cover him with earth. Later, the grave was opened and the saint's body was not there. Each year on May 8 a red dust would arise from the grave which the faithful collected in order to be healed of their illnesses."

Why do I have real difficulty believing this legend? The answer is clear: would a saint of the Church ask his disciples to bury him alive? Would his disciples do such a thing?

But okay, I now accept that it is generally accepted (one way or another) that the body of St John is no longer (if it ever was) in the spot refered to as "The Tomb of St John". Nevertheless, it was obviously a location of immense importance to the early and medieval Church--so why does it not get better treatment in this day and age?

At Saturday, May 19, 2007 6:26:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

I must say that I find this account from the coptic source ( by Lucian more satisfying:

"When St. John felt that he was about to depart from this world, he summoned the people and administered to them the Body and the Blood of the Lord. He preached and commanded them to be steadfast in their faith.

He then departed from the City of Ephesus for a short distance. He commanded his disciple and others with him to dig there a pit for him. He went down in it, raised his hands and prayed and then bade them farewell. He commanded them to return to the city and to confirm the brethren in the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ, and said to them, "I am innocent of your blood, for I did not leave any command of God that I haven't taught you, and now, let it be known that you will never see my face again, and God will reward everyone according to his deeds."

When he said that, they kissed his hand and his feet, and they left him and returned to the city. When the people knew what had happened, they went out to where the saint was, and they found that he had departed. They wept and were deeply sad. They talked about his miracles and marvelled about his meekness.

In spite of the fact that he did not die by the sword, as the rest of the apostles did, he was equal to them in the heavenly glories, for his virginity and his holiness."

But that still doesn't explain a) why there was such veneration for a spot known as his "tomb" that a basilica was built over it, and b) why we do not venerate this spot today.

At Saturday, May 19, 2007 7:51:00 pm , Anonymous Lucian said...

Why do I have real difficulty believing this legend?

Becasue You're not an Orthodox.

I haven't found a similar statement in any Catholic accounts. I wonder why?

You don't find any mention of it in Catholic sources most probably because of the same reason You don't find any mention of the descending of the Holy Light at Easters in Jerusalem, [though it is attested early on, in the 4th century] or the fact that the Jordan flows backwards at Christ's Baptism -- i.e., THEY HAD NO IDEEA [the very poor East-West communication]. (But don't sweat about it; we don't know A LOT of stuff from Your Tradition also, if that makes You feel any better).

would a saint of the Church ask his disciples to bury him alive? Would his disciples do such a thing?

PLEASE DON'T start with this! You're beggining to sound like this guy over here, with his Deuteronomical "Thou shalt not pray to the dead" obsession:

As I've already told You, we Orthodox are interested in uncorrupted, sweeet-smelling, light-shining, wonder-working bodies of Saints. The ONLY empty tomb we're interested in is that of Jesus (Marry's empty tomb is also a poor pilgrimage spot, sadly).

At Monday, May 21, 2007 8:01:00 am , Blogger Schütz said...

So... Was the Emperor who built the Basilica of St John over his (as you point out) "empty tomb" not Orthodox?

Re strange legends: I was just reading this morning about the legend of how the mortal remains of St James came to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, and it is at least as fanciful as the story about St John. But I understand that you Orthodox are not well up on our own silly stories...

Look, I am an historian with a keen respect for tradition, not a traditionalist who tries to make history fit my tradition. If there is a place that is called "the Tomb of St John", I want to know why. And if someone built a whopping big church there once, I want to know why. And if no-one bothers to revere the spot anymore, I want to know why. OK? Traditional legends help me to understand this, but the legends to which I have been referred so far are a long way from satisfying my historical curiosity.

At Monday, May 21, 2007 2:28:00 pm , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

Obviously the spot used to be revered, because the tradition says it was, and there are the remains of a big basilica there.

Equally obviously, it no longer is. I was completely unaware of it until you blogged about it, David, and if Eastern Christians preserve the memory of it I think they do so in a fairly low-key way,

And, still equally obviously, the reason why the place is no longer venerated is not that the body isn’t there. There’s been no body there since very shortly after John died, and that didn’t stop them building a big basilica and a ‘tomb’ and have a tradition of pilgrimage to the site.

After all, the reason why John is worthy of veneration has nothing to do with where or how he died. If there’s a tradition that he died at Selcuk, that would be quite enough to have Selcuk develop as a centre of veneration, that the fact that his body was not there, and that the tradition itself was historically questionable, would really be irrelevant, since those things don’t go to the root of John’s significance or sanctity.

It may sound prosaic, but I suspect the reason that the place is no longer a centre of veneration is that there are no Christians there anymore, or there are so few Christians, and they have been so insecure, that they haven’t wished to call attention to themselves.

And I also suspect that those factors are still relevant, and they are the single largest reason why Selcuk doesn’t again become a big centre of veneration or pilgrimage today.

In short, there is no veneration of John at Selcuk for pretty much the same reason as there is no veneration of the Prophet Nephi at his supposed birthplace in Jerusalem; there aren’t enough Mormons there.

At Monday, May 21, 2007 10:01:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

Welcome back, Peregrinus! Is it raining there in the West? It is here, thanks be to God!

Generally, I think you speak great wisdom and the veritable truth. Afterall, there are many sites of veneration in Christendom that rely on an important event having occured there, not the relics of a saint being present.

But your idea that a place of pilgrimage and veneration is not possible in such a location doesn't stack up, because just around the corner is the Catherine Anne Emerich "House of Mary"--a joint which has no historical basis whatsoever, yet gets huge numbers of pilgrims (mostly tourists) visiting each year, has mass said there every day at 7am, and has even played host to various popes (as recently as last November). I mean, why here and not around the corner at the tomb of St John? If there can be such a thing as the "Virgin Mary Cultural Park" which (I kid you not) is what the Turkish Government calls the House of Mary, why not an "Apostle John Cultural Park" on the hill at Selcuk?

And why is there such vagueness on the tradition about John's final end? As I said, the story about St James' relics in Santiago de Compostella is at least as fanciful as any version of the John story, but at least everyone is clear about it.

I cannot help but continue to be intrigued by this strange situation.

At Wednesday, May 23, 2007 2:27:00 am , Anonymous Lucian said...

And why is there such vagueness on the tradition about John's final end?

What vagueness?


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