Within Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy specifically (there may be more) there are many patron saints. Is there any biblical basis that exists for the assignment of a patron saint?
The word "saint" can historically and philologically be shown to originate in the Greek texts that would later be bound together as the NT, although Christianity retroactively applied the title to non-humans in the OT (like angels, as in St Michael). The invocation of saints is a phenomenon that started in the Roman period, so clearly something changed regarding the interpretation of the Greek word in Latin.
Let's look for example at Acts 9:13:
In Ancient Greek, the word for saints here is ἁγίοις (note that throughout the NT the word is always used in, or implies, plural). The word ἅγιος appears 229 times in the Greek New Testament, and has few usages in older Greek texts. Its primary meaning is "devoted to the gods".
Note that Acts refers to a time when Christianity did not exist or was not widespread (the text is dated to around 70 CE), so the "saints" referred to here are generally held by philologists to be all Jews or Christians, i.e. God's chosen people. So in the original Greek, the word does not refer to any specific select group of Christians or Jews who served "better". This is confirmed in the translations of Acts 26:10, Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:2, and 1 Peter 1:15-16
The word ἅγιος stems from Proto-Indo-European *Hyeh₂ǵ-yus. Cognates include Latin iēiūnus (mostly used in Latin as "to sacrifice (to the Gods)", which interestingly is not used in any Latin translation although the meaning is closer to the Greek than sanctus, which is used in most Latin translations.
The word sanctus has widespread use in texts predating Christianity in Latin, mostly in Roman religion. The word divus or devus, also referring to Roman religion and frequently used as a title for Roman emperors, was used as well as a translation for ἅγιος in early texts. This is illustrated in a pamphlet, published in 1865 in Italian, titled "Sulla deificazione nel senso pagano e nel senso cattolico ... relativi all'uso della voce latina "divus" nell'epigrafia cristiana". This can be translated as "On the deification of the pagan meaning and the catholic meaning ... relative to the use of the Latin term "divus" in christian epigraphy."
So in stead of iēiūnus the Latin texts used sanctus and devus, probably because these words had more resonance with the Roman population of the day, but this is the probable root of the re-interpretation of ἅγιος implying all Jews or Christians to "a select few", and the worship of those "select few", as had been the tradition in Roman culture. Thus the worship of Saints very likely finds its roots in the deification and worship of important Roman figures like the Roman emperor, not in the original Greek NT.
To answer the original question: "Is there a biblical basis for the assignation and invocation of patron saints?" It is important to clarify the terms patron saints and invocation, and to consider the relevant related bible scriptures.
Patron saints can be defined as heavenly advocates of a nation, place family or person. Bible scriptures related to this concept are for example:
- Hebrews 1:14 “What are the angels, then? They are spirits who serve God and are sent by him to help those who are to receive salvation.” (GNT).
- Psalm 91:11 “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” (ESV)
- Daniel 10:13 “But for twenty-one days the spirit prince of the kingdom of Persia blocked my way. Then Michael, one of the archangels, came to help me, and I left him there with the spirit prince of the kingdom of Persia.” (NLT)
There are only bible scriptures which mention angels as helpers, there are no scriptures that mention saints (humans ascended to heaven) as helpers dedicated to specific families, places, nations, or other partial groups. The evil spirit of Persia (Daniel 10:13) is the only spirit mentioned in the bible which seems to be dedicated to a specific nation. One could argue that maybe some of the ascended saints would have particular preferences for specific families, or birth cities or nations. But this would seem to be in conflict with the scripture in Hebrews 10:34,35 “Peter began to speak: “I now realize that it is true that God treats everyone on the same basis. Those who fear him and do what is right are acceptable to him, no matter what race they belong to.” (GNT)
The Invocation of saints or patron saints, is asking saints for assistance in temporal or spiritual need. The concept seems based on asking for an Intercessory prayer by saints on behalf of others. Intercessory prayer is the act of praying to a deity on behalf of others. What does the bible say about this and related topics? - Revelation 8:4 : And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand. (KJV). There saints which pray to god are mentioned. Some consider also Zechariah 1:12,13 to be an example in the bible of an angel praying to God on behalf of humans. Intercession (prayers on behalf of others) are mentioned in various places in the bible:
- Genesis 20:7-17: Abimelech was told by the lord to ask the prophet Abraham to pray for him, which Abraham did.
- Job 41:7,8: Eliphaz was told by the Lord, that Job should pray for him.
- Philippians 1:3,4: “I thank my God for you every time I think of you; 4and every time I pray for you all, I pray with joy” (GNT).
- James 5:15 “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” (NIV)
The bible thus mentions prayers by saints, and prayers on behalf of others. There are however, no bible scriptures which mention prayers to saints. One could reason that this was the number of saints would be small in the early days of the new testament. On the other hand there would have been others like Stephen (Acts 6:8) who had already died at the time of the writings of Paul and others. It is argued that, the invocation of saints (humans ascended to heaven), is a natural extension of the concept of asking intercession of alive humans, to asking intercession to those beyond the grave . One key difference is however, that while alive humans are able to speak humans who are alive, and they can ask others directly. But how can one communicate to those beyond the grave? The bible has several verses about mediums or Necromancers.
- Leviticus 19:31 “Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God. (ESV) (See also Isaiah 8:19).
In the case of invocation prayer is used to communicate with the saints asking them for help. In case of intercession prayer to saints is used to ask them for a prayer on someone’s behalf. Prayer is considered different from Necromancy by the churches that support invocation and intercession of saints. What does the bible says about to who to and in what way to pray?
- Matthew 6:9 “Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (ESV)
- John 15:16 "… whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you” (ISV)
- John 14:6 “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (KJV)
- 1 Timothy 2:5 “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus,” (NIV)
When considering invocation of saints, the decision to make is if communicating or praying to saint is suitable or not. The Catholic Church and some Orthodox churches consider invocation of saints as a “good and profitable” thing to do. In the Council of Trent it was stated that: “It is good and profitable to call upon the saints”. Most reformed churches reject invocation by saints .
- Butler Thomas. The truths of the Catholic Religion proved from scripture alone. 1843 Booker & Company Liverpool
- Article 21 of the Augsburg Confession
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Intercession
Is there a biblical basis for the assignment of patron saints?
First of all, I will not be dealing with the Biblical bases for praying to saints in general because that has been answered in the following question: What is the Scriptural basis for Catholics praying to Mary and the various saints? The Orthodox think along similar lines in this regard as Catholics do.
Not desiring to simply make this a duplicate question and answer, I will deal with the part of assigning the names of patron saints.
Both Catholics and Orthodox have to some degree the practice of celebrating a names day. This stems more from tradition than from any biblical source.
I do not believe there is a biblical basis for the assignment of patron saints to a person, place or church. It is a tradition the simply developed over the centuries.
A name day is a tradition in some countries in Europe, Latin America, and Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox countries in general. It consists of celebrating a day of the year that is associated with one's given name. The celebration is similar to a birthday.
The custom originated with the Christian calendar of saints: believers named after a saint would celebrate that saint's feast day, or in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the day of a saint's death. Name days have greater resonance in the Catholic and Orthodox parts of Europe; Protestant churches practice less veneration of saints. In many countries, however, name-day celebrations no longer have connection to explicitly Christian traditions.
The celebration of name days has been a tradition in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox countries since the Middle Ages, and has also continued in some measure in countries, such as the Scandinavian countries, whose Protestant established church retains certain Catholic traditions. The name days originate in the list of holidays celebrated in commemoration of saints and martyrs of the church. For example, the name Karl or Carl is celebrated in Sweden on January 28, the anniversary of the death of Charlemagne (Charles magnus, i.e., "the great"). The church promoted celebration of name days (or rather saints' feast days) over birthdays, as the latter was seen as a pagan tradition.
Where name days occur official list is held containing the current assignations of names to days. There are different lists for Finnish, Swedish, Sami, and other countries that celebrate name days, though some names are celebrated on the same day in many countries. From the 18th century and onwards the list of name days has been modified in Sweden and Finland.
Thus both Catholics and Orthodox have the tradition of assigning a particular particular saint to help you on you journey throughout life. This becomes your patron saint by association of one’s given name. True that with some names there may be several names of saints that have the same name. However more often than not the birthday of an individual will let one known which one is their patron saint. For example if one is born on September 29, and his parents name their child Michael or Mikella, it would be apparent that their patron saint would be St. Micheal the Archangel.
As for patron saints of countries, churches and ecclesiastical regions, I am going to let the Catholic Encyclopedia explain how patron names are assigned. Once again this is done more by tradition and logic than by any Scriptural basis.
A patron is one who has been assigned by a venerable tradition, or chosen by election, as a special intercessor with God and the proper advocate of a particular locality, and is honoured by clergy and people with a special form of religious observance. The term "patron", being wider in its meaning than that of "titular", may be applied to a church, a district, a country, or a corporation. The word "titular" is applied only to the patron of a church or institution. Both the one and the other, according to the legislation now in force, must have the rank of a canonized saint.
Patrons of Churches
During the first three centuries of the Church's history, the faithful assembled for worship in private houses, in cemeteries, or other retired places. At intervals it had been possible to erect or adapt buildings for the sacred rites of religion. Such buildings, however, were not dedicated to the saints, but were spoken of as the House of God, the House of Prayer, and sometimes as the Temple of God. They were also known as Kyriaca, Dominica, or Oratoria. Larger structures received the name of basilicas, and the term church (ecclesia) was constantly employed to designate the place where the faithful assembled to hear the word of God and partake of the sacraments. After peace had been given to the Church by Constantine, sacred edifices were freely erected, the emperor setting the example by the character and magnificence of his own foundations. The Christians had always held in deep reverence the memory of the heroes who had sealed with blood the profession of their faith. The celebration of the solemn rites had long been intimately associated with the places where the bodies of the martyrs reposed, and the choice of sites for the new edifices was naturally determined by the scene of the martyrs' sufferings, or by the spot where their sacred remains lay enshrined. The great basilicas founded by Constantine, or during his lifetime, illustrate this tendency. The churches of St. Peter, St. Paul outside the walls, St. Lawrence in Agro Verano, St. Sebastian, St. Agnes on the Via Nomentana were all cemeterial basilicas, i.e. they were built over the spot where the bodies of each of these saints lay buried. The same practice finds illustration in the churches of SS. Domitilla and Generosa, SS. Nereus and Achilleus, St. Felix at Nola, and others. From this custom of rendering honour to the relics of the martyrs were derived the names of Memoriœ (memorial churches), Martyria, or Confessio, frequently given to churches. The name of "Title" (Titulus) has from the earliest times been employed with reference to the name of the saint by which a church is known. The practice of placing the body or some relics of a martyr under the altar of sacrifice has been perpetuated in the Church, but the dedication was early extended to confessors and holy women who were not martyrs. The underlying doctrine of patrons is that of the communion of saints, or the bond of spiritual union existing between God's servants on earth, in heaven, or in purgatory. The saints are thereby regarded as the advocates and intercessors of those who are making their earthly pilgrimage.
Choice of patrons
Down to the seventeenth century popular devotion, under the guidance of ecclesiastical authority, chose as the titulars of churches those men or women renowned for their miracles, the saintliness of their lives, or their apostolic ministry in converting a nation to the Gospel. Urban VIII (23 March, 1638) laid down the rules that should guide the faithful in the future selection of patrons of churches, cities, and countries, without, however, interfering with the traditional patrons then venerated (Acta S. Sedis, XI, 292). As during the days of persecution the most illustrious among the Christians were those who had sacrificed their lives for the faith, it was to be expected that during the fourth century the selection of the names of martyrs as titulars would everywhere prevail. But with the progress of the Church in times of comparative peace, with the development of the religious life, and the preaching of the Gospel in the different countries of Europe and Asia, bishops, priests, hermits, and nuns displayed in their lives lofty examples of Christian holiness. Churches, therefore, began to be dedicated in their honour. The choice of a particular patron has depended upon many circumstances. These, as a rule, have been one or other of the following:
(1) The possession of the body or some important relic of the saint;
(2) his announcement of the Gospel to the nation;
(3) his labours or death in the locality;
(4) his adoption as the national patron;
(5) the special devotion of the founder of the church;
(6) the spirit of ecclesiastical devotion at a given time.
Leo XIII enumerated (28 Nov., 1897) as characteristic religious movements of our time: devotion to the Sacred Heart, to Our Lady of the Rosary, to St. Joseph, and to the Blessed Sacrament. It should be clearly understood that a church is, and always has been, dedicated to God: other dedications are annexed on an entirely different plane. Thus a church is dedicated to God in honour (for example) of the Blessed Virgin and the saints. A typical form is the following: "Deo sacrum in honorem deiparæ immaculatæ et SS. Joannis Baptistæ et Evangelistæ." In 1190 a collegiate church in Dublin was dedicated "to God, Our Blessed Lady, and St. Patrick". Sometimes out of several who are mentioned the patron is expressly designated, as in the dedication of a chaplainry in Arngask (Scotland) in 1527, "for the praise, glory, and honour of the indivisible Trinity, the most glorious Virgin and St. Columba, abbot, our patron of the parish". The celestial patronage here considered will be restricted in the first instance to churches and chapels. Patrons in different countries generally present a distinctly national colouring; but the principles which have governed the selection of names will be made apparent by the examination of a few instances. In comparing place with place, the rank or precedence of patrons should be kept in view. A convenient arrangement will be the following:
- to God and the Sacred Humanity of Christ or its emblems;
- to the Mother of God;
- to the Angels;
- to the holy personages who introduced the New Law of Christ;
- to the Apostles and Evangelists;
- to other saints.