The Search for St. Peter's Bones

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
April 18, 2008

In the last two columns, we focused on Peter’s death — crucified upside down in the Circus of Caligula and Nero— and on his burial a short distance from the Circus on the steeply sloping Vatican hill. We looked at the archaeological discoveries during the Pontificate of Pope Pius XII that unearthed not only the necropolis on top of which St. Peter’s Basilica was built but also the second-century victory monument over St. Peter’s pauper’s grave, directly underneath and within the main altar of the basilica. That victory monument or tropaion was clearly described in a late-second century letter by a Roman priest named Gaius. When it was discovered under the altar in September of 1941, the excavators’ excitement knew no bounds.

Its presence, just as it had been described, put to rest some modern Protestant claims that St. Peter was never in Rome. After the Reformation, some Protestant polemicists, in trying to argue against papal primacy, began to make the case that, even if Catholics were right that Jesus made Peter the Rock on whom he built his Church and gave him the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Mt 16:18-19), and even if Catholics were right that Peter passed those keys down to his successors, the bishop of Rome couldn’t be his successor. The reason, they argued, was that Peter had never set foot in Rome — since Sacred Scripture was silent his coming to Rome and is our only authority in matters of faith —and therefore could never have been bishop of Rome. Therefore, the primacy of the papacy of the bishop of Rome had no foundation.

Catholic scholars always responded, persuasively and correctly, that these Protestant claims were wrong about there being no proof in the Bible about St. Peter’s time in Rome. He writes his first letter from “Babylon” (1 Pet 5:13), which was a first-century universally-known Jewish code word for Rome. All scholars, from the early Church to the present, recognized that Peter was not writing from the real Babylon, which is about 55 miles south of Baghdad in modern day Iraq.

But the question of whether St. Peter was in Rome is not one of faith, but of history, just as I do not believe that I was in Rome three weeks ago, but know it, and have airline and hotel receipts to prove it. The Church, therefore, was able to use the “scientific method” of history — written sources and the “laboratory” of archaeology — to demonstrate Peter’s presence in Rome. The combination of Fr. Gaius’ letter from 199 pointing to the presence of Peter’s victory monument in the Vatican and the 1941 discovery of that victory monument packed within Constantine’s marble and porphyry box underneath the altar was, for archaeologists clear proof that Peter was buried in Rome, and indirect confirmation that he lived and died there — since translation of corpses was forbidden in the ancient world.

But the discover of the victory monument also made a previous discovery take on larger significance. As I mentioned at the end of last week’s column, a short time before finding the monument, the excavators, digging up from below in the area directly underneath, had discovered a pile of bones. They knew by measurements that this area was underneath the altar and excitedly wondered whether these bones might eventually prove to be St. Peter’s. Now that the victory monument was found, everybody was waiting for their analysis.

To do the work, the Vatican brought in a world-famous anatomist from Sicily, Professor Venerando Correnti, so that the findings, whatever they might be, would be above reproach in the scientific community. After three years of commuting to the Vatican to do his analysis, he published his results: the bones found in the Vatican hill underneath the victory monument were of a woman, some small animals and two men, both of whose femeral striatrions showed they died before the age of 50 — which would have made them much too young to be Peter, unless Peter were less than 14 when Jesus called him from his fishing business and presumably his wife around 28 AD.

So in the midst of great joy that they had incontestably found St. Peter’s tomb, there was also a huge disappointment that they had not found his bones, and huge confusion over to whom the bones found in his tomb belong.

The story does not end there, however. When the excavators approached the victory monument from the north, they were expecting to find the other of the tropaion’s two typical columns. Instead, they found a buttressing wall, which I mentioned last week, built about the year 250. That was odd, they thought, because when Constantine enclosed the tropaion in his marble and porphyry box in the 320s, he could have easily eliminated the buttressing wall, since it no longer had a functional purpose. More than that, the buttressing wall was covered with plaster and the plaster covered with Christian graffiti, including inscriptions about Peter, Christ, Mary, and the victory of eternal life. Finally, hidden within the wall, there was a marble-lined repository, about the size of a safety-deposit box. When this repository was discovered in November, 1941, the workmen thought it might contain the bones of a pope — they hadn’t yet analyzed the bones underneath the tropaion, which they were betting and hoping would turn out to be Peter’s — and so they removed the contents, placed them in a marked box and stored them for later analysis.

Eventually, an epigraphist, Dr. Margherita Guarducci, was brought in to analyze the graffiti on the buttressing wall. She saw the empty repository and thought that knowing what its original contents were might help her in deciphering the graffiti. So she and a Vatican staffer went to the vault where the various boxes with contents awaiting analysis were, found the box containing the debris from the graffiti wall depository contents, and opened it.

Inside the box, there was a large piece of red plaster, confirming it came from the repository which buttressed the red wall behind the tropaion. On the red wall fragment, there was an roughly hewn fourth-century inscription. Petr(os) eni. When Guarducci, the famous Greek and Latin epigraphist saw it, she needed to take a breath. Those words in Greek meant “Peter is here.”

She begged to have the bones that were found in the repository analyzed. Dr. Correnti returned from Sicily. It took him eight years to do the analysis.

We’ll present his findings next week.

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