The Bones of St. Peter
The First Full Account of the Search for the Apostle's Body
by John Evangelist Walsh
© 1982, Doubleday & Co.
(all rights reserved, this material should not be copied)
Copyright © 1982 by John Evangelist Walsh
passages are quoted from the Revised Standard Version.
Some extracts from scripture concerning the bodies of the partiarch Joseph, King Saul, and others:
Joseph took an oath of the sons of Israel, saying, "God will visit
you, and you shall carry up my bones from here." So Joseph died,
being a hundred and ten years old; and they embalmed him, and he was put
in a coffin in Egypt.
the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt ... And Moses took
the bones of Joseph with him ...
bones of Joseph which the people of Israel brough up from Egypt were buried
at Shechem, in the portion of ground which Jacob brought from the sons
of Hamor the father of Shechem for a hundred pieces of money; it became
an inheritance of the descendants of Joseph.
the inhabitans of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to
Saul, all the valiant men arose, and went all night, and took the body
of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan; and they
came to Jabesh and burnt them there. And they took their bones and buried
them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh, and fasted seven days.
went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from
the men of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of
Beth-shan ... And they buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan in
the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of Kish his father.
turned, he saw the tombs there on the mount; and he sent and took the
bones out of the tombs, and burned them upon the altar, and defiled it
... Then he said, "What is yonder monument that I see?" And
the men of the city told him, "It is the tomb of the man of God who
came from Judah and predicted these things which you have done against
the altar at Bethel." And he said, "Let him be; let no man move
his bones." So they let his bones alone, with the bones of the prophet
who came out of Samaria.
I may say to you confidently of the partiarch David that he both died
and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day."
For various sorts of timely assistance, especially in obtaining materials and in the work of translation, I wish to offer my sincere thanks to the following: Dr. Margherita Guarducci of Rome University; Annamaria Conti of the Italian edition of The Reader's Digest; Luciano Belanzoni of Rome; Monsignor H. Monni and Don Michel Basso of the Vatican; Mary Cannizzaro, Robert Goyette, Carol Tarlow, and Virginia Armat; Sterling Library, Dumont, New Jersey.
A special debt of gratitude is owed to all those scholars whose meticulous regard for the facts, and whose sincere attempts to interpret those facts, whether pro or con, have made my own studies so rewarding an experience.
of excavations beneath St. Peter's Basilica.
Side view of the basilica approximate extent and depth of the excavations.
When the man named Simon Peter was brutally executed, some 1,915 years ago in Rome, there passed away one of that small band of historical personalities who deserve to rank as monumental. In history's roll of the great in all fields - religionists, statesmen, philosophers, conquerors, educators, scientists - few others can have lived a life similarly fraught, for so long, with such constant, portentous drama. Beginning so obscurely, so humbly, was anyone before or since ever burdened with so weighty and improbable a task? Assuredly, no other has continued, ages after the earth closed over him, to command such deep regard among living multitudes, generation after endless generation.
In the minds - and hearts - of many people it is no small thing that some part of the mortal remains of this man, through whose living body there flowed the power from Jesus to heal the sick and raise the dead, may still be in existence. Even if he is viewed, as in this case he should be, not in a religious context but simply as the first leader of a movement which was to become a world-altering revolution, the question of the survival of his remains still exerts a powerful fascination. And for just over a decade now, precisely that claim has confronted the world.
In the summer of 1968 it was announced by Pope Paul VI that the skeletal remains of St. Peter had at last been found and satisfactorily identified. The revered bones had been unearthed some time before, he said, from the tangle of ancient structures that lay deep beneath the magnificent high altar of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Paul was careful to explain that his statement rested on long and intensive study by experts, but then he deliberately went further, adding the weight of his own prestige. In light of the archaeological and scientific conclusions, he said, "the relics of St. Peter have been identified in a manner which we believe convincing … very patient and accurate investigations were made with a result which we believe positive." Firmly persuaded as he was, he had felt it nothing less than a duty to make "this happy announcement" at the earliest possible moment.
The circumstance hat the bones were found under the basilica occasioned no great surprise, since the age-old tradition of the church had always located the original grave of the apostle just here. Yet to find that after so achingly long a time, and against all reasonable expectation, some part of this precious body should still be preserved, seemed incredible, a fit occasion for rejoicing. The day following the Pope's announcement, in solemn ceremony led by Paul himself, the bones were restored to their ancient resting place. Since then, privileged visitors have regularly been allowed to enter the small, silent chamber beneath the high altar to pay homage to the Prince of the Apostles. Through a narrow opening in the repository, the bones themselves encased in several transparent receptacles, are just visible.
In releasing his statement, Paul had purposely kept to the essentials of the matter, leaving the details to be supplied to journalists and others by Vatican officials and those directly concerned in the discovery. When the full story reached print, however, in newspapers around the world, there was immediate and widespread puzzlement. In place of clarification there arose annoying clouds of confusion. At fault, to a large degree, was the intricate mass of archaeological data to be absorbed. But far more significant was a single hugely surprising fact: the bones had not been recently discovered, as the Pope had seemed to imply. On the contrary, they had first been found nearly thirty years before.
There was no attempt to make a secret of this rather astounding development. In fact, all those involved went to some length to make it known, and to explain the circumstances. But here, especially, scholarly thoroughness was much too slow-footed for the hurrying pace of daily or weekly journalism. Even the perplexing, not to say startling admission that, at first, the bones had lain neglected, in some vague way "forgotten," proved inadequate to hold the attention o the press - it could not watch even for an hour, but fell asleep on one of the most compelling scientific stories of the century. All too soon, the topic began fading back into the nether world of the professional journals and monographs from which Paul's declaration had so dramatically called it.
Inevitably, after that first flurry of excitement, and as a direct result of the subject's confusion and difficulty, a reaction set in among the general public. Nagging doubts surfaced even in those initially well disposed, and there came a slackening of interest. Belief or disbelief thereafter was based not on the evidence, but largely on personal proclivity. Among most Catholics, free to decide the question as they wished, there was a natural desire, buoyed by the Pope's assurances, to accept authenticity. Among most Protestants, sensitive to the oft-debated question of the exact nature of Peter's primacy in the church, there was a tendency quite as natural to reject.
In subtler form, and perhaps more or less unconsciously, these attitudes infected even the discussions among scholars, on both sides. Thus, a question which should have been tested on purely rational and scientific grounds, was soon awash in emotion, sinking steadily into scriptural and historical argument. Veiled by the disagreement, the physical evidence was virtually ignored. With pieces of the puzzle scattered broadcast over this rough sea of contention, the full consecutive story, told in a form readily grasped by the interested layman, never managed to emerge. The inherent fascination of the discovery itself, the intriguing step-by-step progress of the original quest, was all but blotted out.
It was in some hesitation that I made my initial approach to the subject, wary of its bulk and complexity, questioning whether it would really be possible to lift it out of the academic realm. Very soon I saw that if a coherent picture were to be drawn, the presentation must be by way of a true narrative, not a mere synthesis of results, accompanied by analysis and background. At bottom, the search for Peter's relics, while strictly an archaeological endeavor, was in many ways untypical, even unique. Intimately concerned in it, and quite unexpectedly, was an element of human failing, an unfortunate clash of personality and outlook, which in the end had given rise to some strange twists indeed. Only a consecutive narrative, it seemed, permitting the reader to tread in the footsteps of the original excavators, could hope to do justice to the whole truth.
But that reasonable conclusion, I soon saw, made imperative a more measured approach to the subject's rather daunting scholarship. A judicious sifting was called for, through those myriad details of secular art and architecture, cultural and church history, classical studies, legend and the like, which had crept like jungle growth around the story's essential core, screening it from all but the most determined pursuers. For my purpose, the directly pertinent, clearly relevant facts, derived wholly from primary sources and set down without reserve or embroidery, must be allowed to tell their own tale. Of course, in my Notes, an integral part o the presentation, I could treat such scraps of technical argument or scientific detail as might have some random interest or value. Herded safely at the book's close, however, these sometimes involuted and prickly maters would molest no reader inclined to skirt them.
Pope Paul, in making his 1968 announcement about the bones, took care to stress his personal hope and expectation that, despite his public declaration of their authenticity, study of the relics and their background would not cease. There was still much to be learned, he meant, about the darker corners of the long and involved history of the apostle's grave and mortal remains. My own study was not very far advanced before I too began to sense that, even after so many years of scholarly fine-combing some important aspects of the story still seemed provokingly awry. Thus, as the conclusion to my factual account for the search for Peter's relics I have, in a final chapter, "The Ancient Silence," ventured to offer a few suggestions of my own. It was an added satisfaction, to me at least, that these refinements also threw over the vexing shadows of early Christianity a quite tantalizing, if momentary, flash of light.
shall rejoice in the Lord,