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)
Accustomed to the polite, ordinarily placid atmosphere that usually surrounds scholarly debate, Dr. Guarducci was not prepared for the pained outcry that in many quarters greeted publication of her book in February 1965. Almost angrily, nonplussed scholars listed what they considered serious defects in her theory, both generally and in detail. Most damningly, it was charged, she had utterly failed to make plausible the rather astounding, if not downright ridiculous, claim regarding the provenance of Peter's supposed relics: found, lost, found again, put aside once more, then finally identified only through the merest chance. Her brief, strangely awkward exposition of that lengthy and astonishing episode, it was said, would leave even the most naοve of readers coldly unimpressed. And on top of this, she displayed an annoying tendency to push her evidence too far, offering as certain, things which were no more than probable or possible, if that
There was justice in these charges. Rather incredibly, in her account Dr. Guarducci had told as little as possible about the background to the discovery. Instead, she contented herself with stating, in effect, that the bones had been removed by Monsignor Kaas in ignorance of their true identity and without the knowledge of the excavators, and that ten years later she had been able, as she expressed it, to "trace" them, but omitting all explanation of how the tracing was done. Then after still another decade, she said, following Correnti's work, she had "recognized" the possibility that they might be Peter's remains. No reason was offered for Kaas' high-handed actions, or for the excavator' ignorance, nor was anything said about Segoni's part in the little drama. The bald statement, made still less convincing by a labored exposition, was woefully inadequate to its task.
The failure was unfortunate, and was to cause no end of misunderstanding (echoes of which still sound today). But it did not flow from scholarly deficiency. Largely, it was an error of the heart. A misguided wish to shield the reputations of all concerned had clouded the scientist's usual good sense, leading her to try the impossible - gaining acceptance for the relics while telling less than the full truth.
Problematic enough was the unprecedented reality of the situation. Now in the public mind the difficulties had been redoubled, leading a few critics to dismiss the whole, fantastic episode as the fevered result of one overenthusiastic scholar's relentless effort to "find" Peter's relics. From the very first, it was said, she had set out determined to discover the bones of the apostle - so of course she had discovered them. Too late, Dr. Guarducci realized her mistake.
Aside from that major flaw, there were several other objections from the critics which also struck home. But these were susceptible of direct proof, and Dr. Guarducci quickly moved to close the gaps.
The first concerned the purple cloth. As all the critics agreed this royal wrapping was a very telling point in the theory's favor, definitely associating the bones with a dignity far above the ordinary, even implying some sort of ultimate significance. Yet Dr. Guarducci's treatment of this critical point was sadly incomplete. How could anyone be certain that the cloth had in fact originally been true Roman purple, if it now appeared mostly a deep, rusty red? It was not sufficient, rather it was thoroughly unscientific, simply to assume that this present color was the faded reflection of an original vibrant purple.
For that matter, exactly what shade had the ancients taken to be purple? Some experts, citing wall paintings and mosaics, insisted that violet or mauve was closer to Roman purple than was the modern conception, and that Roman purple did not have a red base. It was also claimed that ordinary wool was never used by the Romans to make purple fabrics, and in any case imitation purple, reddish in tint, was not unknown among wealthy Roman citizens desirous of aping their betters. Very clever things could be done with vegetable dyes, particularly cochineal, achieving a purplish effect without quite encroaching on the royal privilege.
These objections were not frivolous, and the whole arcane subject of ancient textile coloring now threatened to submerge discussion of the repository cloth, sinking it into a rambling many-sided disagreement. As it happened, a little-known branch of archaeology was soon able, again through chemistry, to supply a definitive answer.
The Roman purpling agent, experts had long known, was a very special dye kept firmly under state control. More recently the source of the dye had been found: it was made from an extract of Mediterranean shellfish, murex brandaris or murex trunculus, one giving a slightly deeper tone than the other. A test for identifying this shellfish dye had been developed which was both simple and admittedly infallible. The object to be tested was first treated with hydrochloric acid. If the color, even though faded, was the true Roman purple derived from shellfish, it would be unchanged in hue, though a little heightened. The same object was then treated with hydrosulfite of ammonia. Slowly the color would turn to a muddy yellow, then on exposure to the air would gradually resume its original red, greatly intensified. With this test, the reaction of any dye except that made from the murex would be radically different.
In a laboratory at the University of Rome, Dr. Guarducci and a colleague from the chemistry department prepared several threads taken from the repository fabric. Under the microscope, to Dr. Guarducci's eye they appeared a dull, dark red. When a drop of hydrochloric acid was applied, the color held fast, only brightening a little. Then the hydrosulfite was dropped onto the slide while the scientist watched apprehensively. After a few seconds she reported with a sign of relief that the threads had begun blossoming in yellow. Exposed to the air, they were again put under the microscope. The yellow had entirely disappeared and the threads uniformly glowed a brilliant deep red.
For some critics, an even stronger objection than the question of purple concerned the repository itself, and it was twofold. First, they claimed it was very far from being proved that the repository had remained unopened through the sixteen centuries since Constantine. In fact, what evidence there was tended to support the excavators' belief that someone in the Middle Ages had broken into it from the narrow east end. The casual citing of overhead fissures, and a wall separation, through which the medieval coins might have entered, was hardly convincing without some supporting evidence. (The mouse was wryly set aside as being an unreliable witness.)
Second, it was not at all clear why Dr. Guarducci should insist that the repository had been built by Constantine to be part of his marble memorial. From what could be seen by others, the cavity might have been hollowed out at any time during the century before that, simultaneously with the building of the graffiti wall itself. So long as these two crucial questions remained open, the critics insisted with strict logic, the argument for Peter's bones could hardly be judged unshakable.
Accompanied by several archaeologists, all of them well versed in ancient building techniques, Dr. Guarducci entered the cramped chamber before the graffiti wall. Permission to dismantle the repository, in order to make an exhaustive examination of the oblong cavity, had willingly been granted by the Pope. The study could be made without inflicting harm or loss, the scientists had assured him, and would establish beyond doubt whether the repository had ever been breached.
First, the marble slab at the east end was removed, baring the inside brickwork of the wall's outer shell. The slab at the opposite end was also taken out, and the larger bottom slab, its size preventing removal, was then turned up on its long edge and rested against the rear wall. With this, the man moving the slabs reported that he could see several coins in the crevasses between the slabs. Handed out, they proved to be similar to those found previously. Almost certainly, they were all medieval.
With a floodlight illuminating the cavity's interior, the experts probed and measured on every side, paying special attention to the wall at the east end. This narrow section contained bricks of slightly varied lengths and thicknesses, the coloration ranging from reddish to dull ocher. Beyond doubt, this was Roman work. The layering of the bricks, their placement, and the mortaring between them were unmistakable. An absolutely no slightest trace of tampering could be seen, no chisel marks, no indications of rebuilding in the mortar. The east wall hand never been interfered with since its first construction. Since there could have been no access from any other side, nor from above or below, it was now certain that the repository had existed untouched from the start. But when, exactly, had that been?
Study of the wall-fill (a hard jumble of mortar, brick, and stone which had been shoveled down into the hollow outer shell as it rose under the builder's hand) yielded a convincing answer. The oblong space had definitely been scooped out of a solid entity, when the wall was already standing. So much was abundantly clear from a close look at the fill above the cavity and below the bottom slab. That the work had been done in Constantine's era was just as obvious. In several spots, the blue-white plaster covering the face of the graffiti wall had been carried over to cover some small breaks in the red wall, breaks which had occurred during the building of the shrine.
Only a day was needed for this investigation, and the decision was firm: whatever had been found in the repository at its opening in 1942 had definitely lain there, undisturbed, since closure of the housing shrine by Constantine's workmen in the early fourth century. The medieval coins must have worked their way down, most probably over some considerable period of time, through the fissures and probably also through the separation between the two walls. A likely precipitating force, for most of them, was the general disturbance caused in the area when the Callixtus altar was installed in the twelfth century. A great deal of jarring must have occurred with these ponderous operations, a massive disturbance which could easily have sent some of the many coins tumbling down. Most, of course, would have been of recent medieval vintage.
To a large degree, this hypothesis was later confirmed. One of the two coins recovered from the wooden box, it was found, was not medieval, but dated to fourth-century Rome. It contained the image and motto of the Emperor Constantius II, nephew of Constantine, and had been minted about the year 357. At that time, the repository had already been sealed for perhaps three decades. This Constantius coin could have entered the repository only by slipping along some crack.
Quite a number of the critics had also decried the omission from the testing of radiocarbon dating, a procedure which could fix the absolute age of the bones. The reply to this suggestion was given by Professor Correnti: since the bones had definitely lain in the cavity since the early fourth century, they were already proved to be of an age within 250 years or so of Peter's death. Carbon dating, which carried a plus-or-minus factor , could do no better than this. Also, for such testing, a portion of a bone would have to be destroyed, and this sacrifice no one was willing to make, particularly when it would yield only corroboration, not pioneer data.
Inevitably, it was also asked why the bones could not be the remains of some other high church dignitary of the early period. There seemed no positive reason, among all the evidence presented, why these bones unequivocally had to be Peter's. This was an ingenuous position, attainable only by abruptly setting aside the inescapable conclusions from all the circumstances. As Dr. Guarducci realized, a full answer would need a rehearsal of the entire excavation history from start to finish. Still, a short reply was possible: if these were not the bones of Peter, but of some other unknown official, totally ignored by history, it was more than strange that no slightest identification was given. Further, it would be inexplicable to have another person, of whatever rank, buried in the tomb acknowledged to be the apostle's. Rather than casual guesswork, science dealt with the hard evidence at hand. In this instance, the evidence left no room for the introduction of a mysterious stranger
Vastly more troubling to many people than these relatively minor points was the notion that Constantine would have moved the relics at all from their first resting place in the central chamber, the original bare grave. The reasons given by Dr. Guarducci for this move - rather blithely advanced, said her critics - were quite inadequate, much the weakest part of her case. It need only be recalled, they insisted, that the enormous basilica itself had been constructed over this immensely difficult terrain precisely because the grave and the relics could not be moved, a rigid tradition prohibiting it. Two feet, ten feet, or a hundred feet, the distance moved was not the crucial factor.
And, the critics inquired, did enclosure of the bones in the graffiti wall really accomplish anything which could not have been achieved equally as well, or even better, by new construction in and over the central grave, using concrete, bronze, lead, or any material desired? Surely Constantine's capable engineers could have devised some arrangement to guard the bones in the original grave against floods, humidity, vandalism, and every other hazard that might threaten them.
Further, the repository itself, despite the lining of marble slabs, was nothing but a miserable hole in a nondescript wall. Was this poor, makeshift cavity the best that Constantine could do for the precious remains, when he had lavished so much effort and expense on the richly decorated housing shrine and magnificent basilica towering over it? For any logical mind, sensitive to the fitness of things, the disparity was glaring.
For these arguments, Dr. Guarducci had no new answers. Patiently, she repeated that all the circumstances, taken together, did undoubtedly support the authenticity of the bones, and their removal from central grave to marble repository was simply a fact that must be accepted. For her and others, the reasons cited, relating to security and preservation from moisture, were sufficient. But in her view, she insisted, the difficulty was not really so serious as some critics would make it appear. The bones, whether resting in the wall or in the original grave, made an integral part of the true shrine. Within its marble-and-porphyry walls there was gathered, at once, all that pertained to Peter's burial - the grave, the Tropaion, and his surviving remains. Such was the physical fact. If transfer of the bones offended modern ideas, perhaps that reaction only heightened the changes to be expected in human attitudes over the course of sixteen centuries.
In July 1967 a pamphlet was published containing Dr. Guarducci's extended reply to her critics. No longer in a protective mood, she unsparingly revealed the full details of Monsignor Kaas' silent interference, as well as her own accidental discovery of the bones through Segoni - whose notarized affidavit, she made sure to mention, was on permanent file in the Vatican. Now firmly convinced of the theory's truth, she had no patience with any critic whose grasp of the facts was less than sure, or who interpretations relied too heavily on hypothetical groping. In rather abrupt style, she covered all the major and minor objections, point by point, not always avoiding a certain sharpness of tone in citing what she conceived to be outright errors.
For fifteen sometimes weary years, Dr. Guarducci had not been free of the question of Peter's burial, and much of her work had met strong initial skepticism from people she considered unqualified to pass on it. Now, she felt, the task was completed once and for all, with no smallest murmur of dissent overlooked. The bodily remains of St. Peter, rescued from the oblivion of centuries and from the fumbling of human hands, might at last rest in peace.
Crowded in and around the small chamber in which stood the graffiti wall were some dozen clergymen, most wearing ceremonial vestments. At their head, in miter and cope, was Pope Paul. Standing nearest the wall were Monsignor Principi and Professor Correnti. Beside these two, her head veiled in black, was Margherita Guarducci. It was June 27, 1968. The day before, the Pope had made his electrifying announcement to the world that the skeletal remains of St. Peter, Prince of Apostles, had been identified. Now the bones were to be returned to their ancient resting place. By order of the Pope, the ceremony would be brief.
On a table nearby lay nineteen boxes, variously shaped, all made of heavy, transparent plexiglass. In each box, resting on white foam rubber, were one or more bones, separate according to the parts of the body: head, arms, hands, vertebrae, ribs, trunk, pelvis, legs. Attached to each box was an identifying label. Two of the boxes contained the animal bones, including those of the mouse, which were also to be restored to the repository. The repository's entire contents were to be left just as they had been found, to the last detail.
Professor Correnti moved up to the low opening in the wall. As the boxes were handed to him by Dr. Guarducci and Monsignor Principi, he placed them in the cavity according to a prearranged sequence. When all had been entered, a glass front was fixed in place. A prayer was then recited, after which a notary read out a description of the proceedings, later to be entered in the Vatican's permanent records.
Led by the Pope, the party filed out of the chamber as an attendant slowly swung shut on the graffiti wall a heavy gate made of ornate open-work bronze. Through its bars could be seen the floodlit, glassed-in repository, less than five feet away. Visible just inside the rim of the opening were two boxes. In one lay the largest and best preserved of the bones, the left tibia. In the other were the single tooth and the twenty-nine fragments of the skull.
If the critics were right, if it was not Constantine who had Peter's bones removed from the central grave, wrapped in purple cloth, and deposited in the graffiti wall, the one thing is clear: the transfer must have taken place before the Emperor's dramatic arrival on the scene. But who, in that case, did order the removal? And when was it done and for what possible reason? Instinct whispers that the answers to those tantalizing questions may well provide the key to much that is still, more than a dozen years after Pope Paul's announcement, at odds in the history of the relics.
Doubts about the grateful Emperor having arranged the transfer are not only legitimate, they are inescapable. The enormous physical effort that was expended in erecting the original basilica - oriented over one exact spot upon ruggedly uneven terrain - was necessary precisely because the intended focal point, the bones, could not be moved. This unarguable fact leaves no room at all for the claim that, just prior to the start of work on the basilica, the focal point was moved. Nor has a convincing reply been made to those critics who instinctively shake their heads in stubborn disbelief at the idea that the revered bones could have been stored, officially and permanently, in such a drab cavity, bare of all formal indication that the Prince of Apostles lay within.
With full justice, then, it may be concluded that the transfer of Peter's bones was accomplished sometime in the half century or so before the advent of Constantine - that is, in the interval between completion of the graffiti wall, about 250-60, and the start of work on the shrine, about 315. To uncover the reason for the transfer, and if possible to identify those responsible, it will be best to pass over those fifty years and go back to the beginning, to the day of Peter's death. What was there about the burial that might later have prompted anyone to think of moving the remains?
Strangely overlooked in all that has been written about the apostle's grave is a single fact, fairly obvious in the circumstances, which now assumes some major importance. All the evidence shows that, right from the start, Peter's burial was and remained a hidden one. Until the day when the gravesite was revealed to Constantine, so that he might crown it with a basilica, its true location was one of the Christian community's most carefully guarded secrets. The proof of that, while not direct or abundant, is more than adequate - even without the natural inference to be made from a knowledge of those troubled times.
Under Roman law Peter was an executed criminal, put to death as an enemy of the state. As a result, his body was not entitled to proper burial, nor did his relatives or friends have the right to recover it. The corpse of such a despised individual, most often, would have been flung scornfully into the Tiber, incinerated on the city dump, or thrown out for animals to devour. Thus after Peter's body had been recovered - either by stealth or by bribery, the only two possibilities open - his burial constituted a seriously illegal action. If located by the authorities the grave could lawfully be despoiled, and the corpse, or what remained of it, destroyed. Rome's Christians, faced with this very real threat, fervent in their wish to preserve the mortal part of Christ's first Vicar on earth, must very soon have formed a conspiracy of silence regarding Peter's last resting place.
So much is conjecture - legitimate enough, but still conjecture. There are, however, four items of hard evidence which can be offered in support.
The first concerns a tradition found in the writings of the Emperor Julian, a nephew of Constantine, who would have had ample opportunity to test its truth. Flatly, even if offhandedly, Julian states that in the last decade of the first century - that is, some twenty or thirty years after Peter's martyrdom - the apostle's grave was already being venerated, and he adds, "secretly, it is true." That phrase, in that context, can only mean that the actual location of the grave itself was kept hidden.
The second and third items are really one, and concern certain puzzling facts turned up in the excavations, the full import of which has so far been ignored. They are best presented as questions: How can the unusual design of the Tropaion, its largely pagan derivation, be explained? And how does it happen that the name of Peter is never once written out in full among the crowding inscriptions on the graffiti wall, while in its coded form it appears as many as two dozen times?
Concerning the Tropaion's design, only one answer will satisfy. The close similarity to pagan architecture, and the total lack of any Christian element were no accidents. The form was deliberately chosen, and therefore could only have been meant as a disguise, a means of hiding the monument's real function. Probably the two upper niches once held urns, or statues of a neutral sort, in further imitation of pagan practice. No wandering visitor, pausing to view the site, would have had any cause to suspect the presence of the outlawed faith.
The absence of Peter's full name on the graffiti wall must also be explained primarily as the result of a wish for concealment. Clearly, the avoidance of the full name could only have resulted from an absolute prohibition, laid down by the church authorities. Without this prohibition, strictly maintained, surely one pilgrim at least, perhaps two or three or more, would not have bothered with symbols, but would have freely and unconcernedly scratched down all five letters of Peter's name. The use of mystical cryptography, it must be remembered, was at all times informal, very much dependent on individual impulse. Where every occurrence of Peter's name, without exception, is found in code, some controlling factor is needed to account for the unnatural consistency. Access to the monument would certainly not have been unrestricted, and the ban on Peter's full name was undoubtedly enforced by an official on the site.
The fourth item, for some minds, offers the most convincing evidence of all, especially when judged against the background of the first three. No longer can it be taken as a mere accident of history that throughout the whole range of ancient Christian literature (first to early fourth centuries) there is little but silence regarding Peter's death and burial, no dependable description of his crucifixion, no reliable hint as to the precise location of his grave, no slightest reference to his monument. (The mention of the Tropaion by Gaius occurs in a private letter.) This massive silence regarding the most important personage in the early church definitely bespeaks concerted action.
Of course, Peter is mentioned repeatedly in these early documents, but always in a general way, the references glancing and allusive. Often the text breaks off, changes direction, at the very point where it would be natural to have some pointed reference to his martyrdom, to the fact that his venerated remains were still preserved at Rome. But there is nothing, and a widespread conspiracy of silence, long continued, does not appear so extreme an idea to account for the remarkable oversight. In those trying times, no Christian would have needed much persuasion to agree that in the body of St. Peter the church possessed one of its most precious treasures, worth any effort to safeguard.
Preservation of Peter's remains, then, was at all stages the paramount aim. That being so, and since it is now agreed that the graffiti wall was erected during the mid third century, the enigma of the marble cavity appears ready to yield.
During the decade 250-60, under four different emperors, but principally Valerian, successive persecutions raged through the Empire, naturally fiercest in the city of Rome. In that time of great hazard, transfer of the bones from the grave to the concealed repository would have been almost a necessity. Besides the danger of accidental discovery, growing out of the prevalent tension and chaos, there was always the chance that, under torture or in a pitiful effort at survival, some unfortunate believer might have been tempted to barter away the secret of the bones. Such defections did occur, of course, often with melancholy effects for others, and one of the early church's most vexing problems was to decide how these people, when repentant should be dealt with. Nor is it without relevance that when Valerian's persecution began it focused first on Christian cemeteries, an imperial decree forbidding all access to hem for either visiting or burial.
But the bones certainly would not have remained in the graffiti wall from Valerian's time on. The makeshift construction of the repository decisively marks it as a hurried operation, begun perhaps at a moment's notice, never meant to be permanent. When the danger had definitely subsided - perhaps about 270 - the bones would have been returned to their proper station in the earth. The empty repository, however, would not have been forgotten. Once having served as a secure hiding place, it would naturally be employed a second time when danger threatened. The removal of a little plaster and some sort of inner lining, insertion of the purple-wrapped bones, then replacement of lining and plaster and the painting of an innocuous design on the exterior surface, would all have been the work of an hour or less.
Thus, decades later, when Diocletian's Empire-wide persecution fell with such unparalleled savagery, it became a later generation's urgent duty once again to conceal the bones. And there in the cavity they lay, safe from all who could wish them harm, through the opening years of the fourth century. With the advent of the friendly Constantine, an event totally unforeseen and unpredictable, the bones happened still to be in the wall.
Several years passed after Constantine's victorious entry into Rome at the head of his troops before the reigning Pope, Sylvester, revealed to him the true location of Peter's grave. The Emperor then proceeded to erect over it, at Sylvester's own suggestion, the marble-and-porphyry shrine, and the towering basilica. So much is historical fact. Implied in all of this, taken wholly for granted, is the underlying assumption that in disclosing the site of the grave, Pope Sylvester must also have told the truth about the location of the bones. But that conclusion, given the theory of a hidden grave, is the least likely of all. Too well would Sylvester have understood the pressing danger in a society whose every nuance of life was ruled by imperial decree, most particularly in matters of religion. When he led Constantine to the Tropaion, identifying it as Peter's, the bones were not lying in the central chamber but in the graffiti wall, and that fact the cautious Pope certainly would not have revealed. The belief that he did so arises from a distortion in historical perspective.
The great event in Christian history, the revolution in freedom wrought by Constantine, is too often telescoped by writers into a single momentous instant, sharply dividing the three centuries which preceded from the sixteen which followed. But for the people of that time, that was not the way it happened. In reality, the victorious instant stretched over a long, anxious period in which apprehensive Christians, scarcely allowing themselves to believe in the miracle, wanted to see whether, this time, Rome's hard pagan heart had truly softened. All were only too aware that the Emperor's edict granting them liberty of worship could not in itself guarantee the future. They know this not only by well-sharpened instinct, but experience.
Constantine was not the first to try giving freedom to Christians. Fifty years before, the pagan Gallienus had also granted them toleration, lifting the criminal status which had been in force since Nero. Gallienus had even asked Christians to offer prayers to their god for his own welfare. He soon died, however, and his decree was quickly set aside. Thereafter, Christians once more went in fear of their lives. In the year 311, shortly before the victory of Constantine, still another emperor, Galerius, renewed the promise of freedom when he halted the persecution begun by Diocletian: from then on Christianity was to be accepted by the state. But that promise, too, had soon been snatched away.
Remembering these earlier false dawns, aware that in Rome he course of events could alter with chilling swiftness, Pope Sylvester would certainly have been slow in giving up the 250-year-old tradition of secrecy which surrounded the location of the bones. The site of the grave itself he could reveal - in the altered conditions it would have been hard to conceal for long - but exact knowledge of the precious bones could await a surer day, when the passage of time had proved the real strength of Constantine's new beliefs. The most convincing sign of the Emperor's conversion would have been baptism. But this act of humility and submission he showed no inclination to accept.
And in Sylvester's fateful decision not to give up the secret, there resides the solution to yet another of the riddles posed by the excavations, a riddle which still troubles all who stand before the Niche of the Pallia puzzling over its oddly lopsided appearance. Here, finally, is the one reason which adequately explains why the interfering bulk of the graffiti wall was allowed to remain in place, why it was not promptly removed in order to restore the Tropaion's original balanced design. It was a simple case of necessity: with Peter's bones hidden in the wall's interior, a fact which was not to be disclosed, the Pope had no choice but to retain it. Control of all details concerned with enshrinement of the Tropaion lay within the papal power, and any reason Sylvester gave for keeping the wall in place must have been received as final by the Emperor's architects.
In ignorance of the truth about the bones, Constantine may have ordered Peter's grave opened, as some documents state, and as it seems probable that he did. If so, what would he have seen? Assuredly, the church had anticipated this move, and Constantine would certainly have discovered a set of bones lying in the central grave. But they would not have been Peter's. Whose then? Quite probably, the Emperor's wondering eyes beheld the very same bones which, sixteen centuries later, were to be discovered by Kirschbaum beneath the red wall. And it is possible to go one step further.
If Peter's illegal burial was hurried, perhaps carried out at night, and was to be a secret, then his body may have been purposely interred in an existing grave, one already occupied. In the circumstances, no better concealment could have been wished. In that case, Peter's unknown companions in death, very likely other Christian martyrs, can be said to have served their chief well, for even their few pitiful bones played a part in the conspiracy of silence. The remains found under the red wall, which today lie neglected in the Vatican, may be worthy of more honor than anyone has yet understood.
Two last questions remain: Why didn't Pope Sylvester, or his successors, tell Constantine the truth about the bones at some later time, when it became evident that the new freedom of worship was indeed to be permanent? And how and why was it that all knowledge of them became lost? The answers, once again, arise easily out of the theory of a hidden grave.
After starting construction on the basilica, Constantine reigned for another two decades, mostly from his splendid new capital at Constantinople. But these were burdensome years, full of turmoil and confusion, with church and state groping toward a common understanding in many areas (was the Emperor to be in the church or over it?). And matters were further complicated by the disturbing fact that paganism, also by edict of the Emperor, was still flourishing, still openly antagonistic to its rival. In these circumstances, twenty years could not have seemed long to the Pope and his harried ministers. During all that time, moreover, Constantine continued to refuse baptism. Only on his deathbed did he submit.
Constantine died in the year 337. His immediate successors were all weak men, vacillating, unsure of themselves and their ideas about the church, some even embracing one or another of the early heresies. There could have been little inducement in these years for the church to risk a revelation about the bones. Then suddenly, shockingly, in the spring of the year 361, the worst fears of the Christian community were starkly realized. Once more an avowed pagan ascended the throne.
The Emperor Julian, ever since known to Christians as the Apostate, was a man of learning and intelligence, but one with little use for toleration. From youth he had been under the shadowy spell of the old pagan mystery religions, had quietly nurtured a hatred of what he called "the fabrication of the Galileans composed by wickedness." For him, the Resurrection was "a monstrous tale." Once in power, he moved rapidly to restore pagan worship to its former preeminence, and for two long, dark years he inexorably rolled back the gains that had been made by the church. Passing laws that disenfranchised Christians in favor of pagans, he also wrote and published tracts against Christianity. Ominously for Peter's bones, in one tract he declared his abhorrence of the Christian habit of venerating certain of their dead. "You have filled the whole world with tombs and sepulchers," he burst out accusingly, "and yet in your Scriptures it is nowhere said that you must grovel among tombs and pay them honor." Acting on that feeling, in one instance he even went so far as to desecrate the grave of a Christian saint.
For a while in the mid-fourth century it seemed that the old gods must certainly triumph, and that Christians would be forced back into their former furtive existence. But this last major threat was also destined to pass. Just when it appeared that the Christian movement was under fatal attack, the most serious it had faced in many decades, Julian received a mortal wound while leading his troops in battle. Lying on his deathbed, foreseeing that the struggle against the followers of Christ was lost, his final words were bitter: "Galilean, you have conquered!"
Some fifty years had intervened between the start of Constantine's reign and that of Julian, years in which the practice of Christianity had been officially encouraged. Yet even that lengthy period had not sufficed to guarantee its existence. At the whim of a single man, it seemed, the whole widespread network of Christianity, by then planted in most of the civilized world, could still be hampered, outlawed, condemned. After Julian, and probably for several decades, no pope would have thought seriously of removing the bones from the safety of the graffiti wall in order to return them to the earth of the central chamber.
At Julian's death in 363, Peter's bones had lain encased in the marble repository for about sixty years. Succeeding popes wisely allowed them to remain there, so that by the time Christianity had at last become secure - perhaps soon after the year 400 - the secret of the bones must have grown hazy indeed, even in the church's inner circles. All were satisfied, however, that the bones did undoubtedly lie somewhere beneath the high altar. That they might not be arranged precisely and geometrically beneath the altar's center was something which came to matter less and less, until the day arrived when it ceased to matter at all.
If a time is to be named by which it may be said that the secret had been entirely forgotten, then the year 595 will do as well as any. In that year Pope Gregory the Great began the first large-scale alteration of the upper shrine and the high altar. His operations show no knowledge whatever of the true location of Peter's relics.
In the discussion so far, based on the theory of a hidden grave, it must be admitted that there lurks a difficulty, or an apparent difficulty. If the location of the grave was always to be kept a secret, then why did the church erect over it a conspicuous monument, the Tropaion, surrounded by other substantial structures? Even though disguised, all this hardly added to the grave's concealment. The seeming contradiction when resolved, however, leads straight to the discovery of what may be called the real secret of Peter's grave.
The evident reason why the church should have built atop the grave concerns the period in which the work was done. The mid second century was a time of fast-rising hope for Christians, and the hope, as it then appeared, was justified. Since the death of the Emperor Domitian, in A.D. 98, no official persecutions had scarred the land, no wholesale bloodletting had raged abroad. The laws against Christians, it is true, were still in force, and here and there in isolated flare-ups of local antagonism, Christians had continued to suffer and sometimes even die for their faith. But through most of this century the imperial throne was occupied by men of some intellectual stature, even social enlightenment (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius). All concentrated their attentions on enhancing the good order and prosperity of a society which was reaching toward unparalleled heights of civilized life. Active, organized suppression of a religious minority living within the Empire had no place in their scheme of rule.
Trajan, in a letter of the year 112 to a provincial governor, sets the tone. Replying to a request for information on the procedure to be used against Christians who were actually brought before the court, he says that for admitted Christians there must be punishment, but he also counsels moderation: "It is not possible to lay down general rules for all such cases. Do not go out of your way to look for them where the party denies he is a Christian, and shall make it evident that he is not by invoking our gods, let him (notwithstanding any former suspicions) be pardoned upon his repentance. Anonymous information ought not to be received in any sort of prosecution. It is introducing a very dangerous precedent, and is quite foreign to the spirit of our age."
This somewhat calmer view prevailed generally, and by the time the red wall complex was built, at about mid-century, the imperial power had passed to the responsible hands of the man who is now often credited with being the most enlightened of all Rome's emperors, Antoninus Pius (he was accorded the title Pius precisely as a compliment to his personal character). The red wall complex, in other words, was erected during the very zenith of Rome's golden age, a period which thrillingly promised, or seemed to promise, a new day for Christianity.
During this long interval, a new phenomenon of Christianity appeared. Certain scholars, in a brave effort to win the state's full acceptance of their faith, began writing detailed explanations of Christian practices and beliefs, addressed to the Emperor and other high officials. Rome had nothing to fear from the new religion, they insisted, and Christians would prove themselves as good and faithful citizens as any pagan subject, if only they were allowed to worship in their own way. All things considered, it must have seemed that the longed-for miracle would really come to pass, that Christianity's weary night was drawing to a close. Of course, such hopes were doomed, and reading those earnest entreaties today, so trusting, so full of good will and optimism, in light of the official fury that was later to descend, is a sad and sobering experience. But for a good many years it truly seemed otherwise.
It is no cause for wonder that the church, caught up in this exciting blend of hope and desire, decided to risk putting a monument over Peter's grave - quite sensibly taking pains to disguise it - and associating with the monument a burial ground for popes. Sanding on the outskirts of the vast, thousand-streeted sprawl that was Rome, tucked unobtrusively into an ordinary pagan cemetery, distant some three miles from the teeming center of the city where two million inhabitants were busy living their own lives under a benevolent ruler, the Tropaion and the complex must have seemed quite safe. At the very least, such a monument would have supplied Christians with an appropriate center, charge with high emotion, to which their hearts might turn in hopeful prayer or for solace in moments of strain and doubt.
But here the questing mind pauses, sensing something beyond. A monument and a graveyard? In reality, as is now well understood, the red wall complex took in much more than those two main structures. What, in sum, does it all suggest?
The Tropaion was not just a monument marking a grave, it was the central focus of a walled-in courtyard, the floor of which had been carefully leveled and exquisitely tiled. Judging from its dimensions, the courtyard could easily have accommodated sixty or seventy persons without crowding. Inevitably, this fact gives rise to the thought that the table-like shelf projecting from the Tropaion's middle might indeed have served as an altar for the Eucharistic sacrifice. That idea, however, was long ago rejected by the four excavators: a table standing six feet from the ground, they said, could never have been intended for an altar.
Perhaps - but that same conclusion would also have occurred in early times to any accidental intruder, and here again the theory of a hidden grave supplies the answer. The six-foot-high shelf could quite easily have been made to serve as an altar of standard height with a portable platform in place.
And what of that peculiar little window in the Tropaion's upper niche, which provided an opening through the wall to the alleyway on the other side? Again, if there was any threat of an incursion while a ceremony was in progress, the materials being used - the vessels, the bread and wine - could quickly have been passed to someone waiting in the alley, thence to be speedily hidden away.
In ancient times, access to this paved alley had been shut off by a heavy ironwork door, the only such alley closure in the entire necropolis. Halfway along the alley stood the entrance to the small room built onto the rear of the Agricola mausoleum, the mysterious room in which no burials were found, and for which the excavators could discern no clear purpose. Its low entrance door, located just behind the Tropaion, was the sole means of access to the diminutive structure. Inside, occupying the left front corner, a large deep cistern had been sunk into the ground. When filled with water, this rectangular reservoir, measuring some four feet by seven, could easily have held two people, four if necessary, immersed to the waist. Within this closed building the ceremony of baptism, in its more elaborate early form, could have been carried out with perfect privacy, effectively screened from the prying eyes of pagans
As it happens, an authentic description of the baptismal rite commonly practiced in second-century Rome still survives. The document was actually written in Rome, no more than about five years after completion of the red wall complex. Its author, St. Justin, was one of the leaders of the city's Christian community, a man who would have been familiar with all that pertained to Peter's grave and monument. In the passage no specific locale is mentioned, but when it is read with the ground plan of the red wall complex firmly fixed in the mind, it suddenly takes on a quite stirring reality. Note that the various movements described, the going from place to place, appear to encompass a narrowly restricted area:
We will not fail to explain how we consecrated ourselves to God when we were regenerated through Christ. Those who are convinced, and believe what we say and teach is the truth, and pledge themselves to be able to live accordingly, are taught in prayer and fasting to ask God to forgive their past sins Then we lead them to a place where there is water, and they are regenerated in the same manner in which we ourselves were regenerated. In the name of God, the Father and Lord of all, and of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Ghost, they then receive the washing with water
There is invoked over the one who wished to be regenerated, and who is repentant of his sins, the name of God, the Father and Lord of all, and he who leads the person to be baptized to the laver calls him by this name only
After thus baptizing the one who had believed and given his assent, we escort him to the place where are assembled those whom we call brethren, to offer up sincere prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized person, and for all other persons wherever they may be
At the conclusion of the prayers we greet one another with a kiss. Then bread and a chalice containing wine mixed with water are presented to the one presiding over the brethren. He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father of all And when he who presides has celebrated the Eucharist, they whom we call deacons permit each one present to partake of the Eucharistic bread, and wine and water
The picture could hardly be clearer. Standing silently in the courtyard before the Tropaion altar, the candidates for membership in the church pledge themselves to live by Christian ideals. One by one, they are then escorted through a door in the red wall, across the tiled floor of the upper graveyard, and down a short flight of steps (still in place today) into the alley, where they enter the small brick building.
At the cistern - the "laver" - they submit themselves to the "washing with water" while prayers are said and God's name invoked. The candidate is then led back through the door in the red wall to the courtyard, where his friends and family await. Here the Eucharist is celebrated, and at the conclusion of the ceremony the new Christian for the first time is allowed to receive the consecrated bread and wine.
But if the red wall complex was used for baptism, surely it would also have been employed for such ceremonies as the ordination of priests, the consecration of bishops, and for all the wide variety of other special religious functions, perhaps including some marriages and even funerals. The final truth about this ancient and hallowed spot of earth appears at last to be within reach.
With its high altar positioned over the relics of Peter, its walled-in area for a congregation of worshippers, its baptistery, and its burial ground, the red wall complex in reality was the first actual church building in Rome, in the world. More than this, this whole deceptive clutter of brick and tile and marble was nothing less than the first true cathedral, an anticipation in miniature of the great guardian structure which still today soars, exuberantly, indestructibly, above its cherished ruins.