Bones of Contention

December 11, 2013

On Sunday, November 24, 2013, the Vatican, via Pope Francis, publicly unveiled for the first time several bone fragments that some have claimed are those of St. Peter himself. Retrieved in 1942 from beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, they have since been bones of contention.

This St. Peter, named Simon, was a fisherman on the so-called Sea of Galilee (Lake Genesareth). At his brother Andrew’s introduction (according to Matthew 16:16–18), he acknowledged Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” whereupon Jesus gave him a new name Cephas (in Greek Peter, meaning “the Rock”). Jesus said, “Thou art Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.” According to tradition, he became the first bishop of Rome, being crucified ca. CE 64 (in the reign of the emperor Nero—see John J. Delaney, Dictionary of Saints, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980, 457).

Church tradition had always placed Peter’s grave on Vatican Hill, in Roman times the site of an ancient necropolis. Modern excavation beneath St. Peter’s revealed that this consisted of at least nineteen mausoleums, which together held over a hundred recorded interments, as well as many more burials (placed wherever convenience had allowed), and tombs with ossuariums in their outer walls (into which bones from earlier graves were deposited).

Somewhere in this, allegedly, Peter’s martyred corpse was secretly placed and remained hidden—transferred elsewhere and returned for security during persecutions—until ca. 330. At that time the Emperor Constantine (ca. 274–337) built thereon a great Roman basilica that lasted well over a millennium (John Evangelist Walsh, The Bones of St. Peter, Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1985, 15, 27, 132), being replaced with the present structure, the world’s largest church edifice, constructed 1506–1626.

The identification of Peter’s tomb is based on doubtful evidence and circular reasoning: the first basilica was built over the (legendary) grave of Peter; therefore under the basilica must be Peter’s grave. Among the chambers was one that some argued was Peter’s tomb, but it was found empty. A nearby niche supposedly provided some bones and fragments that Dr. Margherita Guarducci proclaimed—in her 1960 The Tomb of St. Peter—to be those of the saint. In fact, she had found them in a box she believed had been removed from the niche by one of the excavators, without the knowledge of the others. Critics not only faulted the questioned provenance but also her tendency to draw firm conclusions from mere possibilities.

Undaunted, the Vatican placed the supposed bones of Peter on view for veneration. They seem on a par with other “relics” of Peter, the chains from one or more of his imprisonments, parings from his toenails, and even vials of his tears (see my Relics of the Christ, Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2007, 33). In a sadly all-too-common, end-justifies-the-means attitude, one Vatican official stated that it hardly mattered if the bones were genuine, since people would continue to pray there as they have done for two millennia. (See “Bone fragment display revives St. Peter issue, The Buffalo News, November 25, 2013.)