"Using the bones from the Vatican to authenticate anything is problematic."

By David Eastman, Ph.D.

David EastmanThe international media is reporting a potentially significant find in the Church of Santa Maria in Capella in Rome. The church dates back to 1090 CE but has been closed since 1982 because of structural problems.

It was already noted for an inscription claiming that bones of several early Roman bishops, including Peter, are housed in the church. During recent renovation work, a marble slab was lifted near the altar, revealing several pots with inscriptions on their lids indicating that they contain these famous bones.

The bones are considered holy relics (from the Latin reliquiae, literally the “remains” of a person). The veneration of relics developed into a prominent feature of Christian piety by the late second or early third century. By the mid-fourth century, particularly after the legalization of Christianity by the emperor Constantine, relics took on much broader significance.

The possession of relics of Christian heroes, especially apostles, granted a church and its bishop additional prestige and could attract imperial patronage for churches. In Milan in the fourth century, Bishop Ambrose built and secured control of churches from his ecclesiastical rivals by claiming to find relics (even relics of saints that were previously unknown).

But relics could be falsified. Some Christians in the sixth century attempted to dig up anonymous bones in Rome and take them home to present them as relics of saints. Multiple cities still claim to have the head of John the Baptist. From an early period, therefore, relic claims have been fraught with ambiguities.

For the Roman church, the claim that both Peter and Paul died and were buried there, and that therefore the city possesses their relics, has served as justification for the city’s claims to particular authority in competition with other Christian centers.

Early Christian rivalries with cities such as Antioch and Constantinople prompted repeated appeals to Rome’s special position as caretakers of the relics, and late antique accounts from Rome recount unauthorized attempts to remove the apostolic relics from the city—attempts thwarted supernaturally by an earthquake in one account and a lightning storm in another.

The relics of Peter in Rome serve a special function, for they are directly linked to the Roman Catholic Church’s claim to an unbroken line of bishops (called “Popes,” from the Latin and Greek words for “Father”) leading back to Peter himself.

The Vatican already claims to have bones of Peter on display in a mausoleum complex beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City. Massimiliano Floridi, the deacon of Santa Maria in Capella, says the legitimacy of the newly rediscovered bones in his church might be possible to test: “A DNA comparison between these bones and those kept by the Vatican would shed light on the issue.” Such tests are reportedly in the works.

However, using the bones from the Vatican to authenticate anything is problematic. To understand why, we must consider the provenance of the Vatican bones themselves.

Excavations undertaken in the 1940s beneath the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica unearthed a grave believed to be that of the Peter. The archaeologists found bones inside, and the Vatican announced that they had discovered the relics of Peter himself.

However, further investigation revealed that these bones came from male and female humans and several animals.

Subsequently, scholars rediscovered in storage another set of bones that had been unearthed during the excavation. Scientific tests indicated that the bones might have belonged to a first-century man who died between the ages of 60 and 70.

Archaeologist Margherita Guarducci concluded that these must be the bones of Peter. The lead archaeologist of the excavations, Antonio Ferrua, remained unconvinced, yet in 1968 Pope Paul VI announced that Peter’s relics had been found. These are the relics highlighted for pilgrims to this day.

Thus, from a scientific perspective, we cannot be certain whose bones are on display in the Vatican. DNA tests on the new bones cannot confirm if the bones actually belong to Peter.

We can add to these ambiguities other factors from the historical records. The earliest reference to Peter’s presence in Rome at all dates to over 100 years after the likely date of his death, so some historians doubt that the apostle ever visited the imperial capital. The ancient martyrdom accounts, even those placing Peter’s death in Rome, provide different versions of the circumstances and details of Peter’s death.

On top of this, the earliest account of Peter’s death, recorded in the Acts of Peter, is critical of establishing a special tomb in honor of Peter at all.

The text states that a Christian named Marcellus buries Peter in a very expensive tomb. Peter then visits Marcellus in a vision at night and scolds him: “Marcellus, did you not hear the Lord say, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead’? (Matthew 8:22; Luke 9:60) ... Therefore, those things that you offered for the dead, you have lost, for you who are alive took care of the dead as if you were dead.”

Peter as presented in the Acts of Peter does not want a special tomb in his honor or any special veneration for the dead, for this is a waste of money and a violation of the teachings of Jesus.

This suggests that if a tomb of Peter existed in the late second century, it was the subject of considerable debate even among Christians.

Nevertheless, practices such as the veneration of the alleged bones of Peter eventually take on a life of their own and create meaning for those who practice them, even if the practitioners have long forgotten or never even known the origins of these practices.

For some, these bones in Santa Maria in Capella will confirm central tenets of their faith; they will reinforce ancient claims of their particular Christian tradition related to Peter; they will prompt pilgrimage to the church as soon as it reopens.

For some, these bones will function as the relics of Peter, because when it comes to religious phenomena, what we believe often surpasses what we can prove.

Quotations for this article taken from the Telegraph.


David L. Eastman is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Religion. He is the author of Paul the Martyr: The Cult of the Apostle in the Latin West (2011) and The Ancient Martyrdom Accounts of Peter and Paul (2015). His current book project, Killing Peter and Paul: Traditions of the Apostolic Martyrdoms, is under contract with Oxford University Press.