Is the Apostle Peter Buried Beneath St. Peter’s Basilica on the Vatican?

This question has recently come up again as Pope Francis announced in November, 2013, that the relics believed to be the very bones of St. Peter were to be put on public display. Are there any facts to substantiate either Peter’s stay in Rome or his death there?

Surprisingly, there is a great deal of literary evidence to support both notions. Though much of it is late, scholars focus on two key quotations that best make the case. The earliest is by Clement, bishop of Rome, who wrote to the city of Corinth in Greece in 96 A.D. Clement was warning the Corinthian parishioners about the evil that results from internecine jealousy. He lists seven instances of such sinful behavior in the Old Testament and seven from Christian times. Among those latter seven are Peter, “who because of unjust jealousy bore up under hardships not just once or twice, but many times; and having thus borne his witness (martyresas) he went to the place of glory that he deserved,” and Paul, who, because of “jealousy and strife . . . pointed the way to the prize for endurance . . . bearing his witness (martyresas) before the rulers” (1 Clement 5:4-7).

Both of these notices are believed to refer to the executions, and thus the presence, of Peter and Paul in Rome. When could these executions have occurred if they did, in fact, take place in Rome? The obvious choice is 64 A.D. when Nero blamed the Christians for the great fire in the city. Tacitus (Annals 15) wrote that some Christians confessed to the crime (under torture?) and named others as co-conspirators (out of jealousy?). In the horrifying words of Tacitus, “covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”

The second important quotation that gives evidence of the two apostles’ life and death in Rome comes from Gais (sometimes called Caius), a Roman presbyter who is quoted by the fourth-century church historian Eusebius. Writing about A. D. 200, Gaius was replying to some braggadocio by Proclus of Hierapolis who boasted about the tomb of Philip the evangelist and his four daughters who were buried there. In classic one-upmanship, Gaius wrote, “But I can point out the trophies (tropaia) of the Apostles, for if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian Way you will find the trophies of those who founded this Church” (Eusebius, Church History 2.25.7). Most scholars accept that Gaius’s use of tropaion, generally meaning a monument to victory, was a reference to monuments erected by Christians on behalf of Peter (at the Vatican) and Paul (on the Ostian Way), traditional (though not actual) founders of the Roman church. These trophies marked the apostles’ graves or places of martyrdom and their victory over death.

It is this very tropaion of Peter which excavators believe they have found buried under St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome during an archaeological dig that lasted from 1939 to 1949. The Vatican was once one of fourteen regions of Rome as defined by Caesar Augustus (27 B.C. – A.D. 14). Topographically, it wasn’t good for much. Situated on a plain leading up from the Tiber River to Mount Vaticanus, much of it became a graveyard. A double-row of tombs stretched from the river to beyond the present St. Peter’s.

In the fourth century, the emperor Constantine, a Christian sympathizer, chose to build a basilica in honor of Peter where the current basilica stands today. It was an odd choice for a construction site located as it was on a hillside on top of a row of mausoleums. The construction faced both architectural (requiring the movement of over one million cubic feet of earth) and moral (desecrating graves was a capital offense) challenges. What made Constantine choose such a poor site, known for both malaria and snakes? Some scholars believe Constantine could choose no other site – this was where he found the tropaion of Gaius marking the grave of Peter.

What the excavators discovered beneath the floors of the present basilica was a little shrine which they believe was constructed about A. D. 160. It is a meager affair fashioned in pagan style consisting of two niches, one over the other, built into a wall. A travertine slab horizontally separates the two niches. Digging down in front of the shrine, the excavators discovered a simple grave filled with over 200 human bones and fragments. Were these the bones of Peter? The first medical team assigned to examine them reported that they were the bones of a man between the ages of 60 and 70, stout and strongly built. Later examination, however, revealed that they were actually the bones of at least three people, two men in their fifties and one female in her seventies.

But perpendicular and to the right of the shrine, a short wall had been built in the third century presumably to buttress the crumbling wall into which the shrine was set. On this wall is a multitude of graffiti which some scholars believe is Christian and whose symbols can be interpreted to refer to the names of Peter, Christ, and Mary among others. Within the wall, a small, rectangular storage chamber, lined with marble, was discovered. Within it, the excavators found a medieval coin, some bits of gold thread and a few remains of human bone, a meager haul. Only later, in the 1950s, was it discovered that during the excavation, the administrator of the basilica, Msg. Ludwig Kaas, had secretly removed the contents of the storage chamber before the excavators had a chance to examine it.

What he removed turned out to be the bones of a man that included parts from every area of the body except the feet. The man has been described as between sixty and seventy years old, five feet seven inches tall and of heavy build. Kaas was no archaeologist and the fact that he hid the bones and died before explaining his actions taints the find and stirs doubt even among those scholars who feel strongly that the tomb of Peter has been found.

Why were Peter’s bones placed in the marble box in the wall in the first place? Some speculate that they were placed there prior to the time of Constantine by Christians fearful of the bones’ discovery during the repeated persecutions of the third century. Unfortunately, no radiocarbon tests have yet been performed on any of the bones. A re-examination of the storage chamber convinced a new set of investigators that the chamber had been sealed since the time of Constantine until 1942 when it was opened during the excavation. Thus, if the bones were Peter’s, they were placed there within 250 years of his death – a range that radiocarbon dating of that time could not better. That, and the fear of sacrificing a bit of the bones for the test, dissuaded the team from recommending radiocarbon dating.

In short, an excellent circumstantial case can be made, and most scholars accept, that the shrine under St. Peter’s is the tropaion mentioned by Gaius. The jury is still out regarding the bones, however. I wonder what that jury might decide if radiocarbon or DNA testing could show that the bone fragments scraped out of the marble box by the archaeologists and the ones previously removed by Msg. Kaas matched? So far as I know, no attempt has been made to perform these critical tests. Though no test could ever be conclusive, they would certainly provide a level of confidence that the apostle Peter does, in fact, rest in Rome.

(A full paper on this subject will be ready by April – Stay tuned!)

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