An Italian construction worker, involved in routine restoration at the 1,000 year old Church of Santa Maria in Capella in Trastevere, Rome, has stumbled across what could be the bones of St. Peter.
In helping to repair the structural problems around the altar, the worker lifted a heavy marble slab and discovered two Roman-era pots. The inscriptions on the pots indicate they contain bone fragments of four early Christian martyrs, three early Popes (Cornelius, Callixtus, and Felix), and St. Peter himself. The bones of the first Pope would be an important discovery, but they’re a puzzling one too: as every visitor to the Vatican knows, the bones of St. Peter are supposed to be buried directly underneath the Papal Throne in St Peter’s. So you have to wonder, are any of these relics real? Is the Vatican really built on the rock of (the bones of) St. Peter?
Peter is important, of course, as the founder of the church in Rome. For Roman Catholics he is the first Pope and the rock on which the Church is built; for Protestants he is the “Apostle to the Jews” and, along with Paul, one of the two most important figures in the early church. If you read the Bible, Peter can come across as a bumbling idiot who consistently misunderstands Jesus and, in his final hours, actually denies him.
Dr. Meghan Henning, a professor at the University of Dayton, described the Peter of the Gospels as “a relatable character” and “an unlikely leader with whom people can connect.” In the second and third centuries, she said, more stories about Peter’s time in Rome and his leadership role in the Church started to be composed. It’s during this period that stories about his death and the burial of his remains begin to emerge, including the famous narrative in which he is crucified upside down. As David Eastman, a professor at Ohio-Wesleyan and author of The Ancient Martyrdom Accounts of Peter and Paul has written, “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.” Given that all of these traditions about Peter’s death post-date the events by some hundred years, we have good reason to be skeptical about any relics claiming to come from St. Peter.
In many ways, the relics aren’t an unexpected faith-shattering discovery. Like the numerous skulls of John the Baptist, the existence of multiple relic locations for Peter is an open secret in the Catholic Church. There’s an inscription at the Church of Santa Maria in Capella stating that they are there. So, in principle, the Church has known for centuries that there were other relics.
Only a few fragments were discovered in Trastevere, so it is possible that they were excised from a larger collection, such as those at the Vatican. From late antiquity onwards, trading relics was a means of currying political favor and exchanging religious power. A famous example are the remains of St. Stephen which, when they were discovered (via vision) in Jerusalem in the fifth century were divided up and dispatched to prominent churches around the Mediterranean. As a result it’s not unusual – especially in the case of important saints —to find relics of the same saint in many churches.
It has been suggested that the eleventh century Pontiff, Pope Urban II, took the bones there, along with those of other legitimate saints, during a challenge to his Papacy. Taking the relics would be a means both of demonstrating that he was the legitimate leader of the Church and securing, via spiritual power, the success of his reign. Relics were believed to exude religious power that could both heal people and protect cities from attack. The relics would have acted as a spiritual arsenal that protected him from pretenders to his throne. Historically those who control access to the remains of the saints hold a lot of power. It’s not a coincidence that one of the earliest popes, Callixtus, was the “superintendent” of the cemetery on the Appian way before being appointed pope.
Alternatively, perhaps the relics belong to another Peter. Someone less, er, famous. Is it possible that we are dealing with the bones of a Peter who was not the apostle? There are other Roman saints named Peter, but they tend to have different epithets or be paired with other saints. Thus, it’s possible, but not likely, especially considering the company he is keeping with early Popes. Claiming to have the relics of Peter when you have, say, the relics of Peter of Alexandria would be like publicly thanking Beyoncé in an acceptance speech and expecting people to know that you don’t mean the singer.
The fact that they are found in an eleventh century church, however, should cause us some concern. Not only does a millennium of history stand between the Church’s dedication and the execution of Peter, the eleventh century is a period known for relic forgery and trafficking. A great deal hinges on the jars in which the relics were found. Until further study is completed, it is difficult to know when the jars were sealed.
Even if the relic jars date to antiquity, we have to wonder whether or not an early pope would have been willing to share the relics of such an important figure. As Nicola Denzey Lewis, author of The Bone Gatherers and the Margo L. Goldsmith Chair in women’s Studies at Claremont Graduate University, told The Daily Beast “Although in the early middle ages, Rome became a virtual charnel, with countless bones of ‘saints’ dredged up from the catacombs and distributed to zealous relic-collectors, popes could be famously stingy about parting with Peter's relics.” The sixth century Pope Gregory the Great, she added, warned that it would be reckless to disturb the bones of St. Peter and instead distributed “bits of cloth or iron filings from Peter's chains -- safer, cheaper, but (he assured the recipients) just as efficacious.”
The larger question, though, is, are these new relics authentic? Currently, they have been dispatched to the Vatican for further research. It’s possible, though highly unlikely, that the Vatican will allow for a comparison of the DNA of the two sets of remains. From a faith perspective the best-case scenario is that the bones match, but this would not prove that the remains were actually those of St. Peter. All it would mean is that the Trastevere relics and the Vatican relics are related. This would be important historical information that could tell us a great deal about the market in and movement of relics in the medieval period, but it’s not, ultimately, what anyone is looking for. Without a reliable sample of Peter’s DNA (which we will never have), scientific testing can never prove that any of these relics belonged to Peter, it can only prove that they didn’t.
Even when it comes to the relics that currently reside in the Vatican, we have no idea if those come from Peter either. After an embarrassing incident in the 1940s, when the Church announced that bones that were later revealed to be animal remains were the relics of St. Peter, the Church has been reticent about formally identifying any bones as those of Peter himself. Instead Vatican officials have stated that there is a “very strong possibility” that the bones were Peter’s. When it comes to the Catholic Church’s premiere Apostle no one is willing to risk the embarrassment of misidentification. What this means for the new relics is that they are likely to sit in limbo – neither formally recognized or unrecognized – for decades.