St. Peter’s the Site of Peter’s Tomb?
WAS Peter ever physically present in Rome? While there has been much tradition to that effect, some of it going back to the second century A.D., actual proof has been wanting. According to tradition Peter was martyred at the site of the ancient Circus of Nero, where it is claimed he was also buried. It is said that the site of his tomb was revered since the second century and that on it Constantine built the first St. Peter’s basilica begun A.D. 323 but not completed until after his death.
In c.1503 the present basilica of St. Peter was begun, and completed after 127 years, in c.1630, at a cost of $48 million. Incidentally, the drive for funds for the building work, carried on in Germany by the sale of indulgences by the monk Tetzel, was one of the immediate causes of the German Reformation by Luther. According to Life, United States weekly picture magazine, its length is 710 feet, height, 452 feet, maximum width, 450 feet. All of which makes it the world’s largest basilica.
To provide added space so as to be able to comply with the wishes of Pius XI to be buried alongside Pius X in the burial vaults beneath St. Peter’s, excavations were begun in 1939, and finding the area promising in archaeological interest digging was greatly extended. In 1946, the Illustrated London News, September 7, under the heading, “The Most Important Archaeological Discovery Made During the War: Roman Tombs Beneath St. Peter’s, Rome,” told of the finding of a complete Roman necropolis or cemetery beneath St. Peter’s containing pagan and Christian tombs dating back from the middle of the second to the end of the third century A.D. A number of beautiful sculptured sarcophagi, bearing the names of those entombed, skeletons, jewelry, etc., were found.
According to this journal: “The present discoveries dispose of the tradition that the Basilica of Constantine was founded on the site of the Circus of Nero and Caligula in which, according to tradition, the martyrdom of St. Peter took place. It has come as a surprise that no trace has been found under St. Peter’s of the Circus or of the Via Cornelia, both of which ancient topographers show as under the Vatican basilica.” However, it seems that the Circus was not far away, since one inscription requested burial “in the Vatican near the Circus”.
In its March 27, 1950, issue, Life devoted some dozen pages to these discoveries under St. Peter’s, and gave a report by a Monsignor Kaas (since deceased) who had charge of the work. After telling of the circumstances causing the work to be started and the difficulties, especially with water, so much so that a water diviner was resorted to but without any success, Kaas goes on to say that “any believer who has passed through the excavated necropolis” and who finds himself in “the immediate vicinity of the place assigned by Christian tradition to St. Peter’s tomb, succumbs to the silent but eloquent logic of his surroundings”.
But what about the non-Catholic? How valid are these findings for him? “Nonbelievers may not view this affirmation in the same light,” says Kaas; but he argues that the evidence challenges “nonbelievers for proof to the contrary of archaeology’s affirmation”. To the same effect is the report published in the New York Times, December 20, 1951, which quoted the Vatican’s claim to “scientifically unquestionable” evidence. But the Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 21, 1951, under the heading, “Vatican Scientists Report Tombless Burial of St. Peter,” stated: “Pilgrims who visit the Vatican grottos will be able to get within 10 feet of the place where Vatican authorities say St. Peter was buried, but they will not be able to see his tomb. For there is no tomb.” So it seems that, rather than a tomb, what was discovered was a “grave made of rough masonry, like those for the poorest” and of which only one side wall remained.—Times, December 21, 1951.
The same issue of the Times states that “all around was palpable evidence that Christians paid veneration to this spot, since the second half of the first century”. Other reports stated that veneration was paid as far back as the second half of the second century. All these dispatches, note, were of December, 1951. But along comes a dispatch about a year later, Times, November 24, 1952, under the heading: “St. Peter’s Tomb May Be Source of New Finds. Evidence linking tradition of St. Peter’s burial to a generation closer to his own lifetime than recent excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica have done may be forthcoming soon, Vatican officials said today.
“Archeologists recently discovered the first written evidence under the basilica that the spot was considered the burial spot of St. Peter at least as early as the first years of the fourth century. The evidence, presented this week in the Pontifical Roman Academy of Archeology by Professor Margherita Guarducci, a specialist in ancient Roman epigraphs, may date back to the closing years of the third century or even to the period just after the year 250.
“The evidence—tracings on the wall of a pagan mausoleum under the basilica—included an inscription” that “was an appeal to St. Peter to pray for the Christians buried near him”. There was also a portrait, evidently intended to be that of Peter, with the word “Petrus”.
Regarding other writings at the place, the New York Tribune, December 21, 1951, stated: “The scribblings—similar to the hundreds which can be found even today on various walls of the present basilica in the wake of American soldiers’ visits during World War II—include evidence that the early visitors believed that St. Peter could be venerated at the spot.”
Why should reports first tell of the spot as being venerated the second half of the second and even the first centuries, and then about a year later state that previous information indicated only the first part of the fourth century but now there is evidence that shows veneration in the second half of the third century? Does not all such betray a desire to make the evidence fit tradition instead of letting the evidence speak for itself? None of the inscriptions states that Peter was buried there. And granting that they prove that Peter was venerated at that spot they merely prove that the tradition existed in the second half of the third century, not that the tradition itself is true.
THE SCRIPTURAL TESTIMONY
Since traditions regarding Peter’s having been in Rome do not go back to his day, let us note what God’s Word has to say on the subject, since it was written in Peter’s time. Search as we may, not a hint do we find that Peter was ever in Rome, let alone that he was bishop there. And not only are the Scriptures silent as regards his being there, giving no evidence either direct or circumstantial to that effect, but they give the strongest kind of circumstantial evidence that Peter was never in Rome.
Paul wrote a letter to the Romans and in it he sends greetings to twenty-six different individuals and yet does not mention Peter. Can we for a moment imagine that Paul would entirely ignore Peter if Peter was in Rome and Paul was writing to Peter’s congregation, which is what the Christians of Rome would have been, had Peter been there and been their bishop? And not only bishop but also the vicar of Christ! Does it make sense to hold that Paul would have dared to purposely ignore Christ’s successor?—Rom. 16:1-24.
Further, Paul’s letter is full of corrective instruction. Why should it be necessary for Paul to instruct the Roman Christians in so many matters if Peter, the vicar of Christ, was present with them? Could we imagine Paul’s trying to set straight the disciples of Jesus while Jesus was with them, as though Jesus had been neglecting to properly teach them? Is it reasonable to conclude that if the Roman Christians were under the tutelage of any vicar of Christ Paul would have found it necessary to write them?
Also note that time and again in his letters from Rome Paul mentions others that are there with him, some of whom also sent greetings along with Paul. Is it not strange, if Peter was also in Rome as the vicar of Christ and head of all the Christian congregations, that Paul did not arrange to have Peter also send along his greetings, benedictions, etc., to the various congregations to whom he wrote?
According to the New York Times, the identification of St. Peter’s Basilica as the burial place of the apostle Peter “is regarded as destroying doubts that were cast during the period of the Reformation and thereafter on the historical data attesting to Peter’s physical presence in Rome. The whole line of papal succession may be held to hinge upon this point”. If that is true, is it not strange that so much definite information should be uncovered regarding pagan persons, their names, tombs, actual remains, inscriptions, etc., and yet God should allow the evidence of Peter’s burial at the site of St. Peter’s to be so dubious, equivocal and ambiguous as to make any deductions regarding it mere speculation?
If the “whole line of papal succession may be held to hinge” on whether Peter’s remains lie buried beneath St. Peter’s or not, then it must be admitted to be without foundation, for the recent diggings under the basilica have yielded nothing that would strengthen the position of the Roman Catholic Church in this respect.
So what conclusion must we reach? That on the one hand archaeology at best only supports the fact that there was a tradition that Peter could be revered on Vatican hill, not that the tradition of Peter’s being in Rome is true, nor that he was buried there. And on the other hand, that the Scriptures furnish the strongest kind of circumstantial evidence that Peter was never in Rome. St. Peter’s therefore is not the site of Peter’s tomb.
As Peter entered, Cornelius met him, fell down at his feet and did obeisance to him. But Peter lifted him up, saying: “Rise; I myself am also a man.”—Acts 10:25, 26. NW.