Peter’s Tomb—In the Vatican?
“THE tomb of the Prince of the Apostles has been found.” The triumphant announcement of Pope Pius XII was transmitted by Vatican radio. It was the end of 1950, and a complex series of excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica had recently been completed. According to some, the results of this archaeological research proved that Peter was really buried in the Vatican. However, not everybody agreed.
For Catholics, St. Peter’s Church in the Vatican has a special significance. “The essential purpose of pilgrimage to Rome is to meet Peter’s successor and to receive his blessing,” states a Catholic guide, “because Peter came to Rome and was buried there.” But was Peter really buried in Rome? Is his tomb in the Vatican? Have his bones been found?
An Archaeological Mystery
The excavations, which began about 1940 and lasted approximately ten years, have been the subject of much controversy. What did the archaeologists appointed by the pope find? For one thing, a pagan cemetery containing numerous tombs. In the midst of them, beneath the present-day papal altar, they identified an aedicula, that is, a niched monument designed to house a statue or an image, set into a wall faced with red plaster and enclosed by two sidewalls. Finally, and quite mysteriously, some human remains also came to light, which, it was said, came from one of the two sidewalls.
This is where the interpretations begin. According to a number of Catholic scholars, the finds confirm the tradition of Peter’s residence and martyrdom in Rome during the rule of Nero, perhaps during the persecution of 64 C.E. It has even been said that the remains are relics of the apostle and can be identified as such by an inscription that, according to one interpretation, reads, “Peter is here.” It seems that Pope Paul VI was giving credit to this hypothesis when in 1968 he announced the discovery of the “mortal remains of St. Peter, which are worthy of all our devotion and veneration.”
Along with the interpretations, however, there were also the counterarguments. Catholic archaeologist Antonio Ferrua, a Jesuit who took part in the Vatican excavations, has affirmed on more than one occasion that he ‘had not been allowed to publish’ everything he knows on the subject, material that apparently would contradict the claim that Peter’s relics have been identified. What is more, a guide to Rome, edited by Catholic Cardinal Poupard and published in 1991, said that “scientific examination of the human bones found under the foundations of the Red Wall did not seem to bear any relation to the apostle Peter.” Strangely enough, in the following edition (later in 1991), the phrase disappeared, and a new chapter, entitled “A Certainty: Peter at St. Peter’s,” was added.
Interpretation of the Finds
It is evident that the finds are subject to interpretation and that they say different things to different people. Indeed, the most authoritative Catholic historians recognize that “the historical problems of Peter’s effective martyrdom in Rome, and of his burial place, are open to debate.” What do the finds reveal?
The aedicula monument, according to those who seek to uphold the Catholic tradition, is the “trophy” referred to by a certain Gaius, a priest who lived at the beginning of the third century. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, an ecclesiastical historian of the fourth century, Gaius said that he could ‘indicate Peter’s trophy on the Vatican Hill.’ The supporters of tradition claim that the apostle was buried there, beneath the monument that came to be known as the “trophy of Gaius.” Others, however, interpret the results of the excavations quite differently, pointing out that the first Christians paid little attention to the burial of their dead and that even if Peter had been put to death there, the retrieval of his body would have been most improbable. (See box, page 29.)
There are those who do not agree that the “trophy of Gaius” (if that is what has been found) is a tomb. They maintain that it is a monument erected in Peter’s honor near the end of the second century and that later it “came to be considered as a grave monument.” According to theologian Oscar Cullmann, however, “the Vatican excavations do not identify Peter’s tomb at all.”
What about the bones? It should be said that where the bones actually came from is still an enigma. Since in the first century a pagan necropolis stood on what is now the Vatican Hill, numerous human remains were buried in the area, and many have already been recovered. The incomplete inscription (probably dating to the fourth century) that some say identifies the place in which the relics were found as the apostle’s tomb, may, at best, refer “to the supposed presence of the bones of Peter.” What is more, many epigraphists are of the opinion that the inscription could even mean “Peter is not here.”
An ‘Unreliable Tradition’
“The early and more reliable sources do not mention the place of [Peter’s] martyrdom, but among the later and less reliable sources there is virtual agreement that it was the Vatican area,” says historian D. W. O’Connor. The search for Peter’s tomb in the Vatican was therefore based on unreliable traditions. “When relics became of great importance,” affirms O’Connor, “Christians came to believe sincerely that the [trophy] of Peter in reality indicated the precise placement of his grave.”
These traditions developed side by side with the unscriptural veneration of relics. From the third and fourth centuries on, various ecclesiastical centers employed relics, true and false—and not without economic advantage—in the struggle to achieve “spiritual” supremacy and to promote their own authority. Thus, convinced that Peter’s remains had miraculous powers, pilgrims made their way to his supposed tomb. At the end of the sixth century, believers used to throw carefully weighed pieces of material onto the “tomb.” “Remarkably,” said one contemporary account, “if the faith of the supplicant is firm, when the cloth is retrieved from the tomb, it will be full of divine virtue and will weigh more than it did previously.” This indicates the level of credulity at that time.
Over the centuries, legends like this one and traditions devoid of any foundation contributed considerably to the growth of the Vatican Basilica’s prestige. However, dissenting voices were raised. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Waldenses condemned these excesses and, Bible in hand, explained that Peter had never been to Rome. Centuries later, exponents of the Protestant Reformation argued in a similar vein. In the 18th century, famous philosophers considered the tradition groundless, both historically and Scripturally. The same point of view is shared by capable scholars, Catholic and others, down to this day.
Did Peter Die in Rome?
Peter, a humble Galilean fisherman, certainly did not entertain any idea of primacy over the elders in the first-century Christian congregation. Rather, he defined himself as “a fellow elder.” (1 Peter 5:1-6, Revised Standard Version) The humble figure of Peter contrasts with the pomp surrounding his supposed tomb, as can be seen by any visitor to the Vatican Basilica.
In order to assert its supremacy over other Christian denominations, the Catholic Church has sought to accredit the ‘late and less reliable’ tradition that states that Peter resided for some time in Rome. Strangely, though, other ancient traditions would have his burial site, not in the Vatican, but elsewhere in Rome. Yet, why not stick to the facts recorded in the Bible, the only source of firsthand information about Peter? From God’s Word it is clear that, in obedience to the directions he received from the governing body of the Christian congregation in Jerusalem, Peter carried out his work in the eastern part of the ancient world, including Babylon.—Galatians 2:1-9; 1 Peter 5:13; compare Acts 8:14.
When writing to Christians in Rome, about 56 C.E., the apostle Paul greeted about 30 members of that congregation without even mentioning Peter. (Romans 1:1, 7; 16:3-23) Then, between 60 and 65 C.E., Paul wrote six letters from Rome, but Peter is not mentioned—strong circumstantial evidence that Peter was not there.a (Compare 2 Timothy 1:15-17; 4:11.) Paul’s activity in Rome is described at the end of the book of Acts, but once again, no reference is made to Peter. (Acts 28:16, 30, 31) Consequently, an objective examination of the Biblical evidence, free of all preconceived ideas, can lead only to the conclusion that Peter did not preach in Rome.b
The “primacy” of the pope is based on unreliable traditions and twisted application of scriptures. Jesus, not Peter, is the foundation of Christianity. ‘Christ is the head of the congregation,’ says Paul. (Ephesians 2:20-22; 5:23) It was Jesus Christ whom Jehovah sent to bless and to save all those who have faith.—John 3:16; Acts 4:12; Romans 15:29; see also 1 Peter 2:4-8.
All those, then, that make their way to what they sincerely believe to be Peter’s tomb in order to ‘meet his successor’ are faced with the problem of whether to accept ‘unreliable traditions’ or to believe the trustworthy Word of God. Since Christians want their worship to be acceptable to God, they ‘look intently at the Perfecter of their faith, Jesus,’ and at the perfect example that he left for us to follow.—Hebrews 12:2; 1 Peter 2:21.
a About the years 60-61 C.E., Paul wrote his letters to the Ephesians, the Philippians, the Colossians, Philemon, and the Hebrews; about 65 C.E., he wrote his second letter to Timothy.
[Box on page 29]
“The excavation has revealed no certain traces of a grave beneath the Aedicula; nor indeed can there be any certainty that St. Peter’s body was ever recovered from the executioners for burial by the Christian community. In the normal course of events, the body of one who was an alien (peregrinus), and in the eyes of the law a common felon, might well have been hurled into the Tiber. . . . There would, moreover, not have been the same interest in the preservation of bodily relics at this early date as there was later, when belief in the imminent end of the world had faded and the cult of martyrs had begun to make its appearance. The possibility, therefore, that St. Peter’s body was, in fact, not recovered for burial is a real one.”—The Shrine of St. Peter and the Vatican Excavations, by Jocelyn Toynbee and John Ward Perkins.