Monday, March 16, 2009

Walsh: The Bones of St. Peter

Walsh, John Evangelist. The Bones of St. Peter: The Fascinating Account of the Search for the Apostle's Body. London: Victor Gollancz, 1983. (Also available online.)

In my trip to Rome a few years ago, one of the greatest highlights was the tour of the archaeological digs beneath the altar of St. Peter's Basilica. The close contact with the alien world of an ancient pagan Roman cemetery; the hints of early Christian identification of the site with St. Peter's burial: on the walls of one tomb: PETRUS ROGA XS IHS PRO SANCTIS HOMINIBUS CHRESTIANUS AD CORPUS TUUM SEPULTIS -- "Peter, Pray to Christ for the Holy Christian men buried near your body"; the remains of Constantine's great shrine, itself built over the humble red wall that marked the site held from earliest Christian memory to be the place where St. Peter's remains were laid to rest; all culminating in the glimpse, through thick glass and a crack in the wall, at what may be the bones of the apostle.

Part of the thrill of the tour is simply in learning the story of the excavations that brought all this to light again in the 20th century. The Bones of St. Peter recounts this incredible story. There can always be grounds for skepticism, the main objections being the limited access of archaeologists to the site, the unprofessional aspects of some of the work that led to the bones from the graffiti wall being lost for years and the difficulty in coming up with an explanation for the removal of the remains from the grave to the side wall. We may not be able to know for certain the identity of the bones, and the Vatican, although enthusiastic about the finds, has always remained circumspect in judgment, as it usually is in these kinds of things, but the bits of stories passed down through the centuries are largely corroborated by the discoveries, and the tale of the series of circumstances that leads to them makes for engrossing reading.

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