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2.10.03

Tomb of St. Peter on the Vatican Hill

By way of Arts and Letters Daily, I learned that Tom Mueller has published a very interesting article (Inside Job, October issue) in The Atlantic Monthly on the Vatican's excavation of the tomb of St. Peter. Before the Renaissance and Baroque edifice of the modern Vatican was built, there was Old St. Peter's, built by the Emperor Constantine and altered subsequently. Below that there were monuments that marked the apostle's tomb, including a second-century ædicula. Over a long period of time, the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archeology has been conducting excavations underneath the Vatican, a site central to the faith and imagination of Catholics everywhere. Not surprisingly, they proceeded with great caution, but considering the secrecy of the Roman Curia, I think the Church has been remarkably open about what they found. In Rome, you have to find the Ufficio degli Scavi, Fabbrica di San Pietro, where you can arrange to make a reservation to take a guided tour with an archeologist of the excavated area (scavi) below the church.

Mueller provides a lot of history surrounding the work at the tomb, which is very interesting, and he will be publishing a historical novel based around the events he describes. (Mueller lives in Italy and has published on Rome before in Underground Rome, from the April 1997 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.) I enjoyed reading the article, but I had an objection about the characterization of the Vatican's attitude toward the findings of Margherita Guarducci. Mueller states that the Church has tried to "cover up" her discoveries, which he bases on his experience of a tour of the scavi:

The guide's story matched the official Vatican account of Peter's martyrdom and grave. But she had never mentioned the question of Peter's bones.
Later on, he adds:
Nonetheless, Vatican guides today refrain from reading mystical meanings into the graffiti on Peter's grave, and make no comment about his bones.
I don't know how thoroughly Mueller researched this matter, but I can say that I took a tour of the scavi in May 1993, and our guide, an elderly British archeologist, did indeed refer to the discovery of the Greek epigraph ("Peter within") and other graffiti, as well as the bones wrapped in purple. The idea that there is some sort of Vatican coverup ("Beneath the finely tuned phraseology bigger things lay buried") seems to me little more than an attempt to drum up sales.

What is indisputable is that the site was venerated as the burial place of St. Peter within a very short time after the apostle's death. Furthermore, Mueller's contention that if Peter died in Rome his body would not have been recovered seems ill founded. Either because of the fear of retribution:
Even if we grant that Peter was martyred in Rome, his body is unlikely to have been recovered for burial, or his grave ever marked. The Neronian persecution made Christianity a capital crime. Under Roman law the body of such a criminal, particularly a foreigner like Peter, was often denied burial, and might be summarily dumped in the Tiber. To recover it, someone would have had to petition the Roman authorities, thereby identifying himself as a Christian—tantamount to suicide.
or the Christian focus on the arrival of the Second Coming and therefore uncaring attitude about someone's body:
What is more, few of Peter's fellow Christians would have troubled about his bones. Christians around A.D. 64 anxiously awaited the parousia, Jesus Christ's imminent Second Coming. Martyrs' relics and graves seemed of little moment in a world about to be consumed by fire. It wasn't until a century or more after Peter's death that the cult of the martyrs developed in the West.
As the apostles wanted to recover the body of Jesus, Peter's followers would probably have done for him. He was a beloved friend, after all. I doubt that fear of the authorities would have stopped them either, since the attitude of many who became martyrs was to welcome death for Christ with joy. I find the possibility that the necropolis was disturbed during the attacks on Rome after the fall of the empire and that the body was possibly desecrated, destroyed, or removed much more convincing. In terms of art history, the scavi tour is one of the most interesting things I have ever seen.

For other accounts of the excavation, see John Curran, The Bones of Saint Peter? (Classics Ireland 3, 1996) and John Evangelist Walsh's book The Bones of St. Peter: A First Full Account of the Search for the Apostle's Body (1982).

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