Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Who's buried in Peter's Tomb?

There are a variety of strings I am anxious to pick up—especially the one on the American Nuns’ investigation—which isn’t about the American nuns at all but about the religious sisters in the States. But give me a day or two and I will come back to that. Right now, I am going to do a little more on the Vatican, specifically the Vatican Basilica.
Everybody knows that St. Peter was buried in Peter’s tomb, but he wasn’t—at least not for long. Granted, when the tomb—or more properly, grave—was excavated in the 1940’s, skeletal remains had been found in it, but it turns out they were an odd assortment of various bones from several individuals, including an older woman and a young man, as well as several animals. Obviously they were not Peter’s bones. Hmmm. What is that all about?
Of course the first problem is there is no definite evidence that Peter had ever been to Rome, alive or dead. There is an ancient tradition (note the small “t”) to that effect, but no contemporary text relates the information. (The Acts of the Apostles tells us that Paul was at Rome, though it doesn’t mention his death there.) There were counter-claims about Peter. A first-century ossuary (a box used to hold the bones of a person who had died, had been entombed, and then when the only the bones were left, whose bones had been put in this “ossuary” so that the tomb could be used again) that had the name “Simon bar Jonah” engraved on it had been found in the 1950’s in the Kidron valley, the great burial field between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives to the east. On the other hand the name Simon bar Jonah would be no more rare in first century Palestine than say “Mike Johnson” might be in twenty-first century ‘merica today. The tradition of Peter dying at Rome—going back to the end of the first century, and the lack of any significant counter-claims, gives plausible weight to the argument that Peter went to Rome and was put to death there under the emperor Nero circa the year 64.
As for the bones in the grave not matching Peter’s age or sex, it turns out, the archeologists excavating the site had overlooked a second set of bones. These bones were not in the grave but had been concealed in a niche in the buttressing wall that supported the monument of “trophy” that had been built over Peter’s grave in the mid second century. This monument is called the “trophy of Gaius” because a Roman presbyter named Gaius left a description of this monument in the final decade of the second century. The bones in this niche had originally been thought to be insignificant as they were not where Peter’s bones were supposed to be—in the grave beneath the monument. The curious thing about this second set of bones is that they are all from one person, they are from a man between sixty and seventy years of age (Peter’s probable age if he died in 64 AD), and they had been disinterred from a previous grave and located in this niche after the flesh had decayed. Moreover, the soil samples clinging to these bones matched the soil in the grave beneath the monument—in other words, the soil of Peter’s grave. Hmmm. So these bones had once been buried in Peter’s grave.
But wait—there is more. Bits of purple thread and golden thread indicated that the bones, at the time of their being immured in the niche, had been wrapped in a very precious fabric, indeed (because of the purple) a fabric which would have been reserved to the use of the Imperial family, or at least the very highest of the Emperor’s household. The story grows more curious.
If you have ever been to the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican, you have seen in the “confessio”—the open well immediately in front of the papal altar that leads down to the crypt—the “niche of the pallia.” The pallia are woolen scarves that the pope gives to newly named residential archbishops each year as a sign of their communion with him in the unity of the universal Church. This niche holds a silver coffer (they say it is silver but they had better get some polish and a little elbow grease, it looks to me like bronze) in which the pallia are stored until the day they are bestowed on the prelates—the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul, June 29—each year. The niche is decorated with an ancient mosaic of Christ. The only problem is that the niche is slightly off center. One would expect it to be directly under the center of the altar which itself stands directly over the presumed site of the tomb of the apostle? Why is the niche off center? Again, hmmm.
The niche is not new. It is original to the basilica which Constantine constructed in 325. It is also directly over—not Peter’s grave, but the recess in that buttressing wall which held the bones of the sixty-something year old man that had been wrapped in the imperial cloth after they had been taken from Peter’s grave. In other words, the architects of the basilica seem to have known the true location of the bones presumed to be Peter’s when Constantine built his basilica. So what is the story?
The most probable story is this. Peter was martyred in the circus of Nero, a large amphitheater built by Caligula and Nero across the Tiber from Rome. The tradition is that he was crucified upside down—probably one of dozens or even hundreds crucified that night for a variety of reason ranging from being persecuted Christians to rebellious slaves to common criminals. There are stories that they were not only crucified but covered in pitch and set alight as sort of living (or actually dying) torches to illumine the stadium. It is possible; I don’t think there is historical data one way or the other. After the crowds emptied out of the spectacle, disciples probably came and claimed the body or perhaps just rushed off with it in the confusion. (There are some indications of the body just being carried off—namely the absences of any bones from the feet—the Christians having just quickly cut the body down and abducted it.) Peter's body was then taken to a necropolis (a pagan cemetery) across the via Cornelia from the amphitheater and buried in a simple earthen grave less than 500 feet from where he died. Once the body was buried it was left undisturbed in its grave, but the grave itself underwent a series of improvements to protect it against erosion. Then almost a century after Peter’s martyrdom, the Christian community in Rome built a monument over the grave. It was a simple monument—a brick wall faced in red plaster with a white marble pillared canopy over it, the canopy itself surmounted by a marble framed recess. The pillared canopy is about four feet tall, too high to have been meant as an “altar” as some suppose. This monument is the “trophy” mentioned by Gaius. In 258, during the persecution of Valerian, the bones were exhumed and brought for safe-keeping to the catacomb of Saint Sebastian on the Via Appia. Meanwhile “decoy” bones were placed in the traditional grave to mislead any who wished to violate the grave. At a later date, the authentic bones were returned but placed in a concealed aedicule (recess) in the wall supporting the monument so they could be venerated in the traditional spot but not exposed to being stolen or desecrated. When Constantine was building his basilica in 325, he had the bones wrapped in precious cloth, and returned to their aedicule. In building the basilica he constructed a window-like opening over the aedicule through which pilgrims could lower bits of cloth or other souvenirs to touch the tomb (the aedicule which held the bones) and then take home again as relics of their visit. This opening is what became the niche of the pallia and explains why it is off center.
More on the building of the basilicas in a future posting.

There is a variety of images today. The first is a sketch of the "Trophy of Gaius" that was constructed over Peter's grave c. 160 AD. The second is a map of the relationship between the circus of Nero (see third image), the ancient necropolis in which Peter was buried (depicted in blue) and the Constantinian basilica--depicted in yellow--built over the necropolis in 325.

1 comment:

  1. I'm very late to point this out, and this is a small point, but a cirucus is not an amphitheatre.