A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Have the Bones of St. Paul Been Discovered?

The New Testament gives us no indication as to how or when the Apostle Paul died. The Book of Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome (approximately AD 60), where Luke tells us he spent "two whole years at his own expense" (28:30). The great question is whether or not Paul was brought to trial and executed at the end of his imprisonment, or released after those two years only to be executed in Rome a short time to a few months up to a couple of years later. (Did he get to Spain in the intervening time?)

Church tradition is unanimous that Paul was executed under the persecution of Nero, although some accounts say it took place while Nero was away from Rome and that the order was given by the prefects of the city. The tradition also asserts that Paul was beheaded, which seems likely given that he was a Roman citizen and would have been spared the shame and the agony of crucifixion.

He was buried not too far away from the traditional site of his execution. His tomb was a place of pilgrimage early on, perhaps even shortly after his death. The Emperor Constantine built a basilica over his tomb, and in the fourth century the Emperor Theodosius ordered a second basilica to be built on the site as well.

The tomb of St. Paul has now been discovered by archaeologists in basically the location that has been marked by an altar. The only question is whether or not the remains in the sarcophagus are in fact those of the great Apostle. Pope Benedict XVI allowed for the drilling of a small hole in the sarcophagus (which is dated from at least AD 390) in which a probe was inserted. Some tiny bone fragments were removed and carbon dated. The person in the sarcophagus lived in the first to the second century AD.

The pope has stated that this seems to confirm the unanimous tradition. He is right. But the most that can be said from the carbon dating alone is that the individual buried there lived in or around the Apostle Paul's time-- nothing more. If it were possible to open the tomb then there might be enough remains to discover more about the person buried there. Was the person male? Approximately what was his age at the time of death? Most significantly of all, was he beheaded? It is doubtful that the pontiff will allow that kind of disturbance of the tomb. According to tradition, Paul's head is not with his body. The skull or at least portions of it are at the St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome.

On scientific grounds alone it cannot be confirmed nor denied at this point that St. Paul is buried in that spot, but the historian has more evidence to go on. The tradition that Paul was buried there is not confused. Surely, Paul's contemporaries would have known where he was buried. The only question somewhere along the way through the decades is whether or not that spot was somehow forgotten and another incorrect location took its place, but there is no evidence from the historical records we have that such a thing happened. So, one would have to argue that Paul's contemporaries got his burial location wrong right from the beginning. But is such a possibility believable?

Of course, if indeed the remains of Paul have been found this does nothing to "prove" the truth of Christianity, although some will want to see it in that way. All it will demonstrate is what we already know-- Paul of Tarsus actually lived and was a follower of Jesus and later on in his life, he went to Rome and was executed.

Nevertheless, that the tomb of Paul may have been found is quite intriguing and exciting.


revjimparsons said...

Thanks for this post. St. Peter's is an awesome place to be and I have rubbed St. Peter's foot while there and saw the tomb. It is neat to learn there is truth to the ancient rumor.

Anonymous said...

I agree that science is prooving Scripture every day, but if you got to rub Peter's foot you might want to check out my 2,000 pounds of wood from the TRUE CROSS.

Peter's bones very possibly were discovered shortly after WW II directly under the altar of St. Peter's. But they, like the bones mentioned in this article, are extremely fragmentary. And unless you have the highest possible security clearance, or are james Bond, you'll never touch what may be the real thing.

Sorry to be a downer, but watch out for religious fakery. Especially at pilrim sites.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your thoughts.

No one doubts the embellishments of many church traditions over the years and even outright fabrications.

Having said that neither is it the case that the traditions are all bunk. When it comes to the traditions of the church some extreme skeptics act as if the church had a collective case of Alzheimer's and had no memory of anything that happened whatsoever.

Surely Paul's and Peter's contemporaries knew where they were buried; and given their stature, that knowledge would only have been lost under some extreme conditions.

As far as the fragmentary nature of the bones, we will not know whether or not that is the case without opening the sarcophagus, which will likely not happen, since a tomb, particularly of a saint, represents more than an archaeological site.

There is certainly religious fakery out there, but we should also be careful about what we simply assume to be true without scrutiny of the evidence.

jacob said...

Why should anyone care about this fake discovery when a much more important holy relic has already been discovered in Stephan Huller's book, the Real Messiah:


Huller went to Venice and proved that the Throne of St. Mark in the Basilica San Marco dates to the beginning of Christianity. It proves that Christianity started in Egypt rather than Rome (the title 'Pope' or Papa is universally acknowledged to have been appropriated from Alexandria).

This is a real historical object, i.e. it is not a fake. You can see it with your own two eyes the next time you go to Italy. It is also being made into a TV documentary for a US Cable network.

Again, why waste your time with this nonsense about 'bones of St. Paul' (the authoritative canon does not specify a location for Paul's death); it is completely fake.

You don't have to buy Huller's book. Go to his blog instead wwww.stephanhuller.blogspot.com.


Allan R. Bevere said...


If you think it is a fake, present your reasons why instead of trying to promulgate an alternative and fabricated history.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Yes, it is intriguing and exciting. Am reading N.T. Wright on Paul right now, his 2006 book on fresh perspectives on Paul today at the beach, on the gospel and empire. Quite interesting.

But back to this. Yes, the more we can learn about Paul and the time he lived, the better. This is fascinating, but like you say, I'm not sure what kind of light it can bring. And not sure whether it's a good thing to actually examine the remains. I tend to think not.