Where Was Peter Buried?
By Antonio Lombatti
WE DON'T KNOW! My article could finish right here. However, we have a Christian church, the Roman Catholic church, which established its supremacy on the fact that the apostle Peter had founded Jesus’ church in Rome and that he was the first formally recognized bishop—i.e., pope—of this religious movement. So, despite the easy and very short expected answer, this matter is worth investigating. Last but not least, Pope Francis has recently authorized, for the first time, display of the presumed bones of Saint Peter: so, whose bones are they? The controversy on Peter’s tomb embraces two aspects: literary sources concerning his life, and the archaeological digs beneath the Vatican basilica. I’ll briefly try to discuss these two matters.
Even if their thesis has been erased from history, we know that the first Christians who doubted Peter’s presence in Rome were the Lombard Waldensians back in 1240. The Dominican inquisitor Moneta da Cremona accused them, in his Summa contra Catharos et Valdenses, of being skeptical about Peter having been in Rome, because, they said, the New Testament didn’t mention this event. Some years later, in 1326, Marsilio da Padova wrote (Defensor pacis) that, according to the Holy Scripture, it couldn’t be proved that Peter had been bishop in Rome and neither that he had ever been there. So, skepticism on this controversy had its roots in the Middle Ages.
In fact, not a single New Testament text refers to Peter as bishop of Rome. Not even an extrabiblical contemporary work. We must rely instead on later traditions. The same traditions which tell the story of Mary Magdalene arriving in southern France or of Joseph or Arimathea bringing the Holy Grail to Glastonbury or even of the apostle James’ bones being found in Compostela, Spain, despite his having been beheaded in Jerusalem!
I won’t deal here with the literary texts of the first and second centuries, which could prove or disprove that Peter was in Rome (1 Peter, Clementine writings, Letter to the Romans by Ignatius of Antioch, Shepherd of Hermas, Apocalypse of Peter, Gospel of Peter, Acts of Peter, Dionysius of Corinthus [quoted by Eusebius], Ascension of Isaiah, Against the heresies by Irenaeus). It’s hard to believe that an illiterate Aramaic-speaking fisherman from Galilee could have authored 1 Peter, which was written in high quality Greek by someone who was fluent in that language. Of course, it also possible that Peter, after Jesus’ resurrection, went back to school and took Greek classes and did some advanced work in Greek composition. But, it’s rather unlikely. Paul wrote that Peter was a pillar of the Jerusalem church, and a later tradition (Eusebius, Church History III, 36) tells us that he was the first bishop of Antioch. So, we’re left with extrabiblical and later accounts.
Was Peter the first bishop of Rome?
The news that Peter had been bishop of Rome for 25 years appeared for the first time only in the Catalogus Liberianus of 354. And this news seems to be confirmed by the Armenian version of the Chronicon by Eusebius. But if the canonical texts are silent about Peter’s bishopric in Rome, who started the Church there? The earliest evidence of a Roman church is a letter written by Paul to the Romans (about 55 AD). The epistle presupposes a congregation made up of Gentiles. It doesn’t appear to have been established by Peter, nor is that claim ever so much as made in the Letter. Moreover, Paul at the conclusion of the letter, greets a large number of members of that congregation, but he doesn’t mention Peter.
There is a later tradition, however, in the writings of Irenaeus, indicating that the church in Rome was founded and organized by Peter and Paul. This cannot be the case, because Paul’s letter shows that Peter wasn’t in Rome to establish a congregation of Jesus’ followers. Irenaeus was trying to make a point in a particular period of the Christian church, that is, in the latter part of the second century. The church of Rome was probably the predominant one, and Irenaeus was trying to make normative its views on faith, since so many gospels and interpretations were already circulating at that time. Paul, who was rejected by some communities as an apostle, needed to be associated with a true follower of Jesus: Peter. So, according to Irenaeus, the most important church had to be founded and organized by the most important apostles: Peter and Paul.
The Church Fathers were not quite sure about who had been the first bishops of Rome. According to Irenaeus a man named Linus was appointed by Peter as the first bishop. Eusebius thought that Linus had been the second bishop of Rome, but who appointed him was someone else, and not Peter. He was followed by a third bishop named Clement. The situation gets even more complicated, because, according to Tertullian, Clement was the first bishop appointed by Peter. I have to emphasize again that when Paul wrote to the Romans he gave no indications at all that there was a single leader for that church. Moreover, we can understand from his letters that in the 50s there were no single bishops leading the churches he was addressing.
There’s agreement among historians that a monarchist bishopric in Rome started only in the second half of the second century, about 90 years after Peter’s death. The strongest historical arguments for this are the following:
Ignatius’s of Antioch letters, written around 110, were addressed to different Eastern churches, and he often quoted their bishops. However, when he wrote to the Romans he talks about a leading group. Therefore, he knows that there was a college of presbyters overseeing the church there; also The Shepherd of Hermas, written around 140, refers to leading presbyters in Rome; in 156 Anicetus—probably the real first monarchist bishop—debating with Polycarpus of Smyrna on the date of Easter, doesn’t recall the apostles or his predecessors but “the customs of those who had been presbyters in Rome before him”; again, in 160, Justin, in Rome, names “prohestos” the president of the college of Presbyters and not “episcopos”.
The first one to list the earliest bishops or presbyters in Rome was Hegesippus around 165 in his Upomnemata. He says the first bishop had been Linus, who had been consecrated by Peter. However, we don’t have his list but his work was preserved in Irenaeus’s writings around 180. Despite the discrepancies referred to above between Irenaeus, Tertullian and Eusebius, it was only in the third century that Peter was listed, with certainty, as the first bishop of Rome.
What about his tomb?
Around 210, a Roman presbyter named Caius, in his polemic against the Montanist Proclus, declares (according to Eusebius II,25): “But I can show the trophies of the apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this church.” In my opinion, and also according to J.P. Meier (“Pietro: origini di un primato”, Il regno 14, 2004: 505), these “tropaia” were commemorative monuments and not actual tombs. It’s only from around the middle of the third century that we find news about the tomb of Peter and his relics. Not a single Christian remembered or named his burial place or his bones for about two hundred years after his purported death in Rome.
In 258 we have the earliest evidence of the feast of Peter and Paul (June 29th): “Peter’s celebration in the catacombs and Paul’s on the Ostian Way”. So says the Depositio martyrum in the Catalogus Liberianus written in 354. It is a trustworthy document since it is drawn from official Roman sources on their calendar and festivities. What strikes us is that there was no celebration for Peter in the Vatican. To this inconvenient truth someone tried to find a remedy, interpolating a passage in Martyrologium Hieronymianum after 431 with the sentence “commemoration of Peter in the Vatican, of Paul on the Ostian Way”.
Therefore, we know that the original Petrine cult took place around the middle of the third century in the catacombs on the Appian Way. Above these catacombs was built, in the fourth century, the Basilica of the Apostles (Peter and Paul) which was later renamed San Sebastiano Basilica. In 1917, during a dig beneath that church, there was unearthed an ancient Christian cult place, called Memoria Apostolorum. On those walls, there were several third century inscriptions naming the apostles Peter and Paul. This incredible archaeological discovery is unfortunately known only to a few people because, according to longstanding tradition, Peter’s tomb had to be located within the Vatican.
The excavations started in secrecy in 1948. Pope Pius XII affirmed, in his Christmas message in 1950, that the tomb of Peter had been found. Paul VI, in 1968, declared that his relics were identified in a convincing way. However, the official volumes on the excavations are much more careful and balanced. Beneath the Vatican Basilica a second century Roman necropolis with a “tomba riverita” with a modest edicule was unearthed. On this tomb not a single inscription or Christian symbol has ever been identified. Was this the tropaion remembered by Caius? It could have been, but there was nothing in the tomb: it was empty and there was nothing to associate that small building, in a pagan necropolis, with the earliest Christians.
The excavations moved in various directions and there was spotted an inscription on the so called “red wall”. It said PETR END, which was interpreted by the archaeologist Carcopino as “Petros endei” (Peter missing). Then, Margherita Guarducci took over the dig: she was already a supporter of the possibility of Peter’s tomb being beneath the Vatican. She found another inscription: PETR EN I (the wall is broken, it could have been much longer). She proposed “Petros en irene” (Peter in peace). Some years later, she reconstructed the text in such a way that the I was connected to EN, and advanced another reading: “Petros eni” (Peter is here). Her interpretation was contested by the Jesuit scholar E. Kirschenbaum, one of the former directors of the excavation, and also by J. Gnilka. Finally, in 1953, she learned that L. Kaas, a deceased archaeologist who had worked at the dig, had kept in his study a box containing some bones.
When the anthropologist V. Correnti examined those remains, he said that they belonged to three different individuals, and one of them was certainly a woman in her 70s (E. Dassmann, Ist Petrus wirklich darin?, 224, in E. Kirschbaum, Die Gräber der Apostelführsten, 1974). Several Catholic scholars challenged Guarducci’s identification (among them Karl Baus; and more recently see also the works of Otto Zwierlein, Fred Lapham, Winfried Weber, Michael Goulder). Last, but not least, not a single independent scholar (not appointed by the Vatican but coming from a public university) has been allowed to examine the bones or to take part in the excavation.
The catholic Church still shows visitors the Mamertino Prison, at the feet of the Campidoglio, and still asserts that it is where Peter and Paul were kept in jail; the “Quo Vadis” church, built on the site of the legendary event related by the author of the Acts of Peter; Peter’s Chair, in the Vatican Basilica, despite the fact that it’s a Carolingian monument; the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, in which Peter’s handcuffs are shown; and even his second house (after the one in Capernaum) on the Viminal, where a Roman senator gave him shelter during the persecution of Christians. Finally, Peter's skull, along with a fragment of the table of the Last Supper, is kept and shown in San Giovanni in Laterano. So, we needn’t be surprised that someone can, and will, claim that Peter’s tomb, and his bones, have been discovered. Despite the odd fact that it’s in the Vatican, where emperor Nero’s palace once stood. Here the notorious Roman first burned or crucified Peter, and then, if the tradition is to be believed, actually allowed some clandestine Christians to bury him and venerate his tomb on that very spot! Rather weird, isn’t it?
I find this article very interesting.
There is NO PROOF that Peter is buried in The Vatican. In fact I think it is highly unlikely that St Peter's bones are there.
Anyway - our Christian faith is not based on the bones of a human being who lived nearly 2,000 years ago.
It is based on Jesus - God and man - whose was never buried permanently - according to our faith.