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Are These the Bones of Saint Peter?

On Sunday, Pope Francis displayed the remains of what is thought to be Saint Peter

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St Peter’s square, as seen from St Peter’s Basilica. Photo: Peter Krefting

On Sunday, at St. Peter’s Square, a plaza at the front of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, Pope Francis put on public display, for the first time, a chest bearing the remains of what is thought to be the apostle Peter.

The nine pieces of bone sat nestled like rings in a jewel box inside a bronze display case on the side of the altar during a mass commemorating the end of the Vatican’s year-long celebration of the Christian faith. It was the first time they had ever been exhibited in public.

Pope Francis prayed before the fragments at the start of Sunday’s service and clutched the case in his arms for several minutes after his homily.

These bones were dug up in the 1930s from an ancient Roman necropolis found buried beneath St Peter’s Basilica. So how does the Catholic Church know these bones belonged to St. Peter? In 1968, Pope Paul VI said that the connection was “convincing,” but no scientific evidence has been available to shore up the claim. According to Kathy Schiffer writing for Patheos, a religious website, there was a range of circumstantial evidence pointing to the connection:

In actuality, we don’t know with certainty whose bones those are.  There are strong evidences through history:  writings by early popes and kings, graffiti messages in the tomb, and the placement of the graves themselves.  The early Christians, it seemed, considered it a great honor to be buried near the remains of Peter, the first pope.

…Several years ago, I walked the hushed halls beneath the Basilica, and saw firsthand the ongoing excavations in the scavi. In the necropolis are sepulchres of wealthy Roman families which date back to the first and second centuries.  The frescoed mausoleums bear clear images–colorful paintings, etchings, and mosaics.  Graffiti on the walls seem to focus toward one burial site, believed to be that of St. Peter.  On one graffiti wall, amid Christian symbols and petitions, the name of Peter is carved at least twenty times, usually accompanied by prayers for the dead person, and in one case expressing joy that the deceased relative lay in the same cemetery that held the body of St. Peter.

So, maybe the bones aren’t those of Saint Peter. But, it seems that people have certainly thought they were the bones of Saint Peter for quite a long time. Making the jump, then, seems to be a matter of faith.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Meet the Fantastically Bejeweled Skeletons of Catholicism’s Forgotten Martyrs
The Catholic Church Is Getting Less Strict About Miracles

About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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