For more than 1,500 years, devout Christians have traveled to the Santi Apostoli church in Rome to view the relics of two of Jesus’s apostles: St. Philip and St. James the Younger (also known as St. James the Less, he may have been Jesus’s brother). Now, new research suggests that James’ purported bone fragments actually belong to an individual who lived centuries after the saint.
As Sebastian Kettley reports for Express, researchers from Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy and England used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint fragments of James’ supposed femur to between 214 and 340 A.D.—long after the saint’s death sometime in the first century A.D. (Little is known about James’ life beyond his status as an apostle and possible family members.) The team published its findings last month in the journal Heritage Science.
“Though the relic is not that of St. James, it casts a rare flicker of light on a very early and largely unaccounted for time in the history of early Christianity,” says lead author Kaare Lund Rasmussen, an archaeometry expert at the University of Southern Denmark, in a statement.
To analyze the remains, Rasmussen and his colleagues decontaminated the mercury-coated femur and removed collagen, a type of fibrous protein, from its fragments. They also extracted a single amino acid from the collagen before using the samples to date the bones.
Rasmussen tells Live Science’s Patrick Pester that radiocarbon dating of the collagen and amino acid yielded matching dates, showing that the femur’s owner was some 160 to 240 years younger than James.
According to Live Science, the scholars theorize that the bone fragments, while not linked to James, belonged to an early Christian and could therefore shed light on the period between the deaths of the 12 apostles and Christianity’s adoption as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 A.D.
“We consider it very likely that whoever moved this femur to the Santi Apostoli church believed it belonged to St. James,” says Rasmussen in the statement. “They must have taken it from a Christian grave, so it belonged to one of the early Christians, apostle or not.”
Though the researchers managed to disprove the Santi Apostoli relics’ ties to James, they decided against conducting similar tests on the supposed remains of St. Philip.
Speaking with Live Science, Rasmussen says, “We were reluctant to take samples and thought the decontamination might prove more difficult."
Revered by Roman Catholics for their connection to saints, martyrs or other esteemed religious figures, relics range from body parts like bones, teeth and hair to items that came into contact with holy individuals, including clothing and personal items. Per the study, relics emerged as a significant element of the Christian faith during the mid-fourth century A.D.; around this same time, worshippers relocated many martyrs’ purported remains from tombs outside of cities to churches within city walls—a process known as translation.
Exactly how the apostles’ relics ended up at Saint Apostoli is unclear. But the authors note that a femur allegedly belonging to James and portions of a tibia and a mummified foot thought to belong to Philip have been housed in the Roman church since its establishment in the sixth century A.D.
As the statement says, “One can imagine that when the early church authorities were searching for the corpse of the apostle, who had lived hundreds of years earlier, they would look in ancient Christian burial grounds where bodies of holy men might have been put to rest at some earlier time.”
James’ misidentified femur is far from the only discredited Christian relic. In medieval Europe, spiking demand for relics actually gave rise to a black market flooded with forgeries, wrote Emma J. Wells for History Extra in 2019. A few centuries later, when the Protestant Reformation sparked vocal criticism of relics and other religious icons, many once-venerated holy artifacts were exposed as fakes.
“Protestants were complaining about Catholics worshipping the bones of dogs and animals,” Paul Koudounaris, author of Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints From the Catacombs, told Vice’s Rick Paulas in 2015. “One church had something they thought was the brain of St. Peter. It turned out to be a calcified potato.”