The Bones of St. Peter
John Evangelist Walsh
(Garden City Doubleday, 1982) 195 pp., $15.95
“You may undertake the excavations,” Pope Pius XI told the archaeologists, “but you may not do any harm to any part of the church above nor interfere with its public rituals. Further, all work is to be carried on in private and without public notice; only a full and official report is to announce the discoveries to the world.” Thus began in 1940 one of the most intrepid archaeological investigations of the modern era, the search for the tomb of the Apostle Peter under the high altar of the church on the Vatican Hill in Rome that bears his name, the mother church of the world-wide Roman Catholic community.
Now John Evangelist Walsh, a senior editor for Reader’s Digest and author of several books, including The Shroud, a volume on the Shroud of Turin, has given us a very lively and readable account of the course of those archaeological investigations in all their moments of frustration and high drama. He and his publisher have provided over 50 photographs and line drawings to help clarify the report of this very complex excavation. Unfortunately the value of the line drawings is decreased by the absence of directional and dimensional indicators.
Walsh makes his own stance clear from the outset. He is a true believer; he is absolutely convinced not only that St. Peter’s tomb has been located but that the saint’s very bones have been identified with certainty.
Most of what Walsh reports has appeared in print before, but his last chapter attempts an original reconstruction of the historical events in Roman times that gave rise to the various features archaeologists observed at the site.
Walsh begins his account in 1939 when Vatican workmen accidentally discovered a Roman mausoleum under the grotto area of St. Peter’s Basilica. The archaeologists who then moved in proceeded to unearth a whole street of second-, third-, and early fourth-century family vaults, completely intact except for their roofs. In about 330 A.D., the Emperor Constantine decided to seize the cemetery and to build the original basilica of the Apostle directly over it; it is ironic that in the end, this basilica actually preserved the cemetery. The basilica required a level platform, and so, given the hilly character of the site, Constantine’s engineers buried the tombs of these Roman families under more than a million cubic feet of earthen fill. Walsh takes us with the archaeological team as it uncovers one after another of these burial chambers, all of them pagan except for one, the Tomb of the Julii.
The discovery of this street of tombs fueled the archaeologists’ desire to explore westward in the area directly under the high altar of the Basilica; perhaps they could confirm the stories that the Apostle Peter himself had been buried here after his martyrdom in about 65 A.D. With papal permission in hand, the investigators began work in this incredibly cramped and difficult area. Walsh—and we with him—follows them as they twist through passageways and tunnel under ancient walls in order to learn what lay in this area of the Roman cemetery.
Below medieval and Byzantine period high altars, the excavators discovered a segment of wall about six feet long and ten feet high that originally had been covered with red plaster. This structure, now called the “Red Wall,” had been built, the archaeologists concluded, in about 150 A.D. Two niches were set into the east face of the Red Wall, one above the other; these niches were separated from one another by a large stone shelf, six feet long and three feet wide. The shelf had been supported by two pillars, each almost five feet high. Unfortunately the shelf survived only in fragments.
The area in front of the niches was covered with a mosaic floor measuring 13 by 23 feet. Under this floor the archaeologists found at least 30 pre-Constantinian burials. These burials seemed to surround what appeared to be an older grave situated directly under the niche structure and the Red Wall. When they explored the area just below the lower niche of this shrine the excavators found in the disturbed earthen fill a pile of bones. At this point in his narrative, Walsh lets us think for the moment (as did the archaeologists at the time) that these are indeed the bones of St. Peter. But they are not.
The double-niche structure had been preserved by Constantine’s architects and was incorporated into it as the central shrine in the new basilica. The archaeologists who uncovered the shrine quickly identified it as the “Trophy (Tropaion) of the Apostle Peter,” which is mentioned in a letter by the Roman priest Gaius in about 200 A.D. (Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History, 2.25.6–7).
But the bones, as Walsh goes on to indicate, were later found to be those of three different individuals who some scholars believe were reburied in this manner after the construction of the Red Wall. Walsh somewhat dubiously suggests that the bones may 014have entered the “central grave” under the Tropaion because of “soil slippage.”
Another set of bones was also discovered, however. Just north of the Tropaion proper, a wall about 18 inches thick and 34 inches long juts straight out from the Red Wall into the courtyard area. On its blue-plastered north face—that is, the side of this wall further from the Tropaion structure—the archaeologists found a maze of closely interwoven funerary graffiti, or scratched inscriptions. Because of these inscriptions, the wall is now called the “Graffiti Wall.” On this same side of the wall, about 30 inches above the ancient floor, they discovered a marble-lined loculus or repository about 30 inches wide, 9 inches high, and 12 inches deep. This loculus contained the bones of an elderly male wrapped in a purple and gilt cloth. Walsh tells how, in his pious concern to avoid any desecration of the remains of the ancient dead, the original discoverer of these bones, Msgr. Ludwig Kaas, the Administrator of the Basilica, decided on his own to remove them secretly and store them without telling even the archaeological team. Ten years later, the bones were discovered by Dr. Margherita Guarducci and analyzed by an anthropologist, Professor Venerando Correnti. These bones have been identified as those of the great Apostle.
Walsh describes these discoveries in detail. He does have a gift for description; he even manages to make interesting and alive Professor Guarducci’s intricate epigraphical investigations of the Graffiti Wall inscriptions. At first look, these late third- and early fourth-century Christian texts presented a very puzzling feature. Although located so close to the supposed grave of Peter, apparently none of them invoked the name of the Apostle. But Guarducci discovered that these apparently quite straightforward funerary inscriptions actually concealed numerous abbreviations and symbols referring to Christ, to the Virgin Mary, to the cross, and even in about 20 cases to Peter himself.
Walsh gives his own historical reconstruction to account for all this varied archaeological data. After Peter’s execution in the mid-60s of the first century, his body was recovered either by stealth or through well-placed bribes and was then secretly buried by the Roman Christian community. Subsequent generations of Christians remembered the burial site and finally, in the mid-second century they erected the double-niche Tropaion structure directly over it. Since this was similar in form to a type of contemporary pagan funerary monument, it would not have stood out in the pagan cemetery in which it was situated. The two niches, Walsh supposes, held statues of a non-controversial sort, while the bones of the Apostle lay concealed in a subterranean niche-like area at the base of the Tropaion.
Walsh postulates a general Christian “conspiracy of silence” not only in this earlier period but even in the decades after Constantine’s accession. This he relates to the status of this group as a threatened and persecuted minority. He further assumes that this community would do whatever was necessary to guard Peter’s bones from any desecration by pagans. It is this concern, he goes on to argue, that explains why the Apostle’s bones were found not in their initial resting place below the Tropaion but in the marble repository in the Graffiti Wall. To preserve secrecy during the systematic persecutions of the third century, church leaders decided to transfer the bones from their original grave and to conceal their new location. This secrecy, Walsh maintains, continued even after Constantine decided to build his basilica. Pope Sylvester, who was Pontiff during Constantine’s reign, probably told Constantine where the Tropaion was, but not about the secret location of St. Peter’s bones in the repository. After all, although Constantine was friendly to Christianity, he might be replaced, as had happened before, by a hostile ruler. Thus, the bones stayed buried and concealed, their location at length forgotten by all, until that fateful day in 1942 when they were again uncovered.
All of this, no doubt, makes for a marvelously interesting tale. Yet in many cases, what Walsh presents as probable or certain is open to question and grave doubt. Walsh tends to take both ancient sources and modern conjectures of the archaeological investigators at face value without devoting more than passing attention to opposing viewpoints.
There is a special danger in this kind of investigation, one not always avoided by Walsh and some of his informants, that religious concerns will subtly modify and distort scientific observations. All investigators of the finds under St. Peter’s Basilica would do well to heed the words of an early commentator on these discoveries, Edgar Smothers, S.J.: “No doctrine of divine faith could depend upon the unpredictable findings of the spade. … The archaeological evidence ought, therefore, to be interpreted according to sound archaeological principles and without embarrassment.”a
In any case, the results of the 1940–49 and 1955–57 excavations are of the greatest value: a street of Roman tombs dating from the second to the fourth century in an excellent state of preservation, important information on the structure and design of the great basilica erected on this site during Constantine’s reign, and the discovery of a second-century Christian shrine (one of the earliest known) dedicated to the Apostle Peter’s memory. Walsh’s own position notwithstanding, the designation of this shrine as a “Tropaion” or “Trophy” (if indeed Gaius has supplied its correct name) does not prove that its builders considered it to be the tomb of St. Peter. It is equally possible that they erected their shrine on the supposed or actual place of Peter’s martyrdom. (The Circus of Nero, the traditional site of Peter’s execution, is thought to have been situated just south of St. Peter’s Basilica although this has not as yet been confirmed by clear archaeological evidence.)
There is no doubt, however, that Constantine considered what Walsh calls the Tropaion to be a structure of singular significance or he would not have chosen such a difficult site for his basilica, nor would he have taken the trouble to preserve the old monument 068right in the center of the basilica’s apse. It is most probable that he thought he was thus incorporating the tomb of the Apostle in his church. Two features suggest that Christians before him had so interpreted this site: (1) a Greek graffito which reads PETR[OS] ENI (probably to be translated “Peter is here within”) inscribed on the Red Wall and then covered over in the mid-third century by the Graffiti Wall and (2) the large number of Roman-period burials clustered around the front of the Tropaion structure. These burials may have resulted from a desire on the part of the families of deceased Christians to bury their dead close to St. Peter so as to have them under the care of a powerful heavenly patron. I suspect, however, that all areas of this densely populated cemetery might contain the same thick concentration of graves. However this might be, what Christians of the third century believed about the location of Peter’s remains does not of itself demonstrate that they were correct in their belief.
Walsh’s view that the bones found in the repository to the right of the Tropaion are surely those of St. Peter cannot be completely set aside, but it must be termed a very unlikely possibility. The repository does not face toward the monument, but is rather on the opposite side of the Graffiti Wall. Walsh dismisses out of hand the possibility that these are the bones of a high-ranking churchman (see pp. 126–127). However, the location of the repository—away from the Tropaion—gives further weight to that hypothesis.
Walsh also observes that the bones give some indication that they had been previously interred in the ground before being laid in the repository. He cites a report indicating that the soil fragments found on the bones “exactly matched the soil in the grave under the monument.” However, this fill was found in a very disturbed state, so it would be very difficult to draw firm conclusions about the association of these bones with a specific location. Aside from this, we can nonetheless imagine that the individual buried in the repository had first been buried close to Peter’s Trophy and that later—a common enough practice as Walsh himself attests (p. 27)—his bones were gathered, wrapped in the purple 070cloth in which they were found, and then placed in the repository.
Walsh has given us an exciting tale of archaeological discovery. But let the reader be warned—although he mentions opposing scholarly perspectives on the nature of the finds, Walsh himself does not take them seriously. By no means is there scholarly consensus either that the grave of Peter has been discovered or that his bones have been preserved. Such possibilities cannot be ruled out, but at this point that is what they remain—mere possibilities.
And Sarah Laughed: The Status of Women in the Old Testament
John H. Otwell
(The Westminster Press, 1977) 222 pp., $7.95
God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality
(Fortress Press, 1978) 206 pp., $6 50
For generations, the treatment of Biblical women by apologists has focused on notable women, such as Sarah, Deborah and Abigail, thereby attempting to sweep under the carpet the unattractive realities of women’s legal and economic status in a patriarchal society. On the other hand, writers who were antagonistic to the theocentricity of the Bible have denigrated the quality of Israelite life on all levels, especially the lot of women.
Women have now become a subject of serious investigation, as a result of new theories, a broader interest in such institutions as marriage and the family, and of course as a result of the feminist movement of the 1960s. Scholars and writers have now been sensitized to the glaring oversights of earlier works.
Just as we must avoid the apologetic impulse to justify or cover up the status of women in the Bible, it is equally important to avoid the strident hostility of some feminists who view the Hebrew Scriptures as the culprit responsible for female subordination in Western society.
We must also bear in mind the quite different perspectives of the Biblical accounts worlds. It is foolish to try to understand Biblical accounts of love between the sexes, for example, in terms of the Western romantic love tradition, which has its roots in 12th-century Europe. Moreover, the Bible covers a period of more than a thousand years, encompassing enormous political, cultural, and social changes.
Finally, the central concern of the Hebrew Bible is the covenantal relationship between God and His people, Israel. From the perspective of the Bible, a great deal about everyday life is irrelevant. Only those individuals, events, and institutions that relate to its central concern are depicted and even then only from the perspective of this concern. For example, both the potential extramarital relationships of Sarah and Rebekah when they pose as their husbands’ sisters (see Genesis 20:2 and 26:7) and the barrenness of the matriarchs are seen only as obstacles to realizing God’s promise to make Israel a nation.
Only by an exhaustive probing of the text, utilizing the methods of the social sciences and comparing the Biblical materials with data from other cultures will we understand the more subtle aspects of women’s lives in the Biblical period.
In much of his book, John Otwell does just this. He challenges the conventional assumption that the Israelite woman was a “self-effacing household slave.” He presents “a new view of the status of women,” which he sees in terms of male-female interrelationships at different stages of life and in different roles. Even though they lived in an essentially male-dominated society, women were not cut off from men. “Because of the theocentricity of the Old Testament,” according to Otwell, “the relationship of the woman to God is the final arbiter of her status.” Thus, motherhood “was not only a biological and sociological function. It was a sacred act of great magnitude which only the woman can perform.” Otwell notes that God “is the self-proclaimed kinsman of both male sojourner and the widow. It was circumstance which mattered, not gender.”
Otwell correctly stresses that in the Bible “sexuality was not evil.” The Hebrew Bible reflects no ambivalence toward sexual relations or marriage. This positive view has important implications for attitudes expressed toward women.
Otwell is so intent on rectifying outdated views that he sometimes overstates his case, as he does when he tells us that “the wife was not inferior to the husband. In a polygamous society she may have exercised more authority than did the father.” This is simply not true. In the patriarchal society of the Bible, economic, political, and legal power was vested almost exclusively in men.
Otwell’s failure adequately to utilize comparative materials from other ancient Near Eastern societies also leads him into an occasional error. “Sexual relations between siblings,” he tells us, “were sternly prohibited, in spite of the erotic overtones of the passages in The Song of Solomon.” He overlooks the evidence from non-Israelite love poetry in which lovers conventionally address one another as “brother” and “sister.”
Phyllis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality provides new insight based on a sensitive and careful textual analysis. Traditionally, Eve, created from Adam’s rib, has been regarded as the temptress and the source of human sinfulness. Trible challenges this deep-seated negative view of Eve which early became the prototype of every woman. Trible convincingly demonstrates that Eve’s having been formed from Adam’s rib does not imply inferiority. Rather, the phrase “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23) bespeaks “unity, solidarity, mutuality, and equality.”
The real tempter is the serpent. Eve’s response to the serpent reveals “her as intelligent, informed, perceptive.”
Trible also challenges the traditional view that Yahweh’s judgment of Eve is more severe than that of Adam or the snake. After Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit, Trible tells us, “Although surrounded by curses, the woman herself is never cursed, directly or indirectly, here or elsewhere in the story.” Human obedience and disobedience is the subject of the story, in which woman and man are equal characters.
Woman, then, was not created subordinate to man. Woman, in the Biblical tradition is not, as in the Greek philosophical tradition, of lesser intelligence or incapable of being a fitting companion of man. It is interesting that nowhere else in ancient sources is woman created separately from man.
In a chapter on “Love’s Lyrics Redeemed,” Trible provocatively analyzes The Song of Songs. Trible believes this book must be read against the backdrop of Genesis 2–3. In The Song of Songs there is also a garden. Here too is “the love that is bone of bone and flesh of flesh.” Once again woman is man’s equal.
One small example of Trible’s perceptiveness, supported by a careful study of the texts, must suffice. The word “desire [tesuqa]” occurs only three times in the Bible: twice in Genesis (3:16, 4:7) and once in The Song of Songs (7:10). For Trible, this word tesuqa provides a link between the two books. In only two out of its three occurrences does it refer to desire between human beings. In one of the two (Genesis 3:16) it refers to a woman’s desire for a man. In Song of Songs it refers to 072man’s desire for woman. Female subordination has vanished; mutuality once again characterizes male/female relationships.
Trible analyzes the rich female imagery for God, a long-neglected component of the Biblical depiction of God. Trible traces with remarkable sensitivity the use of the Hebrew root rhm, meaning womb, through a variety of transformations in which it ultimately refers to the compassion of God. She also discusses the various metaphors that describe God as a mother in labor who writhes at the birth of Israel (Deuteronomy 32:18), as a tender mother and nurse (Isaiah 66:13, Numbers 11:12) and as a seamstress concerned for the nakedness of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21).
Although male imagery is more common, Trible maintains that in Biblical terms, neither gender is more appropriate to describe God’s attributes. On the contrary, Israel’s leaders stood against their environment in affirming a God of history who transcends both sexuality and nature.
The Bones of St. Peter
John Evangelist Walsh
(Garden City Doubleday, 1982) 195 pp., $15.95