The bones of Simon Peter are in the news again.
A few weeks ago, Pope Francis and the Vatican presented bone fragments to the public which they believe to be the bones of Shim’on Kefa, that is, the apostle Simon Peter.
Naturally, Protestants are cynical about the idea. After nearly 2000 years, is it really likely that Simon Peter’s bones just happen to show up? And how do we know that they are Simon Peter’s bones?
We don’t know if the venerated bone fragments belonged to Simon Peter or not, and it would be impossible to prove that they did. However, the authenticity of the bone fragments cannot be ruled out.
Both Jewish tradition and Church tradition agree that Simon Peter died in Rome. He died in the midst of the terrible Neronian Persecution. In Chronicles of the Apostles, we tell the epic story of the Great Fire of Rome, the first Neronian Persecution, the games at Circus Neronis, the martyrdom of Simon Peter, and the burial of Simon Peter on Vatican Hill.
Tomb on Vatican Hill
According to Christian tradition, believers recovered Peter’s body from the carnage in Circus Neronis (64 CE) and buried him in a nearby cemetery on Vatican Hill. The believers in Rome revered the tomb and preserved its location. In 200 CE, the Roman Christians could still proudly point out the tomb of the apostle, which they had marked with a monument.
Peter was crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day (324 CE). It is confirmed likewise by Gaius, a member of the Church, who arose under Zephyrinus, bishop of Rome (199 CE). He … speaks as follows concerning the places where the sacred bodies of the aforesaid apostles are laid: “But I can show the monuments 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.” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.25:6-7)
Christians at the beginning of the fourth century still revered the location. When the Emperor Constantine turned toward Christianity, he asked to see the tomb. He ordered the construction of a church over the top of the site. Today, the Basilica of St. Peter preserves the location.
Modern excavations beneath the basilica began in 1939 and revealed a Roman cemetery containing second-century, pagan mausoleums. The mausoleums probably belonged to wealthy freedmen who could afford richly decorated tombs. First-century tombs from the time of Nero have also been discovered in the vicinity.
Among the mausoleums beneath the basilica, archaeologists discovered a second-century Aedicula (shrine) which may have marked the site of the original, first-century burial of the apostle, and a later wall added to the shrine in the third century. The wall structure, which excavator’s call the “Graffiti Wall” preserves the scribbling of the third century pilgrims who visited the tomb. The graffiti includes names, petitions, Christian symbols, and Peter’s name more than twenty times. One scrawling reads, “Peter is Here.”
It is extremely likely that the Aedicula is to be identified as the [monument mentioned by] Gaius, and it is beyond doubt that by the time of Constantine the Aedicula was believed to have been erected above the actual grave of Peter. (Daniel O’Connor, Saint Peter in Rome:The Literary, Liturgical, and Archaeological Evidence)
In other words, there is no question that the third century Roman Christians considered this particular tomb to belong to Simon Peter, and they would know. They had been in Rome, generation after generation, since the death of Simon Peter. Religious communities do not forget the locations of sacred sites.
A Hidden Burial Niche
In 1941, excavators opened a hidden, marble burial niche in the wall. The excavators recovered several bone fragments. Vatican officials stored the bone fragments away. In 1971, researchers placed the bone fragments in an urn and gave them to Pope Paul VI along with the evidence for the identification. The Pope issued a statement that the bones had been “identified in a way that we can consider convincing.” Even if these bone fragments do not belong to Simon Peter, they seem to have belonged to the body of a man that the Christians in the third century believed to be Simon Peter.
Bones of an Apostle
Researchers submitted the fragments to anthropologists for anatomical study. The fragments represent every part of the skeleton except for the feet, which are both completely missing from the collection. (Peter was crucified upside down. The Romans cutting him down from the cross may have opted to take him down by hacking through his legs above the ankle rather than fighting to pull the ankles from the spike.)
Fragments of purple cloth interwoven with gold thread indicated that the bones were wrapped in an expensive royal shroud. The anthropological examination indicated that the bone fragments all belong to the same skeleton—that of a male in his sixties or early seventies. The earth encrusted on the bones indicates that, originally, the body had been buried in an earthen grave, exhumed, and re-entombed in the hidden marble niche. Moreover, the earth corresponded to the type of soil at the location of the Aedicula —meaning the body was not brought from some other place in the city.
The combined evidence suggests that the third century Christians exhumed the bones of a man that they believed to be Peter, wrapped the man’s bones in royal cloth, and re-interred the bones in a secret, marble niche concealed in a wall at the tomb site. Constantine built his church over the site of Peter’s tomb.
This Thursday (Tevet 9) is the anniversary of Simon Peter’s death according to Jewish tradition. In Messianic Judaism, we keep Tevet 9 as Peter’s Yartzeit. This Tevet 9 (Wednesday night and Thursday), perhaps you would like to remember Peter with a traditional yartzeit. At First Fruits of Zion, we like to take some time to read from Peter’s epistles or light a traditional yartzeit candle in memory of our Master’s chief disciple. To hear a sermon about Peter’s work in Rome and the enduring gospel legacy that he left for us, listen to The Authentic Gospel of Peter from a 2012 teaching of mine at Messianic Synagogue Beth Immanuel, near Minneapolis and Saint Paul, MN.