More on the Bones of St Paul

This story, carried by Cathnews and originally on some website called “Monsters and Critics”, seems quite reasonable to me.

Elburg, an expert on archaeological study of old bones and organic remains for the government of the German state of Saxony, told the German Press Agency dpa in an interview, “It’s impossible to establish that it’s him.” …Even a genetic analysis of the bones in a sarcophagus marked as Paul’s would reveal nothing, because there were no proven descendants whose DNA could be compared. “But the bones could tell you the sex and age of death of the person,” he said. …”Traces of beheading can be identified with absolute certainty,” he said. …Elburg counselled maximum precision in opening the sarcophagus, saying, “It will be comparable to opening the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh.”

Which is quite true – only I don’t think the Vatican will ever sanction such an opening. Better to leave these things well enough alone, and let “pious tradition” embroider “reasonable possibility”…

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4 Responses to More on the Bones of St Paul

  1. Peregrinus says:

    I must say I am inclined to agree. Claims that archaeology has “confirmed” that the remains are Paul’s seem overstated to me. The most we can say is that the archaeological findings are consistent with the tradition.

    The tradition is that Paul was beheaded and his remains buried in a burial ground outside the city. Early in the fourth century a basilica was erected on the spot where his remains were believed to lie, and some remains were identified – we don’t know how – as his and placed in a sarcophagus. Later in the fourth century the basilica was
    extensively remodelled.

    Archaeology has found a sarcophagus in a location in which it was evidently placed late in the fourth century. In the sarcophagus are expensive fabrics, plus some human remains dating from the first/second century. (My guess is that the fabrics will be found to be fourth century. If St Paul was buried with costly fabrics, which is unlikely, they would hardly have survived for 250 years or so outside a sarcophagus.

    This tends to confirm what happened, according to tradition, in the fourth century. It does not confirm that Paul was originally buried in the place supposed, or that the remains identified in the fourth century were correctly identified. (The burial spot was an active burial ground in the first/second century, so there would be plenty of first/second century remains around.)

    Further investigation might show that the remains are those of a beheaded man. (Or they might show that they aren’t, or that they are too far decayed to draw any conclusions – what’s been reported so far is simply “bone fragments”.) Even if they are the remains of a beheaded man, this doesn’t prove that they are Paul’s – Paul was not the only Roman citizen to be beheaded and buried outside the walls – though it might suggest a reason why they were identified as Paul’s in the fourth century.

    If nothing else, though, it does seem highly likely that these are the remains which have been venerated as Paul’s since the fourth century.

    • Schütz says:

      That sounds a little like my certainty that, on Good Friday last, I venerated a couple of bits of wood which can be said, with certainty, to have been brought back to Rome by Constantine’s mother, St Helena, from Jerusalem… :-)

      But I am inclined to give a bit more credence to the claim that the remains under the high altar of St Paul’s are those of the Martyr and Apostle after whom the Church is named. I think people tend to remember where their friends and great men are buried, and a little under 300 years does not seem like a remarkable amount of time for such a memory to remain accurate. (I know, for instance, with accuracy where some of my Australian ancestors are buried, some of their graves going back almost 170 years ago). So it is not only possible (as the tests have shown), but indeed probable (as history and tradition attest), that the remains are indeed those of St Paul.

      And I really don’t think it totally beyond possibility (although certainly it requires a good dose of credulity – but, heh, that’s what religion is all about!) that the bits of wood I venerated during the Good Friday liturgy at Santa Croce might indeed have been of the Holy Cross itself. It IS possible. Just probably not probable.

      • Peregrinus says:

        I think it’s quite likely that people in the fourth century correctly remembered where Paul was buried. Certainly by the early third century the spot was marked by a monument, and was a place of pilgrimage. My point was that when they went to exhume him, they would have found lots of bodies, which would have been repeatedly disturbed over the years – it was a burial ground, after all. We don’t know on what basis they identified a set of bones as Paul’s, and that’s where the uncertainty arises.

        They could very well be Paul’s bones, but equally they might not be. The chances are probably better than for the True Cross, though.

        Incidentally, when Paul (?) was exhumed in the fourth century, most of him was interred in a sarcophagus – presumably the one just rediscovered – in the new basilica, but his head was taken off to St. John Lateran, where it still is. It might be possible to test the head and the remains just found to confirm if they are the same person. Still wouldn’t prove that it was Paul, though.

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