Monday, September 10, 2018

Was St. Peter's Tomb Found? Updated


Artist's concept of Peter
As a religious historian, I invariably run into people convinced by a new book that some great Christian relic has been found that “proves” the validity of their faith.

The latest is The Fisherman’s Tomb by John O’Neill.  In it, the author, who has made a habit of researching early Christian sites, claims that the real bones of the Apostle have been found below St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. 

Some of that is true: Remains were found there. They date from the 1st century and are those of a man, thought to be about 65 years old. The Church has claimed they are Peter's relics for centuries and has held an annual celebration in their honor since the 1960s.

None of that proves a thing.

In the first place, there’s no evidence Peter ever went to Rome.  Any information about Peter in the New Testament, the only place Peter is mentioned in any historical document of the era, ends basically when Jesus dies.  Even the account as it stands may be wrong. Not even the Roman Catholic Church thinks the New Testament is historically accurate.

Early Church fathers, starting only in the second century, claim Peter went to Rome.  However, Paul, who in an epistle describes visiting Rome and who otherwise argued with Peter, never mentions seeing Peter or that he was in Rome.  Paul lived during Peter’s lifetime.  The others did not.
Peter's Tomb in Rome

Besides, Peter, identified as an illiterate fisherman, would have had no reason to go to Rome, home of the empire and an enemy to him and fellow believers.  In early Church traditions, he supposedly went to Antioch and served as the bishop there.  That, too, is conjecture since the early Church, being Jewish, didn’t have hierarchy of any kind.

Then, too, the “tradition” about Peter’s death, reportedly crucified upside down under Nero in around 64 C.E., didn’t start until long after his death.  Not coincidentally, the Church spent centuries arguing over where to base its home.  The Bishop of Rome was pushing for Rome and was helped when the “tomb” of Peter was found there.

Peter the Hermit
Many such relics have been found fortuitously through history, such as Peter the Hermit miraculously producing the “lance” that pierced Jesus’ side just when the People’s Crusade was faltering in the 11th century. There are enough pieces of the “true cross” to recreate a forest, many “discovered” to boost morale or enhance belief.

Where was Peter’s skeleton found? In what was previously known as a pagan graveyard.  Lots of bodies.  Dating is also problematic.  Scientists don’t have any method of pinpointing an exact date.  Carbon 14, which is the most accurate method so far, is plus or minus 50 years.  So, the body found in the grave could have been placed there from 10 C.E. to 110 C.E.

The Church examined the tomb in the fifth century and realized the artifacts with it placed the body in a different era.  As a result, the tomb was "lost" for a few decades.

Also, other tombs found in the area contain the names of Jesus, Mary, James, John, and the rest of the apostles.  No one claims that the entire early church was transferred to Rome. Besides, all the names were common among Jews then.

In addition, tombs of known martyrs were festooned with their names incised in the stone by pilgrims.  Peter's tomb contains graffiti, but his name appears only once.

Those gaping holes in the claims don’t even reflect the biggest problems. 

Emperor Claudius
For starters, regardless when Peter died, he was unknown to anyone outside of Jerusalem.  Even there, maybe a handful of people in the Nazarene sect knew him.  His death would not have caused a ripple in anyone’s consciousness. Christianity did not exist then.  The Roman church is thought to have been founded by Jews returning from Judea.  If so, there could not have been that many.

The Nazarenes were a sect of Judaism.  Every member was a Jew.  Emperor Claudius had banned Jews in Rome from 49 until his death in 54.  How many had come back? Of those, how many cared that a small cult had gathered around a dead preacher from the backwoods of Judea?  Paul insists the church was flourishing when he visited there but doesn’t give any numbers.

Artist concept of Paul
None of the other “churches” he founded had more than a few members.  Rome would have been no different.

Just to indicate how limited the number must have been, no one knows where and when Paul died.  Yet, he is far more significant than Peter, having founded many of the Christian colonies.  Myths about him claim that he pushed on to Spain.  So far, no one has claimed to have found his tomb, even though Christianity is based on his teachings.  Rome, of course, claims Peter and Paul died there, without a shred of supporting evidence.

As for Peter, being completely unknown, after death, he would not be accorded any special burial.  He might have died as a Roman prisoner, although charges are still unknown.  As such, his body would have been tossed in a common grave.  Regardless, the tiny, impoverished Jewish-Christian community in Rome, well documented in Roman sources, could not have afforded a tomb.

Then, too, he was supposedly crucified upside down.  Supporters claim that the skeleton of “Peter” backs that claim because it has no feet.  Other explanations are possible, of course, such as bones separating during movement or scavenging by wild animals, but not in the narrow mindset of believers.

How do they know the skeleton was of a crucified man?  There’s no evidence of crucifixion other than the missing feet.  In fact, of all the skeletons ever examined from that era, and although Romans crucified thousands of victims, only one set of remains have ever been found that can be positively identified as having been crucified.  That’s because, in other cases,  the nails were removed because they supposedly had health-related properties.The lack of nails means cause of death cannot be ascribed to crucifixion.
Heel of crucified man

The only skeleton of a crucified man located to date had a nail embedded so deeply into the heel bone that it couldn’t be removed.  That’s not true for the “Peter” skeleton. 

Besides, cutting off the feet, supposedly a prerequisite for an upside crucifixion, would have brought instant death, making crucifixion superfluous.  On top of that, Romans crucified victims in all sorts of directions.  In no extant description did the victim lose anatomical parts beforehand.

Finally, Christians showed no interest in their history until the 4th century. The first history of Christianity wasn’t even written until then. No sources for the information were supplied.  In the book, the author Eusebius was convinced the world was ending shortly because of the harassment faced by Christians.  He was wrong about that, too. 

Soon after, Christianity was legalized by the Emperor Constantine.  His mother, Helena, later toured Jerusalem and picked out locales she was sure were connected to Jesus.  Today, through archaeology, scholars know she was invariably wrong.

The same is probably true with this skeleton supposedly of Peter.

The scenario that makes the most sense is this: Rome needs to find an important relic.  A body buried in a pagan cemetery is identified as Peter’s.  It’s treated with respect and placed in a tomb.  Then, centuries later, another author, the latest in a line of them, comes along to celebrate the “discovery.”

Of course, coincidences happen.  Maybe the folks in the 300s stumbled over Peter’s body.  Stranger things have occurred.  It’s just extraordinarily unlikely, especially in this situation, but the bold, incredible claims about Peter’s tomb are no surprise.  

Author John O’Neill is the same shill who published Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, the unrepentant, false assault on John Kerry, then the Democratic candidate for president.

O’Neill wasn’t honest then, but he sold books.

Ditto for The Fisherman’s Tomb.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University.   He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed The Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  A recent book, Passover in Prison, which details abuse of Jewish inmates in American prisons.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers, including Bold Venture Press.  He can also be followed on Twitter.