The bones of St Paul

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According to the Telegraph, the Vatican has just announced that they’ve found the bones of St Paul. The bones – or bone fragments – were found in a white marble sarcophagus along with “traces of a precious linen cloth, purple in colour, laminated with pure gold, and a blue coloured textile with filaments of linen… grains of red incense and traces of protein and limestone. There were also tiny fragments of bone, which, when subjected to Carbon 14 tests by experts, turned out to belong to someone who lived in the first or second century.”

So, the circumstantial evidence is good. But that hardly allows for the leap in the first paragraph of this story which runs:

Pope Benedict XVI said scientific tests confirmed shards found in the underground chamber at the church of St Paul’s-Outside-the-Walls in Rome were from the apostle.

Scientific tests can’t do that. The discovery of bones from ‘the first or second century’ hardly amounts to confirmation that they are the bones of the apostle.

They’re in the right place, certainly. But the Early Church tradition is that the bones were moved at least once. Eusebius records that they were once in a monument on ‘the Ostian Way’. But there is also an Early Church tradition that the bones of both Peter and Paul were removed to the catacombs to protect them, probably during the  Valerian persecution in 258. (There’s an underground chapel in the Catacombs of San Sebastian which is covered in grafitti invoking Peter and Paul – this may well be the place.) The bones were then taken back to the shrine over the traditional burial place of St Paul – a shrine which would become the church of San Paolo fuori le Mura (‘Saint Paul outside the walls’). This basilica was subsequently damaged during the Saracen invasions, then burnt to the ground completely in 1823.

So the problem is that you have the original bones moved to a graveyard and then moved back. The discovery of first/second century bone fragments, wrapped in purple, blue and gold cloth (the most expensive pigments) does seem to indicate bones which were treated with special reverence. But that’s hardly the same as ‘proof’ that they’re the actual bones.

33_2_580888aEqually interesting, to me at any rate, is the discovery of a very early portrait of Paul. This seems to echo an early  description of Paul, where he is described as’ a man small in size, bald-headed, bandy-legged, well-built,3 with eyebrows meeting, rather long-nosed…’ That description comes from a piece of pious fiction written before 200, so may well preserve a genuine tradition.

Having said that, once again, there’s no definitive link between the two. There doesn’t seem to be an inscription on the portrait: it’s just that, according to the archaeologist, it resembles the ‘iconography that we know existed at around the 4th Century’. So because it looks like pictures of St Paul, and because it’s found near the Basilica people have put two and two together.

My own view is that places are more trustworthy than objects. By which I mean that it seems to me that the locations associated with Paul are more likely to be authentic than the bones. It is one thing for the traditional site of Paul’s execution or burial to be remembered across the centuries: it’s another thing for his bones to survive pure and intact. (Especially since, at one point, they were moved to a graveyard. Where there were, no doubt, rather a lot of bones knocking about.)

Are they the bones? Maybe. Is it a picture of him? Well, it’s certainly how the fourth century remembered him. But Paul died in 65–68 AD. That’s a long time for his bones to survive or his appearance to be remembered.