The Bones of St. Peter

I recently got a copy of the book The Bones of St. Peter that has been out of print for a long time. For the longest time the cheapest version of the book I could find was about $75. From my best research it seems that not a lot were printed but the book remains in high demand. I finally found a copy for $25 and was elated that it was also in “Like New” condition (note to seller: being as yellow as a book could be after 20 years of sitting on a shelf is NOT “Like New” despite the fact that the binding and pages are in good shape). Once I got it I was severely disappointed to find out how small of a book it is. I was expecting some 500 page technical manuscript of the escavation that was the size and weight of a textbook. So when this 200 page novel sized book showed up, I was a little disheartened (but not as disheartened to see that right now at there are 3 copies available under $40. Where were these books over the last year!?!)

As such, it was with a little hesititation that I started reading it earlier this week. I’m only a few chapters in but this book is GRIPPINGLY GREAT. I’m loving every page and learning lots of REALLY interesting stuff. Stuff that is even MORE interesting when you know just enough Church history to be dangerous.

For those who don’t know (and I expect both my readers do not), in the 1960’s Pope Paul VI pronounced that an excavation underneath St. Peter’s bascilica had found the actual tomb and bones of St. Peter (yes, that St. Peter). It was a long held tradition that he was buried underneath the bascilica (underneath the high altar to be exact), but over the centuries the proof that he was down there had become obscure enough to warrant some doubt even amongst those sympathetic to the Church. Of course a papal announcement is about as believeable as The DaVinci Code in certain circles, so this book was written to make the case that they had indeed found St. Peter’s body.

It is written in a narrative fashion explaining why the excavation was started and how that led to further excavations. I’m still just getting started, but some interesting things have come out that I didn’t know:

1. The current St. Peter’s bascilica was built in the 16th century (I knew that) on top of the previous St. Peter’s bascilica (I didn’t know that there was a previous one). It is interesting to note that (assuming I’ve got my dates right) Martin Luther went to Rome on his pilgrimage that convinced him that the Catholic Church was inherently corrupt during the period that the old St. Peter’s was being torn down to build a new one right on top of the old. Particularly if you didn’t have much reverence for St. Peter (which was the cause for not just building a new one right next door, since his tomb was supposedly under the high altar of the old bascilica) I could see why he could see the Church as wasteful and obsessed with money and power. I’m sure, at least in Luther’s mind, the old one was perfectly fine. Why build a new one other than to impress and gain power? (In actuality, I guess the old one was having major structural problems).

2. The first bascilica was built ON TOP of a PAGAN graveyard. (It was built in the 4th century by Constantine).

3. The first bascilica was itself built in an exceedingly difficult location to build a church because it was a hillside that had to be leveled to accomodate a church (and even the old one was one humongous church).

4. The new bascilica’s floor is about 8 feet higher than the old bascilica’s floor. The old bascilicas floor is now the floor of what is called “The Grottos” and it is where Catholic people of prominence (including Pope John Paul II) have been buried since the new bascilica’s completion.

5. What started this whole escavation was a desire to make an effective basement out of the center of “The Grottos” (the graves are around the outside). When they first started digging they encountered a pagan tomb. Construction was stopped and the escavation began.

6. There were numerous “folklore” stories about what was underneath the bascilica with lots of stories (with too many vague details to be believeable) about discoveries during previous construction stories. During the escavation of the pagan graveyard they found that a number of these “folklores” were in fact mostly based in truth.

7. The high altar, the location of St. Peter’s tomb, has been so revered over the centuries that no one dared tear it down to make a new altar (which was done every few hundred years for asthetic purposes). The result is that in their attempt to get to St. Peter’s tomb they had to carefully tear into layers upon layers of walls that all were from previous altars. And oh yeah, nobody has plans or pictures that show what the majority of these altars looked like before they built on top of them or even exactly how many altars have been built. And just to make it “interesting” the Pope was very explicit that destroying or significantly damaging these ancient altars was unacceptable.

8. And that’s about it… so far… fascinating stuff. I recommend picking up the book if you can find a copy at a reasonable price.

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