Pope Benedict announced yesterday, that fragments of bone from the first or second century have been found in a tomb in the Basilica of St Paul in Rome.
Speaking at St Paul’s-Outside-the-Walls, on the eve of today’s Feasts of St Peter and St Paul, the Holy Father said: “This seems to confirm the unanimous and undisputed tradition that these are the mortal remains of the Apostle Paul.”
Tradition has always held that St Paul was buried with St Peter in a catacomb on the Via Appia, before being moved to a basilica erected in his honour. For centuries it was believed that his remains were buried beneath the altar.
…Pope Benedict said a tiny hole had been drilled in the sarcophaguus, revealing “traces of a precious linen cloth, purple in colour, laminated with pure gold, and a blue coloured textile with filaments of linen. It also revealed the presence of 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.”
The tradition mentioned above is old, but still dates to 3 centuries after Paul’s death. Many urban legends & tall tales have arisen is less time, so there is room to question the tradition’s accuracy. At the same time, some communities have preserved bona fide memories over many generations, so the claim is not impossible. Carbon-14 puts the bones in the neighborhood (more or less) of Paul’s lifetime, but the remains could belong to anybody. There is no basis for genetic testing, so we probably won’t get any closer to knowing one way or the other.
The purple cloth (laminated with pure gold!) would be an unlikely relic for Paul’s tomb since purple was quite expensive in those times and therefore limited to the upper classes. To be fair, the sarcophagus originally had small openings for Christians to insert items or to touch the bones. Perhaps the textiles and incense would have been placed there by someone else.
There’s no way to be confident that the remains are Paul’s, but many tourists/pilgrims will undoubtedly pay money to visit.
On a coincidental note, archaeologists have identified a 4-century catacomb fresco as the earliest known portrait of Paul. They did not have a 1st-century polaroid to work from, so (again) I doubt it is an authentic depiction of the real Paul. Still, it is an impressive find. It is one of many frescos in the catacomb, and has undergone the slow process of removing 1600 years of limestone buildup.
Update: The fresco picture is actually here. HT: Todd Bolen