Pius XII Announced Discovery of Peter's Tomb

Pius XII Announced Discovery of Peter's Tomb

On December 23, 1950, Pope Pius XII declared in a radio broadcast that St. Peter's tomb had been found several feet below the altar of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in Rome.

"The tomb of the Prince of the Apostles has been found," said Pius. "Such is the final conclusion after all the labor and study of these years. A second question, subordinate to the first, refers to the relics of Saint Peter. Have they been found? At the side of the tomb remains of human bones have been discovered. However, it is impossible to prove with certainty that they belong to the apostle."

For ten years, Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, the administrator of St. Peter's, oversaw the dig which was conducted by two Jesuit archaeologists and their colleagues. Kaas did not sympathize with the methods archaeologists use. He felt it was wrong for them to treat human bones like scientific evidence. Secretly, he examined the digs each night after the workmen left and collected all bones that he found. He stored these in boxes off the site, making no scientific record of where the bones had been found or their placement. The procedure diverged drastically from accepted archaeological method.

The pope's claim was guarded because bones originally identified as belonging to a sixty-year-old man and thought to belong to the Apostle Peter turned out to include those of a young man, some animals and a bone from an elderly woman.

Other questions were not satisfactorily answered. The early church historian Eusebius, writing at the time when Emperor Constantine ordered the original St. Peter's built, mentioned a monument with an inscription. No such monument was found. The only inscription which ever came to light, appeared mysteriously in an adjacent vault. This was on a flake of stone and supposedly came from a graffiti-covered wall unearthed below the basilica. Writing on the small flake was interpreted to mean "Peter is in here;" however it could not be matched to the wall.

A widely distributed photograph of the bones turned out to be a fake: the bones had been removed from a pile and were later brought back to the scene and arranged for the photo. Atheists made much of these discrepancies.

Eighteen years after Pius XII's original announcement, Pope Paul VI announced that the actual bones of Peter had been identified. Three of the original archaeologists protested the pope's claim which came about because Margherita Guarducci, studying graffiti on the wall, accidentally learned of the boxes of bones Kaas had taken off-site. Kaas was dead. One of the workmen, however, remembered that Kaas had ordered a new-found crypt opened and its contents removed so that the archaeologists could not "desecrate" the bones. The workman led Margherita to the box. The bones proved to be that of an elderly man. According to the Vatican, carbon dating confirmed they dated to Peter's era.

However, questions remained. Tests showed that the soil on the bones did not match the soil of the crypt where they were supposed to have been found. A spokesman for the Vatican later admitted the church was in an "insecure position" regarding identification of the bones.

Few archaeological finds corroborate the existence of individuals mentioned in the New Testament. Biblical Archaeology Review enumerated these in its November-December 2002 issue. Significantly, Peter's bones were not mentioned. In archaeological circles, the identification is considered completely unsatisfactory. But Catholic apologists reminded the faithful that the Christian faith rests not on archaeological remains but on a risen, living Christ.


  1. Allen, John L., jr. "The Bones of St. Peter." Catholic Digest. http://www.catholicdigest.org/stories/200105052a.html
  2. Feldman, Steven and Roth, Nancy E. "The Short List: The New Testament Figures Known to History." Biblical Archaeology Review. (November/December 2002).
  3. Hijmans, Dr. Steven. "In Search of Peter's Tomb." http://www.expressnews.ualberta.ca/expressnews/articles/ ideas.cfm?p_ID=794&s=a)
  4. Zindler, Frank R. "Of Bones and Boners; St. Peter at the Vatican." American Atheists. http://www.atheists.org/church/bones.html [This article is cited because it demonstrates the mockery made of the claims].

Originally published April 28, 2010.

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