Sunday, 4 September 2016

Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter - Part 26

For the next weeks, my Sunday postings will be a transcript of the book "Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter" by the Jersey historian, the Reverend G.R. Bailleine (1873 – 1966).

Most of Balleine's books are either currently in print - as for example his History of Jersey - or online in the form of PDF versions. This book is not, so this is something different. As well as being a Jersey historian, Balleine was also a priest in the Church of England, and Ministre Deservant at St Brelade's Church for a time.

The Grave 
By G.R. Balleine

WAS Peter ever buried? Possibly not. Roman Law, more merciful than our own, allowed friends of criminals to obtain their bodies for burial; but, when Christianity was a capital offence, it would have been suicidal for a Christian to claim that right under Nero.

Unclaimed bodies would be fed to the beasts or tossed into the Tiber, where the swift current would carry them quickly out to sea. This may have been Peter's fate.

If not, his body must have been stolen and buried surreptitiously. The fourth-century Acts of Peter and Paul may preserve a true tradition when it says that `holy men took down his body by stealth and buried it under a turpentine-tree near the naumachia on the Vatican', though suspicion stirs when we read that these men `had come from Jerusalem'. For a condemned criminal there could as yet be no tomb or monument; so the turpentine-tree by the roadside would be the only clue to guide Christians to the grave of the Apostle.

When it was assumed that Peter's body lay beneath that tree, others wished to be buried beside it. The Liber Pontificalis, a sixth-century work, but one based on earlier documents, states that Linus, Peter's successor, was buried `beside the body of Peter'; and it says the same about Anicetus and Sotor, two other early Popes. If so, a plot round Peter's grave must have been bought by Christians as a burying-ground.

Since burial in the city was forbidden, every road out from Rome was lined with tombs. When in recent years excavations were made under the crypt of St. Peter's, the great church which now crowns the Vatican Hill, it was found that, before the church was built, that hillside had become a vast pagan necropolis. Most of the tombs were handsome family sepulchres, built at least a hundred years after Peter's death. But among them were earlier, humble earth-burials, where bodies had been laid in holes in the ground and covered with a few tiles. Such would have been Peter's grave, if he was buried there.

The Liber Pontificalis gives another scrap of information. It says that Anacletus `built a memorial of Blessed Peter, that the Bishops might be buried there'. This seems a dangerously early date for any memorial, for Anacletus was Pope from 76 to 88; so it has been suggested that `Anacletus' may be a slip for `Anicetus', who was Pope from 155 to 166. But, whoever placed it, a memorial of some kind, perhaps bearing only the word SIMON, was certainly there in 210, when Gaius, a Roman Presbyter, wrote to an Asiatic, who had boasted that his city, Hierapolis, possessed the tomb of Philip: `Come to Rome, and I will show you trophies of Apostles.

On the Vatican or on the road to Ostia you will find the trophies of the founders of the Church in Rome.' On the Ostian Way was the traditional site of Paul's burial. So on the Vatican a stone of some kind must have marked Peter's reputed grave.

So far all has been fairly clear sailing; but now we enter a fog; for in 258 a spot on the other side of Rome, three miles along the Appian Way, put in a claim to have been a burial-place of Peter. The village was called Ad Catacumbas, `At the Ships' Prows', which may have been the name of a tavern, which, like the Elephant and Castle in London, had given its name to the neighbourhood.

Later, underground burial galleries were called `catacombs', because the best-known tunnel of this kind was in this village.

In the earliest Church Calendar, drawn up in 354 by Philocalus, Secretary of Pope Damasus, we read: `iii cal. Jul. Petri in Catacumnbas et Pauli Ostense, Tusco et Basso consulibus'. In Roman calendars iii cal. Jul. meant three days before 1 July, i.e. 29 June, which Rome still keeps as the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul. Tuscus and Bassus were consuls in 258. So apparently in, or from, that year Peter's Festival was kept not on the Vatican, but at Catacumbas. And when the persecution ceased in 313 a church was built there, called the Basilica of the Apostles (later renamed St. Sebastian), and it became one of the Seven Pilgrimage Churches of Rome, which every pilgrim had to visit. `Here,' said the seventh-century pilgrims' Itinerary, `are the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul in which they rested forty years.'

Three explanations have been offered. According to one their bodies were brought here immediately after their execution; though why Peter's stolen body should be smuggled right through Rome, instead of being buried on the spot, is not easy to guess.

A version of the Apocryphal Acts tells a more sensational story. Men from the East stole the bodies of the Saints, but when they got to Ad Catacumbas a terrific earthquake frightened them, and they dropped their burden and fled. `The Romans then guarded the bodies for a year and six months, when the body of Peter was put on the Vatican and that of Paul on the Ostian Way.'

Modern scholars, noticing that 258 was the year of Valerian's persecution, have suggested that the bodies may have been moved for safety; though why Peter's bones should have been brought from the comparative seclusion of the Vatican and reburied by Rome's busiest highway close to an Imperial police station, needs explanation. Yet beneath the floor of the church a room has been found with over 200 petitions roughly scratched on the walls-'Peter and Paul help Primus the Sinner'; `Peter and Paul preserve Vincent'-showing that the room had been used by Christians who met to invoke the Apostles. In some way now indiscernible this village undoubtedly became linked with Peter's body.

A new red herring was drawn across our track in the thirteenth century, when an idea started that Peter had been martyred on the Janiculum, another of the Seven Hills, and a beautiful little round Temple was built to mark the site of his cross.

But the tradition that prevailed was that Peter lay on the Vatican, and many clues were given as to the position of the grave. Most of the early ones mention the turpentine-tree. The Liber Pontificalis sums up some of the others. It was `on the Aurelian Road, at the Temple of Apollo, near the place where he was crucified, by the Palace of Nero, in the Triumphal Territory'. But all these landmarks have vanished. The turpentine-tree has gone, and so have the Temple of Apollo and Nero's Palace (probably a garden pavilion). The obelisk was moved by a Pope in 1586, and re-erected opposite the west door of St. Peter's. We do not know where the Aurelian Road ran, or what was the Triumphal Territory. The only certainty is that Nero's race-course must have been on the level ground at the foot of the hill.

With Constantine, however, the first Christian Emperor, we meet verifiable facts. About 333 he began to build his great church on the Vatican. He chose a most amazing site. A few yards away was a long strip of flat ground, where the chariots had raced; but, instead of using this, he built on the steep slope of the hill, though, to get his floor level, he had to dig out on one side a million square feet of earth, and on the other to build up a tremendous supporting platform.

Moreover, he had to desecrate a large pagan cemetery, that was still in use. Hundreds of handsome tombs were destroyed to make room for the new church (their remains lie under the floor), which must have enraged many rich and influential Roman families. He must have had some strong reason for choosing such a peculiarly awkward site. His choice is explained (and no other explanation seems possible) if he was determined to build Peter's Church over Peter's grave.

At the east end, where many years later Gregory the Great placed the altar,' a hole was left in the floor, through which emerged the top of what perhaps was Gaius's `trophy' or one that had taken its place. Constantine clearly believed that this marked the place where Peter was buried. Just as his Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem ended in the cave of the crib, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre ended in Christ's reputed tomb, so the Church on the Vatican ended over what he believed to be Peter's grave.

Later the floor was raised, and pilgrims could only peep at the `trophy' through a window in the pavement. When Agiulf visited it in 590 we are told: `The pilgrim puts his head through the window and asks for what he requires; nor is there any delay, if his request is befitting. And, if he wants a holy token to take away with him, a scrap of cloth is weighed in a scale and lowered to the tomb. Then watching and fasting he prays devoutly and, if his faith prevails, strange to say, that scrap of cloth comes 'up so full of virtue that it weighs more than it did before. So he knows his prayer is answered.'

[In these earliest churches the altar was a movable table, which usually stood in the nave. ]

But in 846 came disaster. St. Peter's still stood in open country outside the city walls. Saracens sailed up the Tiber. They failed to take Rome, but they sacked and burnt the church. Did they destroy the `trophy'? If Crusaders had sacked Mecca, they would certainly have left no relic of Mohammed behind. Saracens were hardly likely to be more tolerant. At any rate, when the church was rebuilt, the memorial, whatever it was, was entirely walled in.

In 1506 Pope Julius II began to pull down the old church, and in its place there rose the present stupendous one, the largest in Christendom. Centuries passed, and the `trophy' remained invisible. But in 1950 the Pope announced in his Christmas broadcast, `The grave of the Prince of the Apostles has been discovered.' Ten years before, when foundations were dug for the tomb of Pope Pius XI, the remains of the old pagan cemetery had been discovered. Further excavation was sanctioned; and immediately under the high altar, at the exact spot where Constantine's memorial had stood, a queer little shrine was unearthed, a stone slab, two feet long, resting on marble pillars, which apparently once had had something smaller on it. (Perhaps the Saracens had broken the top off.) It is not a tomb, for its lower part is open to the winds of heaven; but quite possibly it may be the `trophy', which caused Constantine to choose that spot for his church.

But that `trophy' is not mentioned till 150 years after Peter's death. There is no proof that whoever erected it had anything more than a tradition to guide him. And the Pope himself frankly admitted that, though bones had been found near the `shrine', `it is impossible to prove with certainty that they belong to the body of the Apostle'.

Professor J. M. C. Toynbee wrote in the Dublin Review (4th Quarter 1955):

`The chief thing revealed was a simple niched structure directly under the altar, certainly venerated as St. Peter's Shrine from the time of its erection about the middle of the second century onwards, and made the central pivot of Old St. Peter's by Constantine. All the archaeological evidence converges to indicate that this structure was built, at no small inconvenience, to mark exactly a spot immediately below it, which was already of significance to the Christians interested in its building. That this spot was a grave cannot be absolutely proved; but any other explanation of the spot is unsatisfactory.

Moreover, just under the Shrine, was found a number of human bones, which could not have reached that place after the shrine was erected. The archaeological data definitely suggest that the Shrine marked what Roman Christians of the mid-second century believed to be the grave of St. Peter.

Whether they were right is another matter. It can never be proved that they did not (mistakenly, but in all good faith) identify another person's grave with that of the Apostle; nor can we ever be sure that his body was recovered from the executioners for burial. There is strong probability that the excavators have found St. Peter's tomb. But they have not done so certainly.'

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