The St. Paul Discovery: Body or Soul?

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A mosaic featuring St Paul is displayed over the chapel of the Basilica of St. Paul in Rome, Italy. Archaeologists have unearthed a sarcophagus containing what they believe are the remains of St Paul the Apostle.

How seriously should we take the Vatican's announcement that it has found the sarcophagus of St. Paul underneath Rome's second-largest basilica?

For Catholics, the answer might be, pretty seriously. But for others, especially archaelogists, more skepticism may be in order.

In truth, the eight-foot white marble sarcophagus that Vatican archaelogists uncovered beneath the basilica St. Paul Outside the Walls is more a question of lost-and-found than a brand-new find. The Church has known that a relic believed to be the first-century saint, who wrote the earliest books of the New Testament and was Christianity's first great evangelist, was somewhere beneath the current basilica. But around 1823, the year that a previous, ancient church on the location burned down, they lost track of it. Interest was rekindled four years ago when many Catholics streamed into Rome for Christianity's millennium and were disappointed to find no relic of the Saint. Two years later the archaelogists began digging, and this year they uncovered the sarcophagus and a protective slab inscribed in latin saying "To Paul, Apostle and Martyr." They were heartened by the presence of three holes in it (now stopped up with plaster) through which ancient pilgrims would have put cloths to come in contact with an object of veneration.

Whether you believe that they were actually venerating Paul's remains may depend on how you feel about the authority of the Church. The white marble, says Professor James Strange, an archaelogist at the University of South Florida "immediately tells you that this was a self-conscious, elaborate ritual burial" of a sort that the church at Paul's time would not have been capable. The Latin inscription, says Bard College's Bruce Chilton, author of a book about Paul, does not reflect Paul's Roman Christian community, which would have written it in Greek.

Neither fact rules out the possibility that the sarcophagus might be Paul's; his bones could have been recovered and reburied in the earlier church, which was built in about AD 390. But not even church representatives, who say that there is "incontrovertible evidence" that Paul was buried at the site, are willing to guarantee that this sarcophagus will contain him. X-ray tests on it have already failed because of a layering of concrete and plaster that still surrounds most of it. And the more than 300-year gap between Paul's reported death by order of of the Roman emperor Nero in AD 68 and the construction of the old church leaves considerable room for doubt.

The Church has said that it may try to open the sarcophagus, but hasn't set a date, which is consistent with the preferred speed of both the Vatican and careful archaelogists. If they do, and they discover the bones of a single man whose skull appears to have been forcefully separated from his body (Paul was beheaded) then the scholars will be much more receptive. Carbon dating might at least attest to a first-century provenance.

Until then, the sarcophagus is a little like your great-great-great-grandmother's precious pearls, which the family knew were somewhere in the attic, and finally turned up when someone went digging. You knew they were there; you found them again. The family is free to believe that they are worth millions; but an objective gem assessor might apply a tougher set of criteria.