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Who's Buried in St. Paul's Tomb? Volume 60 Number 2, March/April 2007

The Vatican recently announced the discovery of what may be the tomb of St. Paul in Rome's second-largest basilica. The first-century Christian martyr was long suspected to be buried beneath the main altar of the basilica, St. Paul's Outside-the-Walls, originally built in the late fourth century A.D. Now Vatican Museum archaeologist Giorgio Filippi's excavation through the wall of the altar has revealed a stone sarcophagus, more than six feet long and three feet tall, near three marble plaques including one bearing the inscription, in Latin, "Saint Paul the Martyr."

According to the New Testament, Paul joined the early Christian church after his famous conversion on the road to Damascus, when he is said to have heard the voice of Jesus. After spending much of his life proselytizing, he was sent to Rome to stand trial and was executed around A.D. 64. St. Paul was buried at the present-day site of the basilica, where a small church was erected to commemorate him.

"Absolute proof that it holds St. Paul's bones is impossible," says Leonard Rutgers, an archaeologist at the University of Utrecht who visited the excavation. According to textual evidence, St. Paul's remains were removed from the original site in A.D. 258, reburied in another part of Rome, and then finally moved back to the site of the basilica when it was built in the late fourth century. "So they were schlepping these bones around a lot," says Rutgers. "It's hard to say if the remains in the sarcophagus itself belong to the saint. But it is still a significant late-fourth-century burial."

According to Filippi, historians had assumed that St. Paul was buried in a columbarium, or wall niche, which was typical of the period. "Instead," says Filippi, "we are now certain that sarcophagi existed in Rome by the fourth century, when Christianity was just beginning to assert itself."

The sarcophagus will remain beneath the altar, as Church law forbids the movement of sacred relics. But further study is still a possibility.

"There is a small hole in the upper part of the sarcophagus sealed with mortar," says Filippi. "Perhaps if the Pope authorized us, we could use an optical probe to study the inside. Naturally for us archaeologists it would be interesting to know if the remains inside really belong to St. Paul."

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America