Did the Apostle Peter Die in Rome?

Here's the short summary

  • There is no explicit mention that Peter was in Rome or not in Rome in the Bible. Some evangelical apologists provide this as "proof" Peter is not the first Pope. Establishing Peter as the first pope does not depend on proving he died in Rome, but nevertheless, the evidence of Peter's presence and death in Rome is overwhelming.
  • Peter says “The Church here in Babylon ... sends you her greeting ...” (1 Pet. 5:13). Babylon was a code word for Rome used in many early Christian letters and in the Bible. Under the persecution it makes sense that Peter would not want to alert authorities that he was in Rome.
  • Many of the Early Church fathers talk about Peter being in Rome, while none of them say he was not in Rome.
  • The archaeological evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of Peter's presence and death in Rome.
  • There is an unbroken 2000 year tradition that Peter died in Rome, which predates any church that denies the papacy by 1300 years. There was no reason for anyone to lie about it back then. There was only one universal Church.

The archeology and history of Peter's presence and death in Rome

Saint Peter resided in Rome and suffered a martyr's death there in the year 67 A.D., at the time of the Christian persecutions during the reign of the emperor Nero.  The exact place of his martyrdom is unknown.  Historians believe Saint Peter was crucified upside down in Nero's amphitheater, which was situated where the Vatican now stands.  He was buried at a nearby cemetery.  Many years of excavations underneath the Basilica of Saint Peter led to the discovery of the first Pope's tomb.  The tomb lies directly beneath the Pope's altar in the Vatican Basilica.  This tomb signifies that each bishop of Rome is Saint Peter's successor and by virtue of his office as:

…the successor of Christ and the Pastor of the whole Church has full, supreme and universal power over the church.  (Christus Dominus 2:9)

No controversy

For thirteen centuries no one questioned the presence of Saint Peter's tomb in the Vatican.  The first to dispute this were the adherents of the Waldensian heresy, who rejected the primacy of the Pope, maintaining that Saint Peter was never in Rome, let alone that his tomb was there.  Likewise, Luther and other leaders of the Reformation denied the existence of Saint Peter's tomb in the Vatican, at the same time calling into question the primacy and infallibility of the Pope in matters of faith.

Excavations in the 1930's

Excavation work beneath St. Peter's Basilica began in the spring of 1939 following the death of Pius XI, who had expressed the wish to be buried in the Vatican Grottos.  During the digging of his grave, the remains of a pagan necropolis from Roman times were discovered.  Hearing of this discovery, Pope Pius XII commissioned a team of research workers to begin excavations and investigations, which after several years lead to sensational discoveries.  During the 10 years of archaeological work part of a large cemetery was discovered.  Its greatest period of development would have taken place between the 2nd and the beginning of the 4th centuries A.D.  Sepulchres were discovered along a street, which ran in the vicinity of Nero's amphitheater.  That superbly preserved necropolis is a typical pagan cemetery, and in it are also found Christian graves.  To this day one can admire tombs and monuments of unparalleled architectural beauty, which belonged to affluent Roman families.

In the Valerius' vault a Latin inscription was found: Petrus rogat Iesus Christus pro sanctis hominibus chrestianis ad corpus suum sepultis ("Peter prays to Jesus Christ for the Christians buried near his body").  In Popilius Herakles' tomb the following inscription was found; IN VATIC. AD CIRCUM (at the Vatican, near the amphitheater), which confirms the cemetery's location on the Vatican hills in the vicinity of Nero's amphitheater.  In the main, however, these were sepulchres of families professing a pagan religion.

The cemetery in Rome

At the beginning of the fourth century the cemetery was in full use.  According to Roman law the tombs were sacred and inviolable.  The only reason the emperor Constantine (280-337) was required to break the Roman cemetery law in the case of this necropolis was the necessity of building a Christian basilica on the terrain owing to the great devotion Christians had to the tomb of St. Peter, which was located there.  The emperor ordered a so-called congestion terrarum, demolishing the northern end of the cemetery and covering tombs which were found in its southern part with earth.  The aim was to obtain a wide flat area on the slope of the Vatican hill at the same level as the tomb of Saint Peter, and to begin the construction of the basilica there in reverence to the first Pope.  It bears witness to the tremendous veneration in which the first Christians held the tomb of Saint Peter.

The excavations carried out in the central area of the basilica, under the Pope's altar, lead to the sensational discovery of the tomb and relics of St. Peter.  First to be discovered was a huge cuboidal marble reliquary almost 3 yards wide.  It had been built by the emperor Constantine in the years 321-324.  A small tombstone, in the shape of a hollowed-out chapel, was found inside the reliquary and was supported by two columns and set in a red-plastered wall.  Since this tiny memorial had been enclosed in the reliquary it must have been of extraordinary significance.  The research workers had come upon the most important section of the Vatican Basilica and the entire underground necropolis.  It became evident that this was the first monument to be erected, in the 2nd century, on St. Peter's tomb.  The first Christians considered the tomb of St. Peter a victorious trophy.  Since the earliest information concerning the 'trophy-tomb' of St. Peter comes from the Roman priest Gaius, this tombstone was called Gaius' Trophy.  Early in the 2nd century the Roman Christian community built the 'trophy-tomb' on the unexpectedly modest grave of St Peter, which had quite simply been dug in the ground.  On its western side a red plastered wall enclosed it.  This wall surrounded a small burial ground about 8 x 4 yards.  Many common and simple graves were found there, placed around St. Peter's grave, on top of which sat Gaius' Trophy.  The tomb of the Apostle Peter was particularly highly venerated, to which the many inscriptions on the so called "graffiti wall" bear witness, including a large inscription in Greek: "Peter is here at the 'red wall'."

The inscriptions

The research undertaken over many years by Professor Margherita Guarducci led to the discovery of the meanings of the many inscriptions on the "graffiti wall".  They were written by the one person responsible for that place, according to established principles of mystical cryptography, and were both spiritually as well as logically ordered.  As an example, we know that the letters u - á mean a transition from the end, that is from death to the beginning, to the fullness of life.

Aside from the names of the dead the name of St. Peter appears, linked with the names of Christ and Mary, as well as the profession of belief in the Blessed Trinity; that Jesus Christ is true God and true man; that he is the second person in the Blessed Trinity, the Son of God, the Beginning and the End, the Life, the Light, the Resurrection, Salvation, Peace and Victory etc.  In this manner Christians professed their faith in the Blessed Trinity, Christ's Divinity, the intercession of Mary and eternal life and prayed for their dead.

This is extremely important testimony indicative of the fact that since the very beginnings of Christianity there was a very deep faith in the Blessed Trinity, Christ's divinity, the intercession of the Mother of God and eternal life, as well as the primacy of St. Peter.

It is also worthwhile to mention at this point the inscription hoc vince (with this you shall conquer) near Christ's monogram.  It is the Latin translation of a famous Greek inscription, which the emperor Constantine saw in the sky, together with a cross, before his victory in the Battle of Milvian Bridge against Maxentius's armies on October 28 in the year 312.

Constantine and the relics of Peter

Archaeologists were very surprised when they failed to find the relics of St. Peter in the grave dug in the ground.  They were later found just over 2 yards above the original grave in a recess in the "graffiti wall".  The recess containing the relics was discovered on October 13, 1941.  It transpired that the emperor Constantine had transferred the relics of St. Peter from the original grave to the specially prepared recess in the "graffiti wall" during the construction of the marble reliquary.

The relics became the subject of anthropological studies of many years duration.  Initially the studies were headed by Professor Galeazzi Lisi, then by Professor Correnti.  The results of the studies were printed in 1965 in a book published by the Vatican: Le reliquie di Pietro sotto la Confessione della Basilica Vaticana.  The bones of St. Peter, placed at the time of the emperor Constantine in the "graffiti wall" recess, were wrapped in a valuable purple cloth interwoven with pure gold.

The anthropological studies revealed that the bones belonged to one person, a male of stocky build, aged between 60-70 years and 5 feet 5 inches tall.

The scientific confirmation of the authenticity of the relics of St. Peter was an extremely important event.  During the general audience on June 26, 1968 Pope Paul VI officially announced the discovery of the relics of St Peter.  The following day, during the course of formal celebrations, 19 receptacles holding the relics of the first Pope were laid to rest in the recess of the "graffiti wall", where they remain to this day.

Written by Father M. Piotrowski, Society of Christ with additions by Hugh of this site.

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