Like many of our readers, I read this Associated Press lede and said: “Say what?!?”
ROME – The first-ever scientific test on what are believed to be the remains of the Apostle Paul “seems to confirm” that they do indeed belong to the Roman Catholic saint, Pope Benedict XVI said Sunday.
Archaeologists recently unearthed and opened the white marble sarcophagus located under the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls in Rome, which for some 2,000 years has been believed by the faithful to be the tomb of St. Paul.
The problem, of course, is not with the narrow, factual nature of the statement that the Apostle Paul of Tarsus is a “Roman Catholic” saint. Of course he is. And the problem isn’t that these remains are buried in the Vatican, which makes the Catholic reference rather relevant.
But, well, St. Paul is also an Orthodox saint, along with the rest of the saints of the one, holy, catholic church before the Great Schism that tore apart the Christian East and West. And, you know, the Protestants think rather highly of the Apostle Paul, too. He’s right up there at the top of the New Testament hero list for everyone in Christianity — period.
So the question is why choose a narrow wording to identify Paul, as opposed to a broader wording that is just as accurate?
So, gentle readers, what wording would you have chosen in this context?
In my own writings, I simply refer to him as St. Paul, when writing about the ancient churches, and the Apostle Paul, when writing about events in a Protestant context.
I was also intrigued by the reference to the carbon dating proving that these relics are, in fact, those of St. Paul. Here is the full reference:
Benedict said scientists had conducted carbon dating tests on bone fragments found inside the sarcophagus and confirmed that they date from the first or second century.
“This seems to confirm the unanimous and uncontested tradition that they are the mortal remains of the Apostle Paul,” Benedict said, announcing the findings at a service in the basilica to mark the end of the Vatican’s Paoline year, in honor of the apostle.
Paul and Peter are the two main figures known for spreading the Christian faith after the death of Christ. According to tradition, St. Paul, also known as the apostle of the Gentiles, was beheaded in Rome in the 1st century during the persecution of early Christians by Roman emperors. Popular belief holds that bone fragments from his head are in another Rome basilica, St. John Lateran, with his other remains inside the sarcophagus.
The pope said that when archaeologists opened the sarcophagus, they discovered alongside the bone fragments some grains of incense, a “precious” piece of purple linen with gold sequins and a blue fabric with linen filaments.
Now, it seems to me that science has found evidence that the relics are from the proper time period, which adds weight to the ancient church traditions about their identity. But — pending some other DNA match — how would this prove the remains are those of a specific man, namely St. Paul?
Now hear me: What I have observed, in graduate school readings and in journalism, is that the claims of the early church are accurate on these matters a very high percentage of the time. The church of the martyrs tended to take these matters rather seriously. People died defending some of these holy sites.
I’m not arguing with the pope and the “seems to confirm” language in the lede is cautious. I simply wondered, again, if the wording could have been a bit more accurate.
Oh, a blessed feast day of Sts. Peter and Paul, to GetReligion readers who worship in churches that take seriously that kind of thing. You know — celebrating the lives and deaths of the saints, like St. Paul.
PHOTO: The saints of the day. Can you say who is who?