An Archaeological Thriller

jonesMy guess is that “archaeological” and “thriller” are two words that were rarely linked prior to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Generations of moviegoers have grown up on Indiana Jones’ exploits, spellbound by his death-defying feats, and enthralled by his (usually) noble sacrifices on behalf of his museum, his profession, and, more broadly, the entire civilized world.

Yet, even with three sequels, a TV spinoff, and constant exposure via DVD, Netflix, and cable reruns, Jones’ fictional output is still shy of overcoming the assumption that actual archaeology is basically dull.

Maybe so, but I know of at least one exception.

Right around the time that Harrison Ford was supposedly liberating the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis, a real-life adventure took place that also featured relics, intrigue, and ancient tombs: The hunt for the final resting place of the Fisherman, the first pope. John Evangelist Walsh wrote a book about it, The Bones of St. Peter (1985), and recently my wife presented me with a reprint as a gift. “I remember you talking about this once,” she remarked, “and I thought you’d enjoy reading it again.” She was right.

Many years ago, my pastor gave me a copy with the suggestion that every Catholic convert should know the story. “It’s all true,” Fr. Simon murmured mysteriously. “We have his bones.” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but he got my attention, and I dived in.

The story sounds plain enough, but it reads like a cliffhanger. Longstanding Catholic tradition had always placed the Apostle Peter’s martyrdom and burial on the grounds of the Vatican, with the final resting place of his bones somewhere beneath the Basilica’s high altar—a fitting testament to Jesus’ declaration that He would build His church “on this rock (petros).” During renovations to the basilica’s crypt in 1939, a series of ancient tombs and grave markings were discovered, and Pope Pius XII authorized further investigation.

No doubt, the Holy Father would’ve been cautiously optimistic that the experts would discover Peter’s remains where tradition had always located them, and that there would be enough empirical evidence to make a solid case that went beyond faith and piety. Still, he was willing to take a risk that the science might prove tradition wrong—itself surely an act of heroism and fortitude perhaps rivaling anything Indiana Jones attempted.

As the diggers made their way through the underground pagan necropolis, they encountered more and more Christian imagery and graffiti, but they encountered obstacles as well. One big problem was water, seeping into their excavations from leaky conduits deep in the walls. Plus there were personality conflicts, rivalry among the researchers, minor mishaps, major blunders—not to mention the commencement of a world war.

In time, the Apostle’s remains were indeed discovered, and in the very spot tradition led the team to believe they would be—directly beneath the high altar. In 1968, Pope Paul VI joyfully announced to the world that the Apostle’s remains had been found.

Of course they were found under the high altar,” the skeptics cry. “Where else would Catholic archaeologists working at the behest of the pope find St. Peter’s bones? How convenient!” What’s more, unlike the opening of the Ark in Raiders, there were no meteorological theatrics, no apparitions or ghostly terrors accompanying the tomb’s discovery—so no supernatural verification, you might say. In terms of human second opinion, there were plenty of naysayers, and scholars continue to squabble over the authenticity of the grave and its contents to this day.

So. Does it matter?

Let me shift gears a bit—to a children’s book, the Newberry classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967). It’s a story of runaway siblings that uncover what they think is a secret regarding a controversial Michelangelo statue. Is it a fake? Is it real? Claudia and Jamie think they know, and they seek out Mrs. Frankweiler, the original owner, to confer with her.

In the end, their definitive evidence isn’t so definitive, and even Mrs. Frankweiler’s more solid proof is open to doubt, as she tells them:

What they’ll do is start investigating the authenticity of the sketch…. They’ll analyze the ink. And the paper. They’ll research all his illustrated notes and compare, compare, compare, compare. In short, they’ll make a science of it…. They’ll poll all the authorities, and probably the majority will agree that the note and the statue are really the work of Michelangelo…. But some stubborn ones won’t agree, and thereafter the statue and the sketch will appear in books with a big question mark.

basil-e-frankweiler-cover_thumb

After digesting this, and sensing Frankweiler’s resignation, Claudia probes further and asks why she doesn’t want “the last little bit of doubt cleared up.” You can almost hear the art patron’s heavy sigh as you read her negative reply and simple justification: “Because I’m eighty-two years old. That’s why.”

Now, back to Peter’s bones: Are they genuine? Is it really his tomb? The evidence is compelling, the Pope confirmed it, and I believe it—I have no reason not to.

But would my faith be shaken should new discoveries shift the weight of evidence in the other direction? Would we have to doubt the Pope’s authority? Doubt the Church Herself? Don’t we need to know for sure—that is, in Claudia’s words, to have the last little bit of doubt cleared up?

No. Why? Because the Gospel is not about extinguishing doubt. New Testament translator J.B. Phillips wrote of this in his comments on historical Christianity:

I am not in the least concerned with what may or may not be proved by the dexterous manipulation of texts. Indeed, I think we are all of us indoctrinated more than we know by being led tendentiously from one text to another in our impressionable years. But I am concerned with this new quality of living which has as its spearhead the personal visit of God to this planet in the Person of Jesus Christ.

In other words, the Church has another agenda—an agenda of faith, hope, and love. We can’t prove those are Peter’s bones or that Peter was the first Pope; we can’t prove Apostolic succession or Transubstantiation; we can’t prove the Incarnation or the Resurrection. But why would we Luca Giordano, The Crucifixion of St. Peter (c. 1660)want to? A faith of mere proof isn’t really faith, and, besides, the Gospel is primarily about love—and you can’t prove love.

You can show it, though, and that’s Peter’s true legacy. After screwing up royally over and over, Peter finally met up with his risen Lord at the seashore. Three times Jesus asked him to confirm his love, and three times the Apostle did so, but words were not enough—action was required, ultimate action.

‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.’ (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, ‘Follow me’ (John 21:15-19).

As Peter tells Jesus elsewhere, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Love invites us to follow as well, bones or no bones. Our own thrilling tale awaits.

________________________

A version of this story appeared on The Catholic Thing.

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