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Basilica in Rome where Vatican says it found remains of St. Paul

Eighteen months after the sarcophagus believed to have once contained the remains of St. Paul the apostle was positively identified by Vatican archaeologists, Pope Benedict XVI has given his approval to plans by investigators to examine the interior of the ancient stone coffin with an optical probe, according to a German Catholic paper.

As WND reported in 2005, the sarcophagus was discovered during excavations in 2002 and 2003 around the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in south Rome.

“The tomb that we discovered is the one that the popes and the Emperor Theodosius [A.D. 379-395] saved and presented to the whole world as being the tomb of the apostle,” said Giorgio Filippi, a specialist with the Vatican Museums.

The excavation was conducted after the administrator of St. Paul’s basilica, Archbishop Francesco Gioia, received inquiries about the location of the apostle’s tomb from thousands of pilgrims visiting during the Jubilee Year of 2000.

Over the centuries, the basilica grew over the small church built at the burial site early in the 4th century. While the authenticity of the site – or at least, the authenticity conferred by the actions of Theodosius – was not in doubt, repeated enlargements and rebuildings, as well as a fire in 1823, meant the exact location of the sarcophagus was lost for many years.

“There has been no doubt for the past 20 centuries that the tomb is there. It was variously visible and not visible in times past and then it was covered up. We made an opening (in the basilica floor) to make it visible at least in part,” Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, archpriest of the basilica, told Reuters last year.

An initial survey of the basilica enabled archaeologists to reconstruct the fourth century building’s original shape.

The Vatican team found the sarcophagus during a second excavation under the basilica’s main altar.

Under the altar, a marble plaque is visible, dating to the 4th century, bearing the inscription “Apostle Paul, martyr.”

Surprisingly, said Filippi, “nobody ever thought to look behind that plaque,” where the Vatican team found the sarcophagus.

“We tried to X-ray it to see what was inside but the stone was too thick,” said Montezemolo.

Since the rediscovery of the tomb, measuring approximately eight feet long, four feet wide and 3 feet high, archaeologists have cleared away centuries of debris and plaster that surrounded the site. According to Kath.net, investigators have been given permission to remove a plug with which the coffin has been sealed so an endoscopic probe can be inserted and images of the contents captured.

“Absolute proof that it holds St. Paul’s bones is impossible,” Leonard Rutgers, an archaeologist at the University of Utrecht who visited the excavation, told Archaeology magazine in April.

St. Paul’s remains were removed from the original burial site in A.D. 258, according to documentary evidence, reburied in another part of Rome, and then moved back to the site of the basilica when it was built over the original church 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.”

The Bible does not state how Paul died. Many scholars believe he was beheaded in Rome in about A.D. 64 during the reign of Roman Emperor Nero. The “apostle to the gentiles,” as he described himself, was the most prolific of all the New Testament writers.


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