St. Paul's Tomb Unearthed in Rome

Maria Cristina Valsecchi in Vatican City
for National Geographic News
December 11, 2006

St. Paul's stone coffin has been found beneath Rome's second largest basilica, but its contents remain a mystery, Vatican archaeologists announced today.

The sarcophagus dates back to about A.D. 390 and was uncovered in Rome's Basilica of St. Paul's Outside-the-Walls, named for its location beyond the ancient wall surrounding Rome's center.

(Related: "Roman Catacomb Find Boosts Early Christian-Jewish Ties, Study Says" [July 20, 2005].)

Long believed to be buried beneath the church's altar, the coffin is now on display for the first time in centuries—its precious cargo, however, is not.

"For now we didn't open the sarcophagus to study the contents. Our aim was to unearth the coffin venerated as St. Paul's tomb, not to authenticate the remains," said Giorgio Filippi, the archaeologist of the Vatican Museum, who directed the excavations.

"The sarcophagus was buried beneath the main altar, under a marble tombstone bearing the Latin words "Paulo Apostolo Mart.," meaning "Apostle Paul, Martyr."

The basilica "rises on the place where, according to tradition, Paul of Tarsus was originally buried after his martyrdom," Filippi said.

Saul of Tarsus

St. Paul was born Saul in the first decade of the first century A.D. in Tarsus, the capital of the ancient Roman region of Cilicia in what is now Turkey.

Though he never met Jesus Christ, he joined the first Christians after a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, as told in the Acts of the Apostles, one of the Bible's New Testament books.

Baptized as Paul, he traveled around part of what is now Turkey as well as ancient Greece and Rome, founding a number of religious communities.

Paul's thought largely influenced Christian doctrine by means of 13 or 14 letters, the Pauline epistles, included in the New Testament. Perhaps his most recognizable passage—to modern wedding guests, anyway—is his poetic definition of love ("Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast. … ").

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