On St. Paul’s Body and the True Cross

Ever since the days of the earliest Christians, there’s been a belief that the relics of Christ and certain of His Saints have healing powers.  In Acts 19:11-12, for example, we hear that, “So extraordinary were the mighty deeds God accomplished at the hands of Paul that when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.”  Today, I wanted to mention briefly (by my standards) two of these relics: St. Paul’s body, and the Cross on which Christ was crucified.

I. St. Paul’s Body
A while ago, I mentioned the discovery of St. Paul’s body.  I know a bit more about the story now, and thought I’d provide an update.

The Catholic Church has long claimed to have had St. Paul’s body in St. Paul’s Outside the Walls in Rome.  But in 1823, after a fire, things got chaotic and they somehow lost his body (I’m a bit unclear how that’s even possible).  They knew the body was somewhere beneath the Basilica, but they weren’t sure exactly where.  Flash forward to 2006: a marble sarcophagus is found, reading “To Paul, Apostle and Martyr,” in Latin. 

Archeologists were pretty skeptical.  At the time of St. Paul’s death, the Christians didn’t have a whole lot of marble to spare, and spoke Greek instead of Latin.  The church itself was built (on the site of an earlier church) in 390 A.D.  So the three major theories were these: first, that St. Paul’s body was moved from his earlier grave to a more ornate one when the new church was built; two, that the body wasn’t St. Paul’s; or three, that there was no body at all.  Time seems to have leaned towards the third view back in ’06:

X-ray tests on it have already failed because of a layering of concrete and plaster that still surrounds most of it. And the more than 300-year gap between Paul’s reported death by order of of the Roman emperor Nero in AD 68 and the construction of the old church leaves considerable room for doubt.

At the time, these hesitations were justifiable.  No more.

This year, at the end of the Year of St. Paul, Pope Benedict XVI released information that convinced even the not-particularly-religious UK Daily Mail that “in all likelihood, they are the bones of the Apostle Paul – bones that have lain there for 1,950 years yet, astonishingly, have only been discovered in our time.” The Daily Mail continues:

You might say, so what? Aren’t Roman Catholics always making claims about bones and relics? Was it not said that if you measured all the bits of the True Cross venerated throughout the world you could build a bridge to the moon? Yes, yes.

But this is slightly different, and it is very exciting. The Pope was not saying that he revered some relics as a matter of faith. He was saying that scientists, by carbon dating, have come as close as possible to identifying the very bones of St Paul himself.

Why is he so convinced? Though the carbon-dating experts knew nothing of their  origins, the bone fragments were recovered after a tiny probe was inserted into the tomb which lies in a crypt beneath the Basilica of St Paul outside the Walls in Rome – a church long held to have been built on the site where Paul was buried.

It was only three years ago that the tomb itself was discovered by Vatican archaeologists.
The fact that it was positioned exactly underneath the epigraph Paulo Apostolo Mart (Paul the Apostle and Martyr) at the base of the altar convinced them it was Paul’s tomb.

Now backed by the evidence of his carbon-dated bone fragments, the Pope has announced: ‘This seems to confirm the unanimous and uncontested tradition that the bone fragments are the mortal remains of the Apostle Paul.’

So non-biased scientists examining the remains placed them in the 1st to 2nd century A.D… without even knowing whose body the Church thought it was (or where the remains had come from).  Going back to the earlier options, we can cross out option #3 – we now know, as a matter of science, that there are bones and human remains in there.  The best science now tells us that the body is older than the sarcophagus and older than the church under which it was buried.  So now we’re left with the question separating options #1 and 2 – is it St. Paul’s body?  To the extent we’re capable of knowing, all evidence points towards “yes.   After all, why would the early Christians save someone else’s body for three centuries only to grandly re-bury it?  We know from Acts 19 that the early Christians believed that “face cloths” that were touched to his skin could be taken to the sick and would heal them. It’s not exactly a stretch to think that these same Christians would keep his body after death, and touch his bones.  It is a bit of a stretch to think it’s a trick.  I understand that there are certain unethical people who might want to make a quick buck by pawning off someone else’s body as St. Paul’s.  But that’s unlikely in the 1st century.  The community was close-knit, relatively poor, and had a good idea of what Paul looked like (and were almost certainly present at his death).  If we couldn’t tell how old the body was, we’d have to acknowledge that it’s at least a plausible theory that some cruel person came along eons later with the wrong body.  To put it another way, the Hoffman scandal which was perpetrated against the LDS Church wouldn’t have been possible (or even seriously considered) if Joseph Smith’s kids were still alive.  You need distance to get rid of pesky eyewitnesses.  Since we now know (as far as science can tell) that the body is as old as we’ve always claimed it was, the idea that it’s a scam is just too far-fetched.

II. The True Cross
The first sentence of the Daily Mail passage I included irked me, because it’s wrong on two counts: first, on its author, and second, on the truth of its contents.  Where it says, “yes, yes,” a reliable source would say “no and no.”   First, the actual quote is from John Calvin, who said that re-assembled, they “would make a big shipload” (Traité Des Reliques), not “reach to the moon.”  Since distance to the moon is a measure of length, anything can reach to the moon if spread thin enough.  If your veins, arteries, and the rest of your circulatory system were laid out in a straight line, they would wrap around the world 2 and a half times in a very thin line.  Does that prove that they don’t fit in your body?  Methinks that this reporter doesn’t understand science.

But besides journalistic sloppiness, the underlying premise is wrong.  The point that both the Daily Mail and Calvin were making is that taken together, there’s too much wood for this all of these pieces to have come from the True Cross.  That’s flatly untrue.As Wikipedia notes:

Conflicting with this is the finding of Rohault de Fleury, who, in his Mémoire sur les instruments de la Passion 1870 made a study of the relics in reference to the criticisms of Calvin and Erasmus. He drew up a catalogue of all known relics of the True Cross showing that, in spite of what various authors have claimed, the fragments of the Cross brought together again would not reach one-third that of a cross which has been supposed to have been three or four meters in height, with transverse branch of two meters wide, proportions not at all abnormal. He calculated: supposing the Cross to have been of pine-wood (based on his microscopic analysis of the fragments) and giving it a weight of about seventy-five kilograms, we find the original volume of the cross to be .178 cubic meters. The total known volume of known relics of the True Cross, according to his catalogue, amounts to approximately .004 cubic meters (more specifically 3,942,000 cubic milimeters), leaving a volume of .174 cubic meters lost, destroyed, or otherwise unaccounted for.

De Fleury’s work isn’t without possible criticisms, and he’s obviously working with some rough estimates about the dimensions of the True Cross.  But the True Cross relics reassembled wouldn’t even total up to a small cross, much less a “shipload’ or a road to the moon.

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