The Heads of Peter and Paul


During my trip to Rome this fall, I was eager to track down the remains of the Apostle Paul. He was beheaded in Rome in the mid-60s. As it turns out, his body seems to be in one place and his severed head in another.

His body: The Vatican announced two years ago that the sarcophagus of St. Paul has been re-discovered under the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. I think this is very likely a true find. The basilica was built over previous ancient church that dates from the late 300s, and presumably the resting place of Paul was an honored spot in the early centuries of the church.

His Head: Paul’s scull, however, is another matter. It’s reputed to be in a container within a brass cage suspended above the altar of the Basilica of St. John Lateran (see picture). I think this is possible, too, and I spent a good deal of time last October peering up at that gilded cage and wondering about it. Peter’s head is supposed to be up there, too. But I can’t determine why the head of Peter would be enclosed in a container beside Paul’s head. Peter wasn’t beheaded, but crucified.

I’ll keep researching it. None of it really matters much, I guess. But it’s one of those questions that plays along the edges of my brain.

PS – If you’re interested in what became of the Twelve Apostles, it’s hard to beat this old book by William S. McBirnie: