Feast of Peter and Paul – June 29, 2022
The Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul on June 29 commemorates the two leading apostles and their martyrdoms in Rome. This article examines their origins, deaths, and relics. It is vital to remind ourselves periodically that our faith is grounded in history and has been handed down for twenty centuries.
Peter and Paul offer a striking contrast. One hailed from the backwaters of Galilee and spoke with an accent thought uncouth by more cosmopolitan Jerusalemites (Matthew 26:43). He had been with the Lord from the beginning. The other was a Roman citizen who knew the traditions of Greek rhetoric and philosophy and met Jesus only after the Resurrection. Peter and Paul were very different men called to Apostleship at very different moments. The two even argued at times, as we read in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. Nonetheless they shared profound devotion to Christ which helped the men lead the Church during a critical period of growth and persecution. This same growth and persecution would bring them to martyrdom in the Eternal City.
Two Men, Several Names
St. Peter’s birthname was Simon, but Jesus renamed him Cephas early in his ministry. Cephas means “rock” in Aramaic–the native tongue of Jesus and the Apostles–and the word comes into Greek and Latin as Petros and Petrus. These are ancient versions of our modern Peter. At various times throughout the gospels, he is called Simon, Simon Peter, and Peter.Peter had a brother named Andrew, also one of the Twelve. Peter and Andrew’s father, John or Jonah, appears to have had a fishing business for which his sons worked. Interestingly, the Apostles James and John likely worked for their father Zebedee’s fishing business too. John/Jonah and Zebedee may have been in business together, judging from Mark 1. We know Peter was married because in the same chapter Jesus heals his mother-in-law from a fever.
Saul or Paul was born in Tarsus, located in modern Turkey. Some have tried to interpret the Apostle’s two names theologically, arguing he went by “Saul” before his conversion and “Paul” afterwards, but this is unlikely. Saul was probably his Hebrew name, used among family and fellow Jews, while Paul was his Roman moniker, used for gentile contexts. Regardless, Paul was a Pharisee whose trade was leather-working and/or tent-making, and he seems to have had at least some formal education. Paul persecuted the Church until encountering the Risen Christ on the Road to Damascus.
Rome’s Christians before Peter and Paul
Peter and Paul were active in Jerusalem, Antioch, and elsewhere before making their respective ways to Rome. They did not establish the Christian community there, though they would eventually lead it. Interestingly, St. Ignatius of Antioch invokes the legacy of Peter and Paul’s apostolic authority in Rome in a missive to the city’s Christians dictated before he was fed to lions ca. 110.
The Christian community in Rome originated incredibly early, even by New Testament standards. It predates Paul’s Epistle to the Romans which was written ca. 56-58 as well as the Apostle’s first visit to the city ca. 59. We also know Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54) expelled Jews from Rome after much infighting over “Chrestus,” seemingly a Latinized version of χριστός or Christ (Cf. Suetonius and Acts 18:2). Thus, Christians appear in Rome no later than the early 50s, if not earlier. This would make sense because there were about a dozen synagogues in the city during the 1st century. The primitive Church’s growth often took place in Jewish temples, so these surely helped the Gospel to spread. Peter’s timing in Rome is unclear, he may only have arrived in the early 60s. Much has been written about the Apostles’ missionary activities, but we must fast forward to the period when they were killed.
Persecution and Martyrdom
The best estimation of Peter’s death in Rome is AD 64. Rome suffered an infamous fire in July of that year and most of the city burned. From the historian Tacitus (ca. 56-120) we know “only four of the fourteen districts of Rome remained intact. What was even more disastrous was that numerous public buildings were damaged or even destroyed.” (Keresztes, 1984) Many blamed Emperor Nero (r. 54-68) for the fire, who then scapegoated the city’s Christians. The resulting persecution created many martyrs, including St. Peter. Multiple traditions describe him as having been crucified, with at least one specifying he was upside down. This explains for example Caravaggio’s masterpiece, Crucifixion of Saint Peter.
Tertullian (ca. 155-220) tells us Paul was beheaded, but neither he nor any other source settles the question of when. Paul may have died in 64 along with Peter during the Neronian persecution or a few years later ca. 67. The exact dates of martyrdom for Ss. Peter and Paul are irrelevant, of course, but this has not prevented much scholarly conjecture. Moreover, what we lack in chronology we more than make up for in archaeology.
Finding the Saints in the Flesh
Many Catholics do not realize that St. Peter’s Basilica was constructed over the tomb of the Apostle himself. In fact, the main altar stands directly over Simon-Peter’s relics. The ground level of the Basilica is most familiar to the popular mind, containing some of the greatest works of art in Christendom like Michelangelo’s Pietà, the Baldachin designed by Bernini, and others. Two floors below is an archaeological site straight out of an Indiana Jones movie.
In a dark, damp environment, nearly 10 meters underneath the Basilica, are the tombs and monuments of a 1st century pagan cemetery. It was here that St. Peter’s bones were laid to rest. Ancient graffiti attests to the Apostle’s presence, mentioning his name again and again. One example is a happy note carved by someone “expressing joy that the lost relative lay in the same cemetery that held Peter’s own body.” Constantine the Great constructed Old St. Peters over this site in the 4th century where it stood for more than a thousand years until the present Basilica was constructed during the 16th and 17th centuries. Anyone can visit the site by purchasing a ticket for the Scavi (“Excavations”) Tour, the cost is very reasonable at around $16.50.
Paul’s relics aren’t far away. San Paolo fuori le Mura (literally “St. Paul outside the walls”) is located about 4 miles (6.5 km) south of the Vatican, just east of the Tiber. The main altar of St. Paul Outside the Walls, as with St. Peter’s Basilica, was constructed over the remains of the Apostle himself. These remains are contained in a late 4th century sarcophagus which is quite accessible and may be viewed after descending a small set of stairs. Also on display is the chain said to have bound St. Paul when he was arrested in Rome.
The leading Apostles, Ss. Peter and Paul, ministered in Rome and were killed there during the mid-60s. They may both have died in 64 during the Neronian persecution, or Paul may have been beheaded a few years later. Regardless of the exact dating, their martyrdoms are jointly commemorated by the Church on June 29 each year. Their relics have been venerated in Rome from antiquity through today and may even be visited by the public.
This brief investigation into the saints’ origins, deaths, and relics is an important exercise reminding us that our faith is grounded in history. We may be confident in the accuracy of what has been handed down to us. Our Lord lived, died, and rose–and He will come again in glory. Many saints over many centuries, including Peter and Paul, willingly gave their lives for these truths, and still more will follow in the future. Ss. Peter and Paul, pray for us!
By Sean McLaughlin
Keresztes, Paul, “Nero, the Christians and the Jews in Tacitus and Clement of Rome,” Latomus
- 43, Fasc. 2 (AVRIL-JUIN 1984), pp. 404-413