engaged in putting down the great revolt which, in the summer of the previous year, had broken out in Judaea. As a Roman citizen, St. Paul was entitled to have his execution a quick one by beheading. Thus by a small road branching off near the third milestone on the Via Ostiensis leading south from the city to the port of Ostia died St. Paul the great Apostle of the Gentiles. The locality, called Aquae Salviae, and the site is today occupied by the monastery of Tre Fontane (‘Three Fountains’). His body, as precious as his memory, was carefully buried in a nearby graveyard, by the Via Ostiensis. Since the fourth century his tomb has been guarded by the mighty Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.* 4
Meanwhile spectacles in honour of Romulus were being held that day at the chariot racing course in the ager Vaticanus, northwest of the city. Among the cruciarii hanging that day on their crosses on the spina which ran down the middle of the circus, hung Simon bar Jona, of Bethsaida, given the till then divine title of Rock by God Himself and made Prince of His Apostles, visible head of His Church and now historical Founder of Christian Rome. Such gruesome spectacles were a ‘normal’ sight at chariot race courses, and cruciarii were nailed in all sorts of positions to ‘crosses’ of all shapes. St. Peter’s executioners no doubt readily granted his request to be crucified hanging upside down. That evening St. Peter’s body was removed from its cross by being cut off at the ankles, was carefully retrieved by his priests and buried just outside the northern side of the circus. It was laid in ground that was already Christian, already sanctified as the resting place of so many who had given their lives for the Faith. Daily, perhaps even from the year of his death in 67, holy Mass has been offered over St. Peter’s tomb. Certainly St. Peter’s in Rome has remained the oldest continually functioning church in the world. (Indeed the only rivals in antiquity for St. Peter’s church are other Roman churches: the Sta. Prisca, the Sta. Pudenziana, and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.)* 5
Not that the Roman church was ever unaware of its primacy and dignity as the See of the Prince of the Apostles. In the catacombs of Rome we find everywhere, in paintings and sculptures dating from the first to the fifth centuries, St. Peter identified with Moses himself. He is thus solemnly celebrated as the Moses of the New Testament, the Lawgiver and Ruler of the whole Christian world. Indeed we know of the personal appearance of St. Peter and St. Paul from their many representations to be found in the catacombs and on Roman artefacts dating from the earliest Christian centuries. As the Roman church’s most precious treasure, St. Peter’s tomb was of course concealed and maintained with the utmost care. After the Circus Maximus (where the great fire had started) was rebuilt, the circus of Nero fell into disuse and, over the following centuries, a cemetery gradually grew up over the ager Vaticanus. As Roman law protected all cemeteries as sacred, this facilitated concealment of St. Peter’s tomb. More than ten bishops of Rome were buried close by the Galilean fisherman’s tomb over the following century as a secret church complex grew up around the site.
Published on Nov 29, 2011
This survey of how the New Testament came to be written is also a chronicle of the first 40 years of the history of the Christian Church. It...