The Bones of Jesus’ Disciple Might Not Be His

Candida Moss
·6 min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

For 1,500 years pilgrims have been visiting Rome’s Basilica dei Santi XII Apostoli to venerate the remains of two of Christianity’s most important saints: the Apostles Philip and James the Younger. In 2016, after lying unmoved for 150 years, the Vatican granted the Franciscan friars who manage the church permission to open the case that holds their remains. Inside the reliquary the Franciscans discovered pieces of the foot of St. Philip and the femur of St. James. Initial forensic analysis sent a ripple of excitement throughout the Church: the remains appeared to show evidence of the manner of the saints’ executions. These new observations suggested that the relics were authentic; a small fragment of St. Philip even made its way to the United States.

But now, barely five years later, subsequent testing reveals that the excitement was premature.

The discovery is important because both St. Philip and St. James are central figures in the history of early Christianity. James is not mentioned in any of the lists of the 12 disciples found in the Gospels, but he is regularly mentioned in the New Testament and considered to be an Apostle. Paul describes him as an Apostle, one of the pillars of the Jerusalem church, and a key leader in the community of Jesus followers.

Philip is one of the 12 central disciples who followed Jesus and some scholars have speculated that he was originally a disciple of John the Baptist. According to the Gospel of John, Philip was originally at Bethsaida and purportedly suffered martyrdom in Hierapolis in Asia Minor, either by beheading or crucifixion. In 2011 an archaeologist claimed to have uncovered his tomb in Turkey. Both Philip and John were the inspiration for mystical and esoteric ancient Christian fan fiction. Though we don’t know exactly how or when the remains of these two apostles ended up in Rome, we know that the first church at this location was founded in the sixth century and named for the apostles Philip and James.

From late antiquity until the present, Christian tourists to Rome would make a stop at the church in order to commune with the remains of the saints that—they believed—had the power to heal, inspire, and protect them. To this day the altar in the Basilica is fitted with a window through which the faithful can glimpse the final resting place of the saints. Though it might seem macabre, the veneration of relics seems more normal today than it did to non-Christian Romans. For the first three centuries of the Common Era Christians were buried in cemeteries outside of the walls of the city. Contact with the dead was considered to be contaminating and, as Sarah Bond has written, being involved in the funerary business was a taboo profession.

It was only in the fourth century, with the normalization of Christian funerary traditions and escalating interest in the remains of the saints, that churches began to bring the bodies of the saints inside the buildings. Rather than radiating toxic pollutants, the remains of saints now emanated religious power. Wealthier Christians would pay a premium to be buried close to the saints in the hopes that some of their sanctity would literally rub off on them. Though some religious leaders, like Athanasius, the fourth century bishop of Alexandria, and Shenoute, the founder of one of Christianity’s first monasteries, were opposed to bone gathering, the popularity of relics only increased. It’s in the context of late antique relic-mania that the remains of Philip and James were brought to the Eternal City.

Having arrived at the church near Trajan’s forum in the sixth century the relics have remained there ever since. After the initial burst of forensic analysis was made publicly available, subsequent testing to confirm the composition of the relics and the age of the remains was commissioned and conducted. Kaare Lund Rasmussen, a professor of chemistry and archaeometry at the University of Southern Denmark, headed a team of researchers from the University of Groningen in Holland, University of Pisa in Italy, Cranfield Forensic Institute in England, Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology in Italy, and the National Museum of Denmark and published the results of their findings in the journal Heritage Science.

The samples from the relics were obtained as the church was refurbishing the cases that house the relics. The samples themselves were retrieved by Rasmussen and Franciscan parish priest Agnello Stoia. A comparison of the chemistry of Philip’s bones with that of other European skeletons and human remains from Qumran, in Israel, suggests, according to the study, “that his diet “was very special… by European standards” and fits “better with the Qumran individuals” even if there are other explanations for the similarities between them.

Analysis of the remains of St. James, however, was less promising. When the remains of the saints were first opened, there was great excitement that the foot of St. Philip appeared to contain a hole, where the nail from his crucifixion pierced his foot. The evidence for fractures on the femur of St. James was also suggestive. One source records that James was martyred by being hurled to the ground from the top of the temple in Jerusalem; another suggests that he was bludgeoned. Could these fractures be evidence for the authenticity of these stories? Carbon dating of the relics suggests that the deceased lived in the early third century. Oil encrusted on the remains was dated to 267-539 A.D. As the article puts it, “the preserved relic is not that of St James. With the date of AD 214–340 (2σ) the preserved skeletal remains originate from an individual some 130–260 years younger than St James.”

Even though the remains attributed to James are not from the martyred saint, the discovery can shed light on our understanding of early Christianity. The evidence suggests that “When the early church authorities were searching for the corpse of an apostle who lived a couple of hundred years earlier, they would look in ancient burial grounds where bodies of holy men might have been put to rest.” You might say that, rather than simply gathering any old bones, Christians were making a good-faith effort to recover the remains of someone who might plausibly been a saint. Rasmussen said that he thinks that it is likely that whoever retrieved the femur and moved it to what is now the Santi Apostoli church believed that it belonged to St. James. All of which is to say that while the relics aren’t authentic, late antique Christians weren’t con artists.

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