Tuesday, January 14, 2014

St. Peter's Bones by Thomas Craughwell

St. Peter's Bones
Thomas Craughwell
Crown Publishing
144 Pages
Recommended for the lay Catholic and anyone with an interest in St. Peter's Basilica

In 1940, as part of a construction project at the Vatican, Pope Pius XII authorized a team of excavators to work under the Basilica of St. Peter. As the work progressed remains of an ancient Roman necropolis was discovered. As the excavators dug down layer after layer, they found many tombs from the first centuries of the Roman Empire. Among these tombs and mausoleums they found evidence of early Christian burials. Tradition holds that the Basilica of St. Peter is built over the site of the Apostle’s tomb. The excavators finally reached the location and what they found there is the subject of this short book.

St. Peter’s Bones tells the story of this excavation and also covers stories from the early church period. The book is not so much a work of history as a devout believer’s look at an important moment in the Church. The author’s own faith is very apparent in the first few pages. He does a very good job of explaining what relics are and why they are important. There is a nice summary of the ancient tradition of preserving the relics of martyrs.I won't give away too much since the author tries to lay the book out as a discovery. You will have to read it for yourself to find out what happens.

This book has many good qualities, but alas it also contains some flaws. I will look at the flaws first because the book is good and I want to leave you with the good points. First of all this is not a work by a historian or a even a popular historian. The narrative is a little disjointed. The style works, but it made this reader wish that the author would stop bouncing around and stay on topic. More than anything else the style resembles the writing on a television show like NOVA or National Geographic. This is not a bad thing, but the style certainly works better on television than in print. As stated earlier this is not designed to be a straight forward work of history, much less a scholarly text, but it would have been nice if the author had included at least one source for his statements. He often makes assertions and moves on. There was not a single footnote or endnote to cite the source. There were some other quibbling points, I would love to see any source that states the primary language of Rome in the first century was Greek, and that they only reverted to back to Latin later.

On the positive side this book gives a nice introductory look at the subject. The author makes it very easy for someone with no knowledge at all of the period to at least get their toes wet. I had not read anything on this particular subject, so it was interesting to read about the excavations and the findings. I did enjoy the book and I hope that more will be written on this fascinating topic. This book is worth the money and the short amount of time it will take to read it. I hope that the author is able to find someone in television, like PBS or the History Channel, to make a show out of this. I believe that this book will appeal primarily to lay Catholics, though anyone approaching this subject for the first time will find a lot to learn here as well. The book is short, 144 pages, and the author does a good job of making the subject accessible.

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