A curious tale about the burial of St Peter – a fake by Leo the Great?

Headbanger websites can be very frustrating.  You know the sort of thing — the sort of website that eagerly recounts how the Fathers of the Church boasted of being liars, how Mithras had 12 disciples and was born of a virgin (sic), and so on.

But they can also be a joy, for they can direct your attention to areas of antiquity that you would never otherwise investigate.  It’s great fun, looking up the “quotations” they give, for they are nearly always bunk!

One such site has come to my attention today.  It rejoices in the name of “Vatileaks.com” and an article, “Tomb of St Peter a shocking invention” is here.

Around 442, Pope Leo the Great (440-461) devised an extraordinary money-making scheme that was destined to have profound repercussions upon the development of Christianity for centuries to come. The record of this enterprising connivance is found in both the extant writings of Pope Leo and Salvianus (d. 456), a distinguished historian of Marseilles who wrote an open letter to the Church of Rome that now forms part of a book called, ‘On God’s Government’. …

Salvianus made the now-famous comment that ‘two priests could not meet in Rome without bursting into laugher’, a reference to the gullibility of the people who believed what the developing priesthood was expounding about the Gospel story of Jesus Christ. Salvianus revealed that Pope Leo the Great ‘conceived a shocking invention’ when he ordered the construction of a stone enclosure in a cemetery that, more than 1000 years later (1506), became the site for the commencement of the building of the largest and most splendid structure in Christendom, St. Peter’s Basilica. The comments of Salvianus are supported in one of Pope’s Leo’s 173 own letters that still exist today, and this is what he said:

‘To this primitive worthy [St. Peter] we owe a debt of gratitude … let us feign that his holy carcass was transported from a monastery near Cologne lest the devil come to seize his soul … it would please the Almighty if his body was seen to rest in this city, the body that suffered such exquisite torments. Who then, after these centuries, is able to attest any different to the fact of an old skeleton, for it is a matter of faith that it is really that of St. Peter laid to rest in the Holy City, and that faith will nourish the confidence of the rabble’.

(‘On God’s Government’, Vol., iii, 9, Vol., 53 of the Migne Collection; expanded upon in ‘Campbell’s Lecture on Ecclesiastical History’, and Isaac Taylor’s ‘Ancient Christianity’)

Workmen covered the crude structure with timber planks and ‘town-criers in bright attire’ were dispatched to spread the news among the populous that the burial place of the Turn-key of Heaven, St. Peter, had been found in the Eternal City. In reality, the bones were those of a common thief and they became honoured as St. Peter himself. Pope Leo celebrated the ‘discovery’ by naming the ‘tomb’, ‘Memoria’ ² and he renamed Rome, the ‘Pardon of Peter’ by which it was known for centuries (ibid, p. 225).

[2] ‘Secrets of the Christian Fathers’, Bishop J. W. Sergerus, 1685, reprint 1897, p. 169.

So what do we make of that?

Well the first thing we do is to start looking at the supposed evidence for these claims.  Here the site authors at least try to reference their claims, which is to their credit, although they plainly have just repeated older literature.  No matter; it will be interesting to look into that older literature too.

First the big quotation in the middle!  That is referenced to Salvian’s De gubernatione dei, book 3, chapter 9.  The Latin text is referenced to the Patrologia Latina 53, although the column number would have been nice.  But we have some perfectly good English translations of this work, and book 3 chapter 9 is here.

And the passage reads … oh.  It’s not there.  The chapter contains nothing of this kind.  In fact a search on “Peter” using Ctrl-F finds nothing in the whole book; nor does “Cologne”.  This tells us, then, that the site authors have not verified their material.

Let’s leave that to one side for a moment and pick up another statement in it:

Salvianus made the now-famous comment that ‘two priests could not meet in Rome without bursting into laugher’, a reference to the gullibility of the people who believed what the developing priesthood was expounding about the Gospel story of Jesus Christ.

Did he, by George?  Whereabouts, one wonders?

Well, if it is famous, it should be possible to get a reference by using Google on the “two priests could not meet in Rome without bursting into laughter” bit.  And we find …

We find an 1803 book as the second result, by a certain Elihu Palmer, Prospect: or View of the Moral World, vol. 1, p.60, states:

Cato, the great Roman orator was surprised that two priests could possibly meet without bursting into fits of laughter–but tears of blood would not have atoned for the misery and distress that they brought upon the human race.

If this is a saying of Cato the Elder, then of course it is unlikely to have much to do with the 5th century AD!  But the book is clearly an ignorant atheist rant, and so is most probably about as reliable as our first webpage.

Famous, however, the “saying” plainly is not.  Google does not bring up much.  Nor does the version found here, “two priests could possibly meet without bursting into fits of laughter” doesn’t seem to have any wider currency.

That’s two statements, neither of which is showing any sign of being true.  What else can we discuss?

Let’s look up the reference #2 given, this “Sergerus” fellow, and his book “Secrets of the Christian Fathers”, supposedly reprinted in 1897.  A quick Google search doesn’t find this book, although it is referenced a bit, always in hate literature.  Hmm.  I mistrust that title, if it really is a 1685 publication.

So I go to COPAC.  I search for an author named “Sergerus”.  I get two, or more likely one man under the same name, a Joh. Theophilus Sergerus and a Joh. Gottlieb Sergerus; the middle name is the same meaning, and three works from 1754, 1759 and 1777.  None of these look right.

What about the book title?  COPAC reports no book with that title.

So where did the authors of the web-page really get all this stuff?  It would seem that it is just garbled tenth-hand hearsay.

OK, I’ll search for the title of the book.  This brings up this site, attributing a different quote to the same book.  The page is apparently authored by a certain Tony Bushby.  In fact as I keep searching by title, the only person I come across, again and again, is this Tony Bushby, reposted on a dozen websites.

Which means …

I go back to the “Vatileaks” website, and find an about page.

About Vati Leaks

VATI LEAKS is a site dedicated to publishing unknown and suppressed information that has been hidden from the people by the Vatican hierarchs in an attempt to conceal the truth about its past.

Tony Bushby

After achieving the necessary academic qualifications, Tony Bushby became a self-employed architectural draftsman ….

Well, it seems that I shall be obliged to ask Mr Bushby where his “Secrets of the Christian Fathers” book might be found, for I can otherwise find no trace of it.  (I have written using the website form).

What else?  There’s a reference to “Campbell’s lecture on Ecclesiastical history”, which proves to be this book (1807).   Leaving aside the mis-spelling (“Lectures”), it seems to contain nothing relevant.  There’s “Isaac Taylor’s ‘Ancient Christianity’” which is here (1840), and concerned with the tractarian controversy.  A search in that book on “Peter” gives 13 references, none relevant.

This is a wee bit disturbing.  All the references lead nowhere, and nobody else knows anything of any of it.  Is this book a hoax?

Update: A correspondent writes that Cato quote is in Cicero div. 2.24.51, and glossed later by Augustine somewhere.  The Perseus Cicero doesn’t seem to show it, but at Lacus Curtius here, it appears in Book 2 of De Divinatione, right at the start of chapter 24:

24. “But indeed, that was quite a clever remark which Cato made many years ago: ‘I wonder,’ said he, ‘that a soothsayer doesn’t laugh when he sees another soothsayer.’ 52 For how many things predicted by them really come true? If any do come true, then what reason can be advanced why the agreement of the event with the prophecy was not due to chance?

I have not discovered the quotation by Augustine, however.

12 thoughts on “A curious tale about the burial of St Peter – a fake by Leo the Great?

  1. I wonder if this is going to be another case where “discovery, finding” (inventio) is confused with “making things up” (invention). The old feast name “Invention of the Cross” was subject to this.

  2. Though an atheist myself, I too wonder who benefits from this sort of nonsense, because there is certainly plenty of genuine material available that lends itself to lively(!) discussions between believers, non-believers, and those straddling the fence. I’m somewhat surprised that you didn’t post your comments or a link to them on the offending site itself (I checked), but perhaps you did and it was taken down, since sites like this typically don’t like it when their dodgy facts are exposed as either half-truths or outright fabrications. Either way, keep up the good work.

  3. I agree entirely. No honest person needs the raw facts wrong, whatever their religious views.

    Thanks for the suggestion to comment on the site. I hadn’t seen a comments box, but will look.

  4. Thanks, I came across that site in my google alerts last Nov and thought it was a fabrication but didn’t look into it.

    I’m an Atheist and have visited the grave/tomb a few times and 1yr ago I posted this on sci.archaeology/soc.history.ancient this thread has quite a few links about the site. Regards, Walter




    Excavation Reports

    (OR) http://tinyurl.com/petermuzzy55

  5. Cicero’s De Divinatione mentioned in Augustine’s City of God, book 3, chapter 17, w.r.t. interpreters of Sybilline books, not soothsayers.
    – searched Google for words: Cato Cicero “De Divinatione” Augustine
    – took 4th link at Rochester to see book and chapter in CoD
    – searched Google books and read CoD B3 C17
    Could still be better match in one of the other links but nothing as good found after hour of enjoyable reading excursion.

  6. @Walter, thanks for your note and the links. I don’t want us here to get into the larger issue of the authenticity of the tomb; I’ve not looked into the matter in any detail and couldn’t comment intelligently. 🙂

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