Monday, June 29, 2009

Is this St. Paul?

Some experts believe this recently discovered fresco in the catacombs of Rome is the oldest image of the apostle Paul.

Vatican archaeologists used a laser to remove centuries of grime from the artwork before announcing the discovery in their official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano. The painting apparently dates back to the 4th century. If this actually is an image of St. Paul, this would make it the oldest. The catacomb is close to the Basilica of St. Paul, which is said to be built on the location where Paul was buried.

From what I can tell, there wasn't a little caption under the fresco that read, "This is St. Paul." Vatican archaeologists are basing the identity of the image on the fact that it matches the style of other ancient Pauline icons from the 4th century – the thin face and the dark beard.

A less than stellar example of good science appeared in a related story. The Vatican announced within days of the fresco story that it has performed the "first-ever scientific test" on what are believed to be the remains of the Apostle Paul "seems to confirm" that they do indeed belong to the Roman Catholic saint.

Call me a skeptic, but how could they possibly know that? At most, they could date the remains to the right period - somewhere around the first century (which would place it in the correct time period since church tradition has long held that Paul was beheaded by Nero in Rome around AD 65). But there isn't some magical test they could perform on the remains to empirically verify them as belonging to Paul. I couldn't even figure out from the news stories what was actually studied or what kinds of tests were performed. My guess is that it was some kind of radiocarbon dating technique.

So here's a thought. Why not use this as an example to talk with your kids about what archaeology can and cannot do in terms of historically verifying the Bible? It can't "prove" the Bible to be true, but it certainly can provide evidence of its historical accuracy and giving corollary data.

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