A Roman church has long claimed to hold the skeletal remains of two of Jesus’s apostles, Saint James the Younger and Saint Philip, but a new scientific investigation strongly suggests that these ancient pieces of bone are not as "holy" as once believed.
As reported in the journal Heritage Science last month, the supposed bones of St James are far too young to have belonged to a contemporary of Jesus, while the other individual’s bones are too decayed and dirty to render any useful insights.
The bones can be found at Santi Apostoli in Rome, a sixth-century Roman Catholic church that was built in honor of St Philip and St James the Younger, the latter of whom is believed by some scholars to be the brother or close relative of Jesus Christ. Little is left of the skeletons today, but the collection includes a tibia and foot attributed to St Philip and a femur bone attributed to St James.
Scientists at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU) recently got their hands on these remains and subjected them to a range of chemical tests and imaging techniques. Unfortunately, the supposed bones of St Philip were too contaminated to give a reliable radiocarbon date. However, the alleged femoral bone of St James was dated between 214 to 340 CE. Considering Jesus and his apostles were said to be alive in the first century CE, this shows that the remains cannot be the physical remains of St James.
Known as relics, the Catholic Church holds many physical remains said to have belonged to saints, martyrs, and other Biblical figures. The veneration of such objects meant a huge amount of effort was put into transporting relics and physical remains from burial grounds to prominent churches, especially from the fourth century CE onwards. It’s unclear who these bones at Santi Apostoli once belonged to, but it appears likely that they were somehow mistakenly picked up in the process of moving the remains from place to place over the centuries.
“We consider it very likely, that whoever moved this femur to the Santi Apostoli church, believed it belonged to St. James. They must have taken it from a Christian grave, so it belonged to one of the early Christians, apostle or not,” Kaare Lund Rasmussen, study author and Associate Professor at SDU's Department of Physics, Chemistry, and Pharmacy, said in a statement.
"Though the relic is not that of St James, it casts a rare flicker of light on a very early and largely unaccounted for time in the history of early Christianity," adds Professor Rasmussen.
Not all relics are likely to be duds, however. Back in 2017, archaeologists at the University of Oxford analyzed a fragment of bone that, according to legend, belonged to Saint Nicholas, the saint who inspired the image of Santa Claus. In this case, radiocarbon dating did appear to affirm that the bone fragment really did belong to Saint Nicholas. That’s right: Santa might be real after all.