Trusting in Tradition

Early last December, Vatican archaeologists uncovered what they believe to be the tomb of St. Paul in Rome. Tradition had it located under the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, and that is just where they found it.

Of course, at this stage, the researchers can make no firm conclusions. There’s little that can be done to definitively prove that the remains inside the sarcophagus are indeed those of the apostle (DNA testing, for obvious reasons, is out). Nevertheless, that’s where Paul’s body was long believed to be, and that’s where a tomb matching the description was found. Given that Paul has to be buried somewhere, I don’t imagine there will be many skeptics on this one.

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While this is a significant find, those who follow Christian archaeology know it is hardly the only one. In 1941, the tomb of Peter was uncovered (again, exactly where it was thought to be). And in recent years, archaeologists have found everything from John the Baptist’s cave to the site of the Cana wedding feast.

This is more than just an academic point—Christianity either sinks or swims in history. It is, after all, a religion of history. We are not like Buddhists or Hindus, with their mythical backstories that few adherents take literally.

Christianity is a religion borne of truth claims: that Jesus was the Son of God; that He performed miracles, died, and rose again; that there were apostles to carry on the work of evangelization and ecclesial governance, and so on. To some degree, then, Christianity is verifiable. Even the resurrection itself—while immune from hard evidence by the very nature of the event—offers some intriguing historical questions. If Jesus didn’t rise, where is His body? The most popular alternative hypothesis—that the apostles stole it—turns the event into a kind of Near-Eastern Three Stooges episode, with Jesus’ hapless followers carrying a corpse around a bustling Jerusalem.

No, history is on the side of Christianity. And that’s why tradition—a mishmash of oral, written, liturgical, and architectural history—is so important for the believer. (Contrary to a widespread Catholic misconception, this point is acknowledged by most confessional Protestants. While they reject tradition as a source of doctrine, they have little problem using it for historical context or devotional use.)

Of course, all of this depends upon the reliability of a given tradition. And with a few important exceptions (Irenaeus’s novel insistence that Jesus was crucified in His 50s, for example), it has shown itself remarkably accurate.

This is a difficult thing for secular historians to concede. In many academic circles, the ancients are dismissed as little more than pre-technological savages. Why trust the historical witness of those who believed the stars hung by string, or who worshipped the sun and moon?

But surely this is unreasonable. While our forebears lacked modern developments and discoveries, that hardly discounts their testimony on matters of historical fact. I don’t need to understand how a microprocessor works to tell you where my parents live. So it is with the ancients. Skeptical academics err in holding our predecessors to a historical standard that we reject for ourselves.

A better approach is simply to let the ancients speak on their own behalf. After all, they are themselves the best witnesses to what they believed and what they did. And no one should be surprised when their claims are verified through archaeology or some other discipline.

Secular historical study could do with a bit more trust in the reliability of our ancestors. They knew more than we think.

  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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