Interestingly, the entire process was put into motion in 1992 by an unexpected request from Hieronymos, the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Thebes (Greece), who had traveled to Padua to pray at the purported tomb of St. Luke. Thebes is the traditional burial place of the Evangelist, where an ancient stone sepulchre has lain emptied of its contents for many centuries. The Metropolitan contacted the Bishop about the possibility of transferring relics from St. Luke back to their original resting place. This act, which eventually resulted in a piece of rib closest to the heart being sent, represented an ecumenical gesture of reconciliation between the western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Churches. This article, the first of two parts, reviews the circuitous journey of the physical remains and their contemporary scientific analysis.
The Life (and Death) of Luke
According to the early Church historian Eusebius, Luke was a native of Antioch, which is supported by the special attention given to the church of that city in the book of Acts. He was also distinguished from Paul as a Gentile (being not “of the circumcision”). Luke was a physician by trade, and his high level of education is evidenced in the elevated style of Greek found in his writings, which is unequaled by any other New Testament writer. His claim to be writing actual history, his accurate use of ancient titles and names, and his many contacts with extra-biblical historical sources and archaeology have testified to his credibility and fidelity as an eyewitness reporter of the early Church. Several so-called “we passages” in Acts support the notion that he was a companion to Paul in his travels, and further corroborate his claim to being a firsthand witness to the events of which he wrote.
2 Timothy 4:11 also places Luke in the company of Paul—“only Luke is with me”—when the apostle was imprisoned in Rome near the end of his life. Luke is believed to have continued preaching the Gospel after Paul’s passing in the regions of Italy, Galatia, Dalmatia, and Macedon. There is some dispute regarding the circumstances of his death; some say he was martyred, while others aver that he merely “suffered much for the faith,” and lived into old age before dying in Bithynia, located in modern western Turkey.
The Journey of Luke’s Remains
The Roman Martyrology places Luke in Bithynia at his death. However, Eastern tradition holds that Luke died at the age of 84 in Thebes, Greece early in the second century. Indeed, the city today contains an Attic-style sarcophagus quarried from local stone, empty of the presumed human remains of the Evangelist. Attic-style sepulchres are distinct from those produced in the east (Asia Minor) and the west of Greece, in that they bear a continuous carved frieze-type scene, since they are designed to be displayed either outdoors or in the center of a tomb chamber. Moreover, the roofs of such sarcophagi are usually gabled or arched, like the roofs of houses or temples. These distinctions parallel those in domestic and monumental religious architecture in these respective regions. The construction of such sargophagi began early in the second century, and reached a peak of popularity in the third and fourth centuries.
The subsequent transfer of Luke’s remains to Constantinople is well-documented, having taken place in the year 357 during the reign of the Emperor Constantius. Both Procopius and St. Jerome maintain that his remains were moved, along with those of the apostle St. Andrew, to the Church of the Holy Apostles. This structure, which no longer exists, suffered fire damage and was rebuilt by the Emperor Justinian in 537, at which time he ordered a shrine to be erected around Luke’s tomb. There is some disagreement in the sources about where his remains were taken next. Some state that his relics were transferred for safekeeping during the Iconoclastic (Greek meaning “image breaking”) period, which swept across the Eastern Church in the eighth–ninth century. At this time a priest named Urio fled Constantinople with the relics of St. Luke and St. Matthew and came to Padua, likely because there was a Greek community residing there at the time.
In the year 899 the city was sacked by the Magyars (Hungarians), and the body went into hiding once again, not surfacing until a leaden casket was discovered by the Benedictine monks of St. Justina on April 14, 1117—a date which is commemorated to this day in Padua. An affidavit describes several objects found in or around the coffin. They included an image of three calves’ heads (the ancient symbol of Luke), an eight-armed cross stamped on the exterior of the casket, and a marble tablet bearing the inscription “S.L. Evang.” This marks the beginning of the veneration of St. Luke’s relics in Padua. In AD 1313, the remains were placed in a marble sarcophagus, and in the year 1562, the sepulchre was put on permanent exhibition in the just-completed Basilica of St. Justina, where it continues to reside today.
The Basilica of St. Justina. The reputed remains of Luke are exhibited in this church in Padua, Italy.
Luke’s Modern Setting
Padua, or Padova, is located approximately 150 miles east of Milan in northern Italy, near Venice, where the author made a recent visit. The remains are contained in a beautifully carved marble sarcophagus (Greek meaning “flesh-eating”) displayed in the left transept of the monumental cathedral.
The marble sarcophagus in St. Justina.
The chapel is the scene of discreet services conducted regularly by the monks of the monastery, with rows of pews enough to seat roughly two hundred worshipers.
Several registers inset along the side panels of the sarcophagus depict St. Luke as an angelic being with wings, and also include several identical panels of a winged bull. The figure of a bull—in this case with a leg over a book, to symbolize his status as an author of Scripture—also adorns the façade over the main entrance of the cathedral.
The bull façade over the entrance to St. Justina. The bull is a symbol for Luke, and his status as an author of Scripture is depicted by the book.
A bull or oxen has come to symbolize the Evangelist as a result of the reading of two key passages, Ezekiel 1:5 and Revelation 4:6. They describe four “living beings” or “creatures” associated with Matthew (a man), Mark (lion), Luke (bull), and John (eagle). Luke is symbolized by a bull since his gospel begins with the priest Zechariah sacrificing in the Temple, with the bull representing to the Church the sacrifice of Christ.
The present Basilica of St. Justina, dedicated to an early fourth-century martyr, was originally founded as an abbey in the fifth century erected over her tomb. It has been greatly expanded into a monumental complex featuring a cathedral with extensive annexes and educational structures and sits beside the main piazza in the center of Padua. Somewhat surprising is the fact that the abbey and basilica would have been devoted to a relatively obscure early Church martyr virtually unknown outside of the region, instead of one of the foremost figures in the New Testament and its most prolific author (more so than St. Paul). Indeed, his gospel is significantly longer than the other three gospel accounts, and comprises the longest book in the New Testament. The Acts of the Apostles, his other major work, rates as the second longest of New Testament books. But Luke’s works possess more than mere theological significance. Regarding his importance as a historian, classicist and archaeologist, Sir William Ramsay wrote of him:
Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements
of fact trustworthy, he is possessed of the true historic sense...
in short, this author should be placed along with the greatest of
historians. (Ramsay 1915: 222)
Are the human remains housed in St. Justina actually those of the Evangelist? In a future article we will discuss the results of the committee’s extensive scientific investigations.
Craig, O. “DNA Test Pinpoints St Luke the Apostle's Remains to Padua.” The Telegraph (UK). Oct. 21, 2001.
Ramsay, William M. The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, 1915.
“Saint Luke’s Bones.” Messenger of Saint Anthony. Mar. 20, 2015.
Vernesi, C. et al. “Genetic Characterization of the Body Attributed to the Evangelist Luke.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 98.23 (Nov 6, 2001) 13460–63.
Wade, N. “Body of St. Luke Gains Credibility.” New York Times. Oct. 16, 2001.