ROME (RNS) When Pope Francis cradled the small box said to contain nine bone fragments believed to be the mortal remains of St. Peter, the first pope, he fanned the flames of a long-standing debate over the authenticity of ancient church relics.

Most old churches in Italy contain some ancient relic, ranging from a glass tube said to hold the blood of St. Gennaro in Naples to a section of what is believed to be Jesus’ umbilical cord in the Basilica of St. John of Lateran in Rome. Perhaps the most famous religious relic in Italy — the Shroud of Turin, believed by many to be Jesus’ burial cloth — will go on display again in early 2015, and Turin Archbishop Cesare Nosiglia this week invited Pope Francis to attend its public debut.

But St. Peter’s bones are of particular importance, since they are the very basis — both architecturally and spiritually — for Catholicism’s most important church. And yet the bones were only discovered during a series of excavations in the 1940s, almost 1,900 years after Peter died, in either 64 or 67 A.D.

They were reportedly found underneath a fourth-century monument, built by the Emperor Constantine, next to (but not inside of) a small walled area marked, in Greek, reading “Petros eni” — “Peter is here.”

According to the writings of Margherita Guarducci, a scholar on Greek antiquities who died in 1999, one of the workers had been given the bones and stored them in a shoebox. Guarducci reported that to Pope Paul VI, who in 1968 declared that the remains were “identified in a way that we can consider convincing.”

Paul’s statement was the closest thing to a statement of authenticity the bones ever received from the Vatican, though Francis’ Nov. 24 presentation of the bones at a Mass is probably a close second.

The reliquary was returned to its bronze display case beneath St. Peter’s Basilica’s main altar after the Mass, where they can be viewed only on a specially arranged tour.

Outside the Vatican, the jury is still out about their authenticity, with experts weighing in on both sides of the debate.

“It’s very difficult for me to believe the bones are authentic,” said Antonio Lombatti, a church historian. “It’s one thing to say the bones are 2,000 years old and that they have the characteristics we believe to be those of St. Peter. But recall that in the time of St. Peter, Christianity was illegal. Things were hidden and moved around hastily.

“A man of faith, of course, may see things differently, but the truth is that from a factual perspective there is no way to know if something that old is real or not,” Lombatti said.

But Lorenzo Bianchi, a leading archaeologist and expert on church relics, disagreed.

“Every case is different and must be measured by its merits,” he said. “There are many ways to verify and I suppose there is no way to be 100 percent sure, but from circumstances and records we can say some specific things about these bones: that they were buried there some time between 114 and 120 A.D., that Constantine believed them to be authentic, that other records seem to support that. I think we can be as certain as we can reasonably expect to be about this.”

Officially, the Vatican remains mum on the subject of the authenticity of the bones, referring to Paul VI’s 1968 statement. And the faithful on hand for the Nov. 24 Mass — marking the end of the Vatican’s Year of Faith — were mixed in their reaction, with several amazed to be in the presence of such a relic and others expressing doubts.

Peter Manseau, a Maryland author whose 2009 “Rag and Bone” explored the global devotion to holy relics, said it might not matter if the bones were real or not.

“I think that in the end, the authenticity may be beyond the point,” Manseau said. “Their relevance doesn’t really depend on their being what they say they are. They are more important as symbols of faith rather than as some kind of forensic evidence.”

Also on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • Jesus Discovery

    On the morning of Tuesday, June 29, 2010, outside the Old City of Jerusalem, we made an unprecedented archaeological discovery related to Jesus and early Christianity. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/28/jesus-discovery-jerusalem_n_1305355.html#s732483&title=Jonah_and_the" target="_hplink">Read more..</a>

  • Piece Of Jesus Cross Discovered?

    Archaeologists working in Turkey believe they have found a<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/01/jesus-cross-found-archaeology_n_3691938.html" target="_blank"> piece of the cross</a> that Jesus was crucified on. While excavating the ancient Balatlar Church, a seventh-century building in Sinop, Turkey, on the shores of the Black Sea, they uncovered a stone chest that contained objects that may be directly connected with Jesus Christ. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/01/jesus-cross-found-archaeology_n_3691938.html" target="_blank">Read more here.. </a>

  • Biblical City Ruins Discovered UNDER Ruins Of Another Ancient City In Israel

    An ongoing excavation in Israel has uncovered new evidence of an ancient city buried beneath the King Solomon-era metropolis of Gezer. An international group of archaeologists has been working together for several years on the dig, located between modern-day Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, according to a statement released by the Israel antiquities Authority (IAA). An important historical city in its own right, Gezer is mentioned in both the Old Testament and in Egyptian historical accounts as a stop on the highway connecting ancient Egypt and Mesopotami. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/21/ancient-city-beneath-gezer-israel_n_4297784.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009" target="_blank">Read more here</a>

  • Dalmanutha, Biblical Town Mentioned In Gospel Of Mark, Possibly Discovered

    Dalmanutha, a Biblical town described in the Gospel of Mark as the place where Jesus sailed after miraculously multiplying a few loaves and fish to feed 4,000 people, may have just been discovered by archaeologists, reports LiveScience. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/17/dalmanutha-biblical-town-gospel-of-mark-sea-of-galilee_n_3940919.html" target="_blank">Read more here</a>

  • The Date Of Jesus' Crucifixion?

    A new study suggests that the Biblical date of Jesus' crucifixion is, in fact, possible to confirm. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/25/jesus-crucifixion-date-possible_n_1546351.html" target="_hplink">Read more.. </a>

  • Ancient Bethlehem Seal Unearthed In Jerusalem

    Israeli archaeologists have discovered a 2,700-year-old seal that bears the inscription "Bethlehem," the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday, in what experts believe to be the oldest artifact with the name of Jesus' traditional birthplace. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/23/ancient-bethlehem-seal_n_1538605.html" target="_hplink">Ancient Bethlehem Seal Unearthed In Jerusalem</a> <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/23/dig-proves-bethlehem_n_1538665.html" target="_hplink">Archaeologists Discover Evidence That Bethlehem Existed Centuries Before Jesus </a>

  • Khirbet Qeiyafa Excavations Find Evidence Of Solomon's Temple, Archaeologists Say

    JERUSALEM (RNS) Archaeologists have unearthed a trove of artifacts dating back to the time of the biblical King David that they say closely correspond to the description of Solomon's Temple found in the Book of Kings. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/10/khirbet-qeiyafa-archaeology_n_1504722.html" target="_hplink">Khirbet Qeiyafa Excavations Find Evidence of Soloman's Temple, Archaeologists Say</a>

  • Jerusalem Markings From Ancient Past Stump Archeologists

    JERUSALEM -- Mysterious stone carvings made thousands of years ago and recently uncovered in an excavation underneath Jerusalem have archaeologists stumped. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/07/jerusalem-markings_n_1133613.html" target="_hplink">Jerusalem Markings From Ancient Past Stump Archeologists</a>

  • A colorful <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/05/samson-mosaic-discovered-huqoq-israel_n_1652525.html" target="_hplink">mosaic depicting the biblical figure Samson has been discovered</a> in the Galilee region of Israel, according to the Israeli Antiquities Authority. The artwork was found in a synagogue in Huqoq and is well preserved even though it dates back to the late Roman period, or around the fourth or fifth century.

  • Shroud of Turin

    A series of experiments conducted by Italian researchers indicate the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/20/shroud-of-turin-jesus-burial-cloth-authentic_n_1161363.html" target="_hplink">Shroud of Turin</a> is likely authentic, but the team has not yet reached a definite conclusion.

  • Early Christian Text Indicates That Jesus May Have Been Married

    More information <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/18/the-gospel-of-jesus-wife_n_1891325.html?utm_hp_ref=religion">here</a>.

  • The Gabriel Stone

    The so-called Gabriel Stone, a meter (three-foot)-tall tablet said to have been found 13 years ago on the banks of the Dead Sea, features 87 lines of an unknown prophetic text dated as early as the first century BC, at the time of the Second Jewish Temple. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/30/gabriel-stone-jerusalem-unveils-mysterious-hebrew-tablet_n_3184953.html?utm_hp_ref=religion" target="_hplink">Read more here...</a>

  • Tel Shiloh Archaeological Dig Pitcher

    A pitcher found during an Israeli archaeological dig may shed light on a biblical mystery that has gone unsolved for thousands of years. The broken clay pitcher, discovered in a bed of ashes in the Tel Shiloh dig site in the West Bank, suggests that the ancient city -- once the de facto capital city and spiritual center of ancient Israel -- was burned to the ground, the Tazpit News Agency reports. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/15/tel-shiloh-archaeological-dig-pitcher-city-israel-burned_n_2479718.html" target="_blank">Read more</a>

  • 'Ancient Treasure Trove" Found Near Temple Mount

    An Israeli archaeologist says she has uncovered a rare trove of ancient coins and medallions near Jerusalem's Temple Mount. Eilat Mazar of Jerusalem's Hebrew University says among the finds are jewelry and a gold medallion with the Jewish menorah symbol etched into it. Other findings include items with additional Jewish symbols such as a ram's horn and a Torah scroll. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/09/temple-mount-ancient-treasure_n_3893761.html" target="_blank">Read more</a>