ROME (Reuters) - Pope Benedict announced on Sunday that fragments of bone from the first or second century had been found in a tomb in the Basilica of St Paul in Rome, which he said confirmed the belief that it housed the apostle's remains.
"This seems to confirm the unanimous and undisputed tradition that these are the mortal remains on the Apostle Paul," the pontiff said at St Paul's-Outside-the-Walls, on the eve of the Feasts of St Peter and St Paul celebrated on Monday.
Peter and Paul are revered by Christians as the greatest early missionaries. Converting on the road to Damascus following a blinding vision of Jesus, Paul took the Gospel to pagan Greeks and Romans and met his martyrdom in Rome in about AD 65.
Christian tradition had it that St Paul was buried together with St Peter in a catacomb on the Via Appia, before being moved to the basilica erected in his honor. For centuries it was believed that his remains were buried beneath the altar.
But it was not until a stone sarcophagus was discovered there in 2006 that Vatican archeologists could apply scientific research to the religious tradition.
The first results come during the "Pauline Year," when the Roman Catholic church has been celebrating the second millennium of the birth of the "Apostle of the Gentiles."
Pope Benedict gave details of the discovery, saying a tiny hole had been drilled in the sarcophaguus to permit inspection of the interior, revealing "traces of a precious linen cloth, purple in color, laminated with pure gold, and a blue colored textile with filaments of linen."
"It also revealed the presence of grains of red incense and traces of protein and limestone. There were also tiny fragments of bone, which, when subjected to Carbon 14 tests by experts, turned out to belong to someone who lived in the first or second century," said the pope.
The discovery of the bone fragments coincided with news that Vatican archaeologists had discovered what they believe is the oldest image in existence of St Paul, dating from the late 4th century, on the walls of catacomb beneath Rome.
Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano, revealing the find on Sunday, published a picture of a frescoed image of the face of a man with a pointed black beard on a red background, inside a bright yellow halo. The high forehead is furrowed.
Experts of the Ponitifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology made the discovery on June 19 in the Catacomb of Santa Tecla in Rome and described it as the "oldest icon in history dedicated to the cult of the Apostle," according to the Vatican newspaper.
Early Christians in Rome buried their dead in catacombs dug into the soft rock under the city and decorated the underground walls with devotional images, often in the Pompeian style.
(Writing by Stephen Brown; editing by Ralph Boulton)