Bones Found in Bulgaria May Belong to John the Baptist

By Chelsea Whyte on June 15, 2012 6:16 PM EDT

John the Baptist
The relics of John the Baptist, depicted here by Dutch artist Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov, may have found a home in Bulgaria, according to new DNA evidence. (Photo: Creative Commons)

A few small bones said to have come from John the Baptist were found in the ruins of an ancient church on an island off Bulgaria's coast in July 2010. Since then, thousands of worshippers have traveled to a church in the seaside town of Sozopol to pay respects to the man who baptized Jesus.

Now, fact meets faith as DNA testing and carbon dating on the remains - including a knuckle bone, a molar, a piece of cranium, a rib, and an ulna, or arm bone - have shown that the bones come from a time and place that could plausibly be related to John the Baptist.

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"When I first heard this story in 2010 I thought it was a bit of a joke, to be honest," said Tom Higham of the University of Oxford's Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, one of the world's top laboratories for carbon dating of archaeological material, according to Reuters.

The bones were discovered on the island of Sveti Ivan, or Saint John in English, where they had been buried in a marble sarcophagus near a second box bearing the name of Saint John and the date of his holy feast, June 24.

Higham's team used radiocarbon dating on the collagen in the knuckle bone to date it to the early first century, a time when the prophet is believed to have lived before his beheading by King Herod.

Scientists from the University of Copenhagen analysed the full DNA code of three of the bones, finding that they came from the same person, most likely a man who lived in the Middle East, where John would have lived,

"Our worry was that the remains might have been contaminated with modern DNA," said study researcher Hannes Schroeder, formerly of Oxford, according to MSNBC. "However, the DNA we found in the samples showed damage patterns that are characteristic of ancient DNA, which gave us confidence in the results. Further, it seems somewhat unlikely that all three samples would yield the same sequence considering that they had probably been handled by different people."

In a separate study, another Oxford researcher Georges Kazan has used historical documents to show that the remains of John the Baptist were removed from Jerusalem by monks who took them to a reliquary in Constantinople.

"My research suggests that during the fifth or early sixth century, the monastery of Sveti Ivan may well have received a significant portion of St John the Baptist's relics, as well as a prestige reliquary in the shape of a sarcophagus, from a member of Constantinople's elite. This gift could have been to dedicate or rededicate the church and the monastery to St John, which the patron or patrons may have supported financially."

Though it's not possible to pin these remains specifically to John the Baptist himself, Higham says these findings open up the possibilities.  

"I'm much less skeptical than I was at the beginning. I think there's possibly more to it. But I'd like to find out more," he told Reuters.

He and his team plan to apply for funding to examine other purported remains of the prophet who announced the coming of Jesus and confirm whether they match the remains found on the island of Sveti Ivan.

He admits that a positive identification may never happen, though. "Definitely proving it, I think, is going to remain ever-elusive," Higham told MSNBC.

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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