Science may be helping in qualifying bones found in Bulgaria as belonging to John the Baptist, the figure in biblical lore that not only foretold the coming of Jesus Christ, believed by some to be the messiah of his people, but also baptized Jesus in the river Jordan.
Reuters reported this week that DNA testing on a set of bones found in 2010 by Romanian archaeologists Kazimir Popkonstantinov and Rossina Kostova revealed that three of the six recovered bones were from the same individual. Carbon dating performed on the collagen of a knucklebone placed the relics as belonging to a man that lived in the first century.
"We got some dates that are very interesting indeed," study researcher Thomas Higham of the University of Oxford told LiveScience. "They suggest that the human bone is all from the same person, it's from a male, and it has a very high likelihood of an origin in the Near East."
The Near East is another label for the Middle East, where John the Baptist originated.
The bones were found in a small marble sarcophagus beneath an altar at an old church site on Sveti Ivan (Saint John Island) off the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria, near the seaport of Sozopol. There were six human and three animal bones within the sarcophagus. Another box was recovered the next day with the inscription of an invocation to a person named Thomas, whom researchers believe was given the relics as a gift around which to erect the church.
The Second Council of Nicea in the eighth century made it a requirement of churches to contain a venerated object. Of course, the practice of searching for and acquiring venerated relics of saints and martyrs had become a booming business by that time and not all of the relics were authentic, regardless of their records of provenance.
As can be expected, word of the possible discovery of bones of John the Baptist have brought worshippers to Sveti Ivan. Questions of their authenticity seem immaterial to the thousands that have made pilgrimages to a small church in Sozopol where the bones are one display.
Interestingly, the Sofia News Agency announced in early June that archaeologists had uncovered the bones of a man with a iron stake driven through the chest area. Believed to be the remains of a man dealt with as a vampire, the bones were also found in Sozopol.
John the Baptist is an important figure in the New Testament of the Christian bible and also important in Islamic writings as well. According to the Bible, he was beheaded by King Herod. Among the bones recovered were the aforementioned knucklebone, a tooth, part of a cranium, a rib and an ulna, or arm bone. The presence of the tooth and cranial fragment suggests that, if the relics are indeed bones of John the Baptist, the severed head was later reunited with the rest of the body.
Higham noted that he at first thought the Bulgarian find was a joke. An atheist, he also added that it was almost impossible to tell if the bones were actually those of the John the Baptist of biblical fame. "I'm much less skeptical than I was at the beginning," he told Reuters. "I think there's possibly more to it. But I'd like to find out more."
Higham wants to test other reliquary remains in churches around the world purported to be bones of John the Baptist. Testing for a match with the Bulgarian remains could build a circumstantial case that the bones at least came from the same individual.
The findings have not been published in a peer-reviewed periodical or journal. However, the National Geographic, which funded the project, will broadcast the findings of the study on the United Kingdom National Geographic Channel on Sunday, June 17.
(photo credit: Titian, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)