Scientists have uncovered new evidence that mysterious remains found in an ancient reliquary in a 5th century monastery on Sveti Ivan Island in Bulgaria belong to St John the Baptist.
June 15, 2012
The remains - small fragments of a skull, bones from a jaw and an arm, and a tooth - were discovered embedded in an altar in the ruins of the ancient monastery, on the island in the Black Sea.
But after the find two years ago was met with universal scepticism Oxford University archaeologists undertook carbon dating tests.
On Thursday, the team announced they have provided scientific evidence to support the extraordinary claim. The findings are to be presented in a documentary to be aired on The National Geographic channel in Britain on Sunday.
The research team dated the right-handed knuckle bone to the first century AD, when John is believed to have lived until his beheading ordered by king Herod.
Scientists from the University of Copenhagen analysed the DNA of the bones, finding they came from a single individual, probably a man, from a family in the modern-day Middle East, where John would have lived.
While these findings do not offer conclusive evidence, they also don't refute the theory first proffered by the Bulgarian archaeologists who found the remains while excavating under an ancient church on the island.
Many sites around the world claim to hold relics of the saint, including the Grand Mosque in Damascus which says it has his head. Countries around the Mediterranean claiming to have remains include Turkey, Greece, Italy and Egypt.
The right hand with which the prophet allegedly baptised Jesus in the River Jordan is also claimed to be held by several entities, including a Serbian Orthodox monastery in Montenegro.
“We were surprised when the radiocarbon dating produced this very early age,” said Oxford Professor Tom Higham, who led the study.
“We had suspected that the bones may have been more recent than this, perhaps from the third or fourth centuries.
"The result from the metacarpal hand bone is clearly consistent with someone who lived in the early first century AD,"
He added: "Whether that person is John the Baptist is a question that we cannot yet definitely answer and probably never will."
Dr Hannes Schroeder, from the University of Copenhagen, added: “Of course, this does not prove that these were the remains of John the Baptist but nor does it refute that theory.”
Bulgarian archaeologists had found a small box made of hardened volcanic ash close to the sarcophagus.
The box bore inscriptions in ancient Greek that referred to John the Baptist and the date that Christians celebrate his birth, June 24.
The findings of another Oxford researcher, Christopher Ramsey, using historical documents, suggest that the monastery of Sveti Ivan may have received a portion of John the Baptist's relics in the fifth or early sixth centuries.
St John, who is especially revered by the Eastern Orthodox Church, foretold the coming of Christ before being beheaded on the orders of King Herod, with his head served up on a plate.