February 20, 2015
When the tools of modern science are applied to religious relics, the results are almost always the same: Science says the relics aren't what their supporters claim.
The most famous of them all, the Turin Shroud, is widely regarded as a Middle Ages forgery, and even the Catholic Church does not insist the shroud was actually used to wrap the body of Jesus himself.
So when Bulgarian archeologists announced in 2010 that they had found the bones of John the Baptist, Tom Higham was skeptical.
He got a surprise.
Higham, an Oxford University scientist and an atheist who doesn't believe in "any kind of religion or God or anything like that," was asked to test six small bone fragments found on an island named Sveti Ivan - St. John.
The bones turned out to be from a man who lived in the Middle East at the same time as Jesus, Higham said.
"We got a date that was exactly where it should be, right in the middle of the first century," said Higham, a radiocarbon dating expert.
It's not proof that they belonged to John the Baptist, since there's no DNA database of early Christian saints, the archeologist who found the bones said.
But the mere fact that the testing didn't prove the bones are fakes is unusual.
Archeologist Kazimir Popkonstantinov led the team that found them under the altar of a fifth century basilica on Sveti Ivan, a Black Sea island off Sozopol on the south coast of Bulgaria.
The bones were in a reliquary, a container for holy relics, with a tiny sandstone box.
Written on the box in Greek were the words, "God, save your servant Thomas. To St. John. June 24."
Scientists take samples of the bones for radiocarbon and genetic analysis.
The date is the Christian feast day of John the Baptist, believed to be his birthday.
When the bones were found in 2010, Popkonstantinov said it was "logical to suggest that the founders of the monastery did their best to bring relics of its patron saint."
Higham, the deputy director of Oxford's Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, got involved because a colleague knew the Bulgarian archeologists. National Geographic was also interested, so it provided funding for more extensive testing than Higham originally planned, and made a film about the project.
Radiocarbon dating showed that the bones were from the right period to be from John the Baptist, Higham said, while genetic testing showed it was a man and all the bones were from the same person.
DNA testing by colleagues at the University of Copenhagen suggested that the person was most likely to have been from the Middle East, he said.
More detailed nuclear DNA testing could pin down his location even more accurately, Higham said, but "does cost quite a lot of money."
There is reasonably good historical evidence that John the Baptist, whom Christians believe baptized his cousin Jesus, did exist, said Paul Middleton, a senior lecturer in Biblical studies at the University of Chester.
All four gospels and the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus say he was beheaded on the orders of the ruler Herod Antipas, Middleton said when the bones were found.
The six small bones are far from the only relics purporting to belong to him.
Four locations, from a mosque in Damascus, Syria, to a museum in Munich, Germany, claim to have his head, while the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, has a relic alleged to be his right arm.
A monastery in Montenegro says it has his right hand, while another in Egypt has a crypt containing relics of the saint.
Tom Higham says he can test them to see if they match.
"We have a complete genome. It's possible that we could step this a step further and see if there is any similarity," in the genetic material of all the relics.
"We've sort of got interested in this. It's not beyond the realms of possibility, and we know that there were relics moving out of the Middle East in the fourth and fifth century," he said.
But for him, the project remains a purely scientific one.
"I'm an atheist," he said. "I perceive this as an archeological dating problem. We have some bones and we're trying to get as much information out of them as we can."