Bones that are theorized to be the bones of John the Baptist have recently been dated to the 1st century AD, confirmed as a male, and also found to be from an mtDNA haplogroup that is most common in the Middle East region he would have been from.
The bones were found in 2010 during an excavation under an old church in Bulgaria called Sveti Ivan, which translates as St. John. Under the church, in a small marble sarcophagus near the altar, was a knucklebone, a tooth, and part of a cranium. Three animal bones were also found inside the sarcophagus. Only one of the human bones found still contained enough collagen to be radiocarbon dated.
This new research from Oxford University will be presented in a documentary called ‘Head of John the Baptist’ airing on the National Geographic Channel in the UK June 17th.
A team from the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at Oxford University dated the knucklebone, that was taken from a right hand, to the first century AD. The researchers were surprised by this, but have specified that without better evidence there is no way to prove that the bones belonged to John the Baptist.
Professor Thomas Higham said: “We were surprised when the radiocarbon dating produced this very early age. We had suspected that the bones may have been more recent than this, perhaps from the third or fourth centuries. However, the result from the metacarpal hand bone is clearly consistent with someone who lived in the early first century AD. Whether that person is John the Baptist is a question that we cannot yet definitely answer and probably never will.”
Researchers from the University of Copenhagen also contributed by reconstructing the mitochondrial DNA genome sequence from three of the bones. They established that all the bones came from the same person, and also that they were from mtDNA haplogroup that is most common in the Middle East, which is where John the Baptist was from. They also established that the bones were from a male.
Dr Hannes Schroeder said: “Our worry was that the remains might have been contaminated with modern DNA. 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. Both of these facts suggest that the DNA we sequenced was actually authentic. Of course, this does not prove that these were the remains of John the Baptist but nor does it refute that theory as the sequences we got fit with a Near Eastern origin.”
The archaeologists who discovered the bones also found a small box made out of hardened volcanic ash close to the sarcophagus. The box contained inscriptions in Greek that directly referenced John the Baptist and his feast day, asking God to ‘help your servant Thomas’.
“One theory is that the person referred to as Thomas had been given the task of bringing the relics to the island. An analysis of the box has shown that the tuff box has a high waterproof quality and is likely to have originated from Cappadocia, a region of modern-day Turkey. The Bulgarian researchers believe that the bones probably came to Bulgaria via Antioch, an ancient Turkish city, where the right hand of St John was kept until the tenth century.”
In a separate study by Oxford researchers, it was found using historical documents that, in the fourth century AD, monks had taken relics of John the Baptist out of Jerusalem, including parts of his skull. “These relics were soon summoned to Constantinople by the Roman Emperor who built a church to house them there. These relics were soon summoned to Constantinople by the Roman Emperor who built a church to house them there. Further research by Dr Kazan suggests that the reliquary used to contain them may have resembled the sarcophagus-shaped casket discovered at Sveti Ivan. Archaeological and written records suggest that these reliquaries were first developed and used at Constantinople by the city’s ruling elite at around the time that the relics of John the Baptist are said to have arrived there.”
Dr Kazan said, “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.”
The documentary ‘Head of John the Baptist’ will air in the UK at 8pm on 17 June 2012.