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Image: Bones claimed to be of John the Baptist
Oxford University
Bones claimed to be of John the Baptist that were analysed by the research team. Clockwise from top left, the knucklebone, ulna, part of cranial bone and molar (together) and rib.
By Senior Writer
updated 6/18/2012 12:14:11 PM ET 2012-06-18T16:14:11

A small handful of bones found in an ancient church in Bulgaria may belong to John the Baptist, the biblical figure said to have baptized Jesus.

There's no way to be sure, of course, as there are no confirmed pieces of John the Baptist to compare to the fragments of bone. But the sarcophagus holding the bones was found near a second box bearing the name of St. John and his feast date (also called a holy day) of June 24. Now, new radiocarbon dating of the collagen in one of the bones pegs its age to the early first century, consistent with the New Testament and Jewish histories of John the Baptist's life.

"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," or Middle East where John the Baptist would have lived.

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Mysterious bone box
The bones were found in 2010 by Bulgarian archaeologists Kazimir Popkonstantinov and Rossina Kostova while excavating an old church site on the island of Sveti Ivan, which translates to St. John. The church was constructed in two periods in the fifth and sixth centuries.

Beneath the altar, the archaeologists found a small marble sarcophagus, about 6 inches long. Inside were six human bones and three animal bones. The next day, the researchers found a second box just 20 inches away. This one was made of volcanic rock called tuff. On it, an inscription read, "Dear Lord, please help your servant Thomas" along with St. John the Baptist's name and official church feast day. 

A grotesque gift
The findings paint a story of a man named Thomas charged with bringing relics, or body parts, of St. John to the island to consecrate a new church there. It was common in the fourth and fifth centuries for wealthy patrons to pay for new churches and to give saintly relics to the monks who staffed them, Higham told LiveScience. [8 Alleged Relics of Jesus]

"We can imagine that the construction of this church was predicated on the basis of this very important gift, perhaps from the patron to the monastery," Higham said.

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The human bones in the box included a knucklebone, a tooth, part of a cranium, a rib and an ulna, or arm bone. The researchers could only date the knucklebone, because radiocarbon dating relies on organic material, and only that bone had enough collagen for a good analysis. The researchers were able to reconstruct DNA sequences from three of the bones, however, showing them to be from the same person, likely a Middle Eastern man.

"Our worry was that the remains might have been contaminated with modern DNA," study researcher Hannes Schroeder, formerly of Oxford, said in a statement. "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."

Schroeder added that "both of these facts suggest that the DNA we sequenced was actually authentic."

Strangely, the three animal bones (one from a sheep, one from a cow, and one from a horse), were all about 400 years older than the human bones in the reliquary. Those three bones all seem to come from the same time and location, Higham said. They may have been placed there as a way to desecrate the human bones, he said. Or someone may have just been trying to make the bone box look a little more impressive.

"It is very curious," Higham said. [8 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries]

Elusive identification
Historical research by Oxford professor Georges Kazan suggests that relics supposedly from John the Baptist were on the move out of Jerusalem by the fourth century. Many of these artifacts were shuttled through the ancient city of Constantinople and may well have been given to the Sveti Ivan monastery from there.

None of this proves that the bones belonged to a historical figure named John the Baptist, but researchers haven't been able to rule out the possibility, Higham said. Their study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but a program detailing the research will be aired on the United Kingdom National Geographic Channel on Sunday. National Geographic funded the research.

Even if the monks of Sveti Ivan believed the bones to be St. John's, they may not have been. Fake relics were and still are common. For example, at least 30 nails have been venerated as the ones used to keep Jesus Christ on the cross (biblical scholars debate whether three or four nails would have been used). Likewise, French theologian John Calvin once noted that if all of the supposed fragments of Jesus' cross were gathered together, they'd fill a shipload. Even Joan of Arc has been the subject of forgery. A 2007 study found that alleged pieces of her body kept in a French church actually belonged to an Egyptian mummy. [9 Famous Art Forgers]

The Sveti Ivan box is not the only reliquary said to hold the remains of John the Baptist, Higham said. If the researchers are able to test other bones said to be the saint's, they could build a circumstantial case for their authenticity. Nevertheless, a positive identification will likely remain out of reach.

"Definitely proving it, I think, is going to remain ever-elusive," Higham said.

A previous version of this report incorrectly identified Popkonstantinov and Kostov as Romanian rather than Bulgarian. Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas or LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebookand Google+.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: The archaeology of Christianity

  • Ahmed Ali  /  EPA

    An estimated 2 billion Christians around the world celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. While those believers take the stories of Jesus as told in the New Testament on faith, archaeologists have scoured the Holy Land and beyond in search of clues about the real life of Jesus and his followers. Click the "Next" arrow above to learn about eight of their finds.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • First reference to Christ?

    Courtesy of Namrata Anand

    Does the world's first known reference to Christ refer to him as a magician? An inscription on a bowl uncovered from the underwater ruins of Alexandria in Egypt reads "DIA CHRSTOU O GOISTAIS," which archaeologists translate to mean either "by Christ the magician" or "the magician by Christ." The bowl dates to between the late second century B.C. and the early first century.

    If the word "Christ" does indeed refer to the biblical Jesus Christ, then it would be the first known written reference to Christ and might provide evidence that Christianity and paganism at times intertwined in the ancient world. The archaeologists who discovered the bowl think that a magus could have practiced fortune telling rituals with the bowl and used the name Jesus to legitimize his supernatural powers. At the time, the people of Alexandria were likely aware of stories about Jesus' miracles, such as turning water into wine and multiplying loaves of bread.

  • Turning water to wine

    Jesus' first and perhaps best-known miracle, as recorded in the Gospel of John, was turning water into wine at a Jewish wedding in Cana that had run short of the celebratory drink. Archaeologists at a salvage dig in modern-day Cana found pieces of stone jars, including the one shown here, that date to the time of Jesus and appear to be the same type of jar mentioned in the water-to-wine story.

    A similar find at a rival dig several miles to the north of this site, however, is leading some archaeologists to yearn for further excavations before the issue is settled. One crucial question was where exactly the biblical Cana was located.

  • Nailed to the cross

    National Geographic Magazine

    Ancient literature suggests that crucifixions — central to the story of Jesus' death and resurrection — were common in Roman times, but there is scant archaeological evidence for the practice. Some scholars argue that since there was likely little concern for people who were crucified, their remains were simply scattered. A rare exception came in 1968 when a first-century funerary box was discovered with the remains of a man who had apparently suffered the grisly form of execution.

    Analysis of the remains revealed that the feet of the crucifixion victim really were nailed to the cross — one of the foot bones, in the center of this image, has a nail driven through it from the side. The nail is bent, which is perhaps why it was left intact instead of being removed, according to archaeologists. The hand bones, however, showed no signs of being nailed to the cross, suggesting this practice often depicted in crucifixion artwork may not have always occurred.

  • Wrapped in a cloth

    Image: Paraffin candles
    Antonio Calanni  /  AP

    A long piece of cloth, or a shroud, kept under close guard at a cathedral in Turin, Italy, is believed by many to be the burial cloth that was wrapped around the crucified Jesus. Scientific interest in the shroud began in earnest when negatives from a 1898 photograph revealed the image of man who appears to have suffered a crucifixion. Since then, biblical scholars, archaeologists and the faithful have hotly debated the authenticity of the so-called Shroud of Turin.

    Vatican-approved carbon-dating tests on fibers taken from the cloth in 1988 indicated that the shroud dated to medieval times — ranging from 1260 to 1390. Scientists concluded that the claims about Jesus' image were an elaborate hoax. Other studies have since argued that the dated fibers were from a repaired section of the cloth and that the carbon dates were therefore invalid.

    Other evidence supporting the authenticity of shroud includes pollen residues on the cloth that are unique to Israel and Turkey, indicating it must have spent time in those countries. In support of the skeptics, a second burial shroud that dates to the time of Jesus is of a completely different style than the Turin shroud.

  • Laid to rest

    Courtesy of David Liu

    For many Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the heart of Jerusalem is where the crucified Jesus was laid to rest, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Archaeologists, naturally, have attempted to verify the site's history. While proof remains elusive, the scientific sleuthing has pieced together a trail of evidence to support the claim.

    For example, excavations indicate the site was a limestone quarry in the seventh or eighth century B.C. that was filled in the first century B.C. with stone and soil and turned into a garden and cemetery. According to the Gospels, Jesus was buried in a garden near the city. Though the church today is inside the city walls, the site was outside city walls until Jerusalem was expanded in A.D. 41 — a few years after the traditional time frame for the crucifixion.

    Of course, other theories abound, including one widely publicized in a controversial TV documentary by the director James Cameron and investigative journalist Simcha Jacobovici. In that program, some experts suggested that 10 ossuaries found in a suburb of Jerusalem in 1980 may have contained the remains of Jesus and his family — including a son. The burial boxes are inscribed with names that match those of Jesus and his family — Joseph, Mary, Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Judah, the purported son of Jesus, among other relatives. The team said statistics argue against another family having that combination of names. Other archaeologists, however, have dismissed the claim.

  • The baptism cave

    Kevin Frayer  /  AP

    Did John the Baptist perform the spiritual cleansing ritual at a cave near the village where he was born, Ein Kerem? That's one theory mulled by archaeologists who discovered thousands of presumably ritually broken pottery shards, a stone used for foot cleansings and drawings related to John the Baptist on the cave walls. Scholars say the evidence that John actually performed baptisms there is inconclusive. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that some sort of ritual water purification rites took place in the first century.

    The history of the cave goes even deeper: It was apparently carved by Israelites in the Iron Age between 800 B.C. and 500 B.C. and perhaps used then as a ritual immersion pool. More recent excavations have revealed corridors leading to what appears to be a second cave. A secular theory on the cave's purpose suggests it was used as a clay production facility.

  • The bones of St. Paul

    Max Rossi  /  Reuters

    For centuries, the faithful have believed the bones of St. Paul, who helped spread the Christian faith after the death of Christ, were in a tomb under the Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls in Rome. Though the belief has seldom been questioned, Vatican archaeologists recently carbon-dated the remains for the first time and found that they date from the first or second century.

    "This seems to confirm the unanimous and uncontested tradition that they are the mortal remains of Apostle Paul," Pope Benedict XVI said as he announced the findings. In addition to the bone fragments, archaeologists found grains of incense, a piece of purple linen with gold sequins, and a blue fabric with linen filaments.

  • Early worship in Israel

    Ariel Schalit  /  AP

    An Israeli prisoner tasked with clearing rubble prior to construction of a new prison ward uncovered the edge of an elaborate mosaic on the floor of what may be the oldest church in the Holy Land. Archaeologists have dated the church to the third century, decades before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the early fourth century.

    The mosaic includes drawings of fish, which was an ancient Christian symbol that predated the widespread use of the cross, and three inscriptions. One tells the story of a Roman officer who contributed towards paving the floor, the second is dedicated to the memory of four women, and the third mentions a woman who contributed a table, or altar, to God Jesus Christ, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.

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