New dating evidence supports claims that bones found under a church floor in Bulgaria could be those of John the Baptist – although of course they could equally well belong to his contemporary Fred the Goatherd.
Nevertheless, it’s unusual to find holy relics that could possibly be what they claim, and the researchers say they’re surprised.
The bones were originally discovered in 2010 by archaeologist Kazimir Popkonstantinov, under an ancient church on an island in Bulgaria known as Sveti Ivan, or St John.
Asmall box made of hardened volcanic ash was found nearby, bearing inscriptions in ancient Greek that directly mention John the Baptist and his feast day, and ask God to ‘help your servant Thomas’.
Six human bones, including a tooth and the face part of a cranium, were found in small marble sarcophagus under the floor near the altar, along with three animal bones.
The team, from the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at Oxford University, attempted to radiocarbon date four of the human bones. Only one, though – a knucklebone from the right hand – contained enough collagen to be dated successfully.
The bone was dated to the 1st century AD, a date which fits with the widely-held view of when John the Baptist would have lived.
“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,” says Oxford professor Thomas Higham.
“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.”
The scientists also reconstructed the complete mitochondrial DNA genome sequence from three of the human bones to establish that they were all from the same individual. Significantly, they identified a family group of genes, the mtDNA haplotype, most commonly found in today’s Middle East – John the Baptist’s area of birth.
“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,” says former Oxford student Dr Hannes Schroeder.