National Geographic News
Bulgarian worshippers pray over presumed relics of St. John the Baptist.

A box holding supposed remains of John the Baptist, displayed at a cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Photograph by Valentina Petrova, AP

St. John the Baptist.

John the Baptist in a 15th-century painting. Photograph from Photoservice Electa/Getty Images.

Ker Than

for National Geographic News

Updated June 19, 2012

Purported skeletal remains of John the Baptist have been dated to the first century A.D. and so could conceivably have belonged to the "forerunner of Christ," who baptized Jesus, scientists say.

Discovered in 2010 among the ruins of a Bulgarian church, the remains include six human bones: a knucklebone from the right hand, a tooth, part of a cranium, a rib, and an ulna, or forearm bone.

DNA and radiocarbon testing of collagen from the knucklebone show that the remains likely belonged to a Middle Eastern man who lived in the first century A.D., which fits with the story of John the Baptist.

According to the Bible, John was a cousin of Jesus Christ, so the finding means scientists might have DNA from a relative of the  Christian savior himself—although proving it is likely impossible.

"The problem is we don't have a baseline for comparison," said study team member Thomas Higham, an archaeological scientist at the U.K.'s University of Oxford. "We don't have a solid, reliable piece of bone that belongs to [John the Baptist or Jesus]."

As such, the current study can't confirm—or for that matter, disprove—that the bones belonged to John the Baptist.

"It's really stretching it to think that material from the first century can end up all the way in this church in Bulgaria and still be there for archaeologists to excavate," Higham said. "But stranger things have happened."

(Related: "Jesus' Tomb Claim Slammed By Scholars.")

"We Were Surprised"

The fate of John the Baptist's remains is a topic of much speculation among biblical scholars, but what is known is that, in the third and fourth centuries, reports began to appear of his bones being housed in various churches as holy relics to attract pilgrims—not an uncommon fate for the supposed remains of biblical figures.

"We thought that, since this [Bulgarian] church dates to the fifth century, this gives us a minimum age for this material," Higham said.

"And we thought that perhaps these bones would be fourth or fifth century as well. But we were surprised when they turned out to be much older than that," said Higham, whose work on the bones was funded in part by the National Geographic Society's Expeditions Council. (National Geographic News is a division of the Society.)

(Video: Watch part of the testing of the purported John the Baptist relics.)

The scientific analysis of the bones hasn't yet been submitted to a journal, though the results are featured in the National Geographic documentary Head of John the Baptist, airing Thursday in the U.K.

(Also see "Lost Gospel Revealed; Says Jesus Asked Judas to Betray Him.")

Hell, Damnation, and Cow Bones

The relics were found during an excavation on the island of Sveti Ivan—"St. John" in Bulgarian. Entombed in a small marble sarcophagus, the bones had been buried beneath the church altar.

For the time being, they'll remain in Bulgaria as property of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and are currently being showcased in the country's capital, Sofia.

Unfortunately, all of the attention has resulted in the theft of a rib bone, and, Higham said, the local bishop has issued an edict saying "hell and damnation will rain down from God, not only on the person who stole it but also on his family and anyone else who knows about it, and even the village where it was taken."

Curiously, three animal bones—from a sheep, a cow, and a horse—were also part of the cache. Tests showed they were about 400 years older than the human remains.

"The animal bones are the biggest of the group, and they may have just been put there to bulk up what looks like a pretty minimal collection of bones ... ," Higham said.

The archaeologists who originally discovered the bones also found a small box made of hardened volcanic ash buried nearby in an older part of the church. The case bears an ancient Greek inscription that mentions John the Baptist and his birthday. It also asks God to "help your servant Thomas."

One theory is that "Thomas" brought the box—which tests suggest originated from Cappadocia, a region of what's now Turkey—to the island.

"We think this box was the original box that brought the bones to the island," Higham said. "When the new church was built, the bones were put into the marble sarcophagus."

(From National Geographic magazine: "In the Footsteps of the Apostles.")

Hard to Identify, Then and Now

While the new results suggest the bones are from John the Baptist's time and place, archaeologist Andrew Millard said scientists will probably never be able to definitively say whether the relics belonged to the biblical figure.

"Whether they're the remains of John the Baptist or whether they were simply obtained from another first-century tomb, we can't tell," said Millard, of the U.K.'s University of Durham, who wasn't part of the study.

"The question really is how well they could have identified the remains of John the Baptist in the fourth century. They could've opened the wrong tomb in a cemetery."

More: National Geographic magazine tells the story of the King James Bible >>

3 comments
Daniel Lionberger
Daniel Lionberger

The supposed disciples were not literate, certainly not in Greek. The word thomas, or tomas, means twin, it is not a proper name. No one would refer to themself as "Twin".

Bob H.
Bob H.

It would be impossible for these bones to be that of John. The bible clearly states that John was beheaded, yet here these bones have part of a cranium or head. There fore  not possible. Also the church claims to have the finger of some saint, part of the cross that Jesus was killed on. As well as many other false Idols of the religions cult.

Colton Calvin
Colton Calvin

Very Interesting I'm a believer in Jesus and I also like science some Christians wont even accept the fact the we could of been from monkeys I believe its possible God is the creator of everything that's not man made so God could of made or ancestors and we have just evolved from there? its all opinionated but before I get all excited over this find I would need scientific proof. Science and History go along with the bible events in the bible can be traced back and be proven explain that? If someone did make the whole Jesus thing a hoax's  then they did a great job but I don't believe it is when people generally need help and pray to the almighty he has a way of changing there thoughts and actions maybe what he does comes in small packages but  he does help us just open your eyes and see the smalls he does to change are actions and thoughts in the end its a big change!! 

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