Bulgarian Relics of John the Baptist are Probably Authentic

First it’s vampire graves, and now the relics of John the Baptist: Bulgaria is just totally cornering cool archaeological news for the month of June. Go Bulgaria! It almost makes us want to forgive you for trying to kill Bl. John Paul the Great. Almost.

Two years ago, in an altar in the ruins of a 5th century monastery on Sveti Ivan Island the Black Sea, Bulgarian archaeologists found a small reliquary made of hardened volcanic ash. The Greek inscription on the reliquary included the name of John the Baptist and the date of his birth, June 24th. Scientists naturally dismissed the claims, because scientists all know that Catholic relics are completely fake. They read it … somewhere. They don’t know where. They’ll get back to you on that one. (It’s just like the “fact” that, if you put all the relics of the true cross together, you’d have enough wood to build Noah’s Ark, which is just a plain old lie. You wouldn’t even have enough wood to make a baseball bat.)

In any case, the pieces of bone they discovered–a tooth, a knuckle bone, and pieces of a skull, jaw, and arm–have been tested and, whaddayaknow, they come from a 1st century guy who lived in the Middle East:

Many sites around the world claim to hold relics of the saint, including the Grand Mosque in Damascus which says it has his head. Countries around the Mediterranean claiming to have remains include Turkey, Greece, Italy and Egypt.

The right hand with which the prophet allegedly baptised Jesus in the River Jordan is also claimed to be held by several entities, including a Serbian Orthodox monastery in Montenegro.

“We were surprised when the radiocarbon dating produced this very early age,” said Oxford Professor Tom Higham, who led the study.

“We had suspected that the bones may have been more recent than this, perhaps from the third or fourth centuries.

“The result from the metacarpal hand bone is clearly consistent with someone who lived in the early first century AD,”

He added: “Whether that person is John the Baptist is a question that we cannot yet definitely answer and probably never will.”

Dr Hannes Schroeder, from the University of Copenhagen, added: “Of course, this does not prove that these were the remains of John the Baptist but nor does it refute that theory.”

Thanks for that scrupulous bit of waffling, Hannes. I don’t wanna be all non-scientificy, but if I have bones in a box labelled “John the Baptist,” and those bones were treated with reverence and date to the early first century, with DNA confirming a person of Middle Eastern origin, then, yeah: those are probably authentic. Here, I’ll even make it sound all official: “I am 92.3% certain these are the real deal.” Let the veneration continue!


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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • http://Tombalderston.com Tom balderston

    Wasn’t John the Baptist’s head intered in Damascus. This ossuary contained skull fragments. An authentic 1st century man maybe , John the Baptist?

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    I think a couple of places claim the full skull of John, but it’s more likely that relics of this age are fragmentary. And being fragmentary, they almost certainly scattered to some degree.

  • clarice

    No need to make the snotty, undeserved remarks about the generally extremely civilized Bulgarians, I remember them as a people who did very much to protect the Jews living there during World War II.
    I forget nothing you see and hold Bulgarians dear to my heart.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Please do try to separate “snotty, undeserved remarks” from “jokes”. The problem with thin skin is it gets irritated so easily.

  • clarice

    some funny joke.

  • http://jackkilcrease.blogspot.com Dr. Jack Kilcrease

    “…date to the early first century, with DNA confirming a person of Middle Eastern origin, then, yeah: those are probably authentic.”

    Bear in mind, I have no objection to these being real. Two points though.

    1. May I point out that there were a lot of people living in the Middle East during the first century, so having bones from someone about that time is not really a big deal. Neither does it give a strong suggestion that this is “probably authentic.” Since there were anywhere from 2 million to 6 million Jews living in Palestine during the time of Christ (there are differen estimates), the chances are actually very slime.

    2. If these bones were those of John the Baptists, why would they be kept? Certain not to venerate them as relics. There is no evidence that the veneration of relics was a practice of first-century Jews or Christians. In the mid second-century maybe we have an early reference to relics in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (I don’t find the passage often cited very convincing. The only thing it actually says is that people had high regard for him and so they buried him with respect). So, I find it hard to believe that these were actually kept for that time for this purpose. The Gospels tells us that when John was murdered that his body was buried and there seems to be no references parts of it being chopped off and venerated as relics.

    Again, I’d like this be real. It would be way cool. I’m just not convinced.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Those are both reasonable points, which can be extended in a number of ways. For instance, there is no reason to assume that any of St. Helena’s discoveries in the Holy Land were legitimate. In the 4th century, locals could have pointed out any locations or any old pieces of wood when she was searching for the places and objects associated with the Gospels. I believe they are authentic because I believe that people remember these things. I can travel around my own town and people can point out where notable things happened a couple hundred years after the fact. Oral history, however it may be changed in the telling, does spring from a foundation of fact. We make a mistake by confusing lore with legend.

    I’m also not sure how this oddly modern dismissal of consistent testimony and written records took hold. A 5th century monastery would have taken the provenance of their relics quite seriously. We’re not the first generation to treat extraordinary claims with skepticism. The idea that they would have placed false items in a reliquary in an altar (thus doubly sinning by lying and failing to show due respect in the consecration of their altar) strains my credulity far more than the idea that people of the near east remembered the resting places of their revered figures. This notion that people of the 5th century were 1500 years dumber than us is a modernist bias.

  • Paul in the GNW

    Dr. Kilcrease,

    The historical record of Christianity, outside of the NT itself, is incredibly thin until the late 2nd century, so your argument from silence is particularly weak. Your a argument also assumes that relics such as “The Veil of Veronica,” “The Shroud of Turin” and “The Sudarium of Odeveido” are all fakes. Certainly you have the right to be skeptical but you don’t have the right to beg the question. Did 1st century Christians remember where the Apostles were buried? It seems very likely. Exactly how and when veneration of relics became common practice is secondary. Further, the early mentions of veneration of relics in textual sources are all consistent in recognizing it as valid Christian devotion and do no treat it as a recent innovation, so it is certainly open to interpretation that veneration of relics had been practiced in at least some local Churches for some time before being mentioned in our earliest (extant) sources.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Thanks! I liked it.

  • http://thewayoutthere1.blogspot.com/ Fr Levi

    There is what might be a reference to relics in the New Testament:
    ‘God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them.’ Acts 19.11-12. In which case, the practice might be of earlier origin than is sometimes credited & would certainly add some support to the idea that the relics found on Sveti Ivan Island are authentic. Or, as an archaeologist might put it, it doesn’t make it less difficult to believe that they might be those of St John the Baptist :-)

  • Higgs Boson

    Dear TLM :)

    Your blog is awesome! I give the relics a 99% POA (probability of authenticity).

  • David K. Monroe

    When you say that “having bones from someone about that time is not really a big deal”, I have to ask, how often does one come across bones from the 1st century? It seems to me that finding a box inscribed “John The Baptist” containing the bones of a 1st century Middle Eastern man is about as good as you’re going to get. True, 100% certainty is probably impossible, but if the relic has the name attached and the dating and region are consistent with the person named, I think one has to extend a little credibility to the claim.

  • gocart mozart

    Good, the scientists have narrowed it down to a several million to one chance that it is the bones of the real John the Baptist. Will these same people now admit that the Shroud of Turin was created in the Middle Ages: Of course not. Pick a side: Do you accept science or not?

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    “Science” is a process, not a dogma. It’s not “accepted.” It’s a piece of the picture. It’s not the picture itself.

  • http://exultet.blogspot.com Roz

    Sometimes jokes consist of snotty, undeserved remarks. The seemly reply to Ms. Clarice would be “I apologize.”

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    But I don’t apologize, because there was nothing to apologize for. The remarks were so mild and passing that they do not warrant an apology. People need to get a grip. It’s mere moral preening for someone to take offense where not only was no offense intended, but where it was completely invisible to any but those who were seeking to be offended. I have no interest in tip-toeing around hyper-sensitive people, particularly when they aren’t even offended for themselves, but for others.