John Doe or John the Baptist?

During the western Middle Ages, Christian monasteries would compete for pilgrims by boasting of the relics of saints held within their walls. The more prestigious the relic, the higher the status conferred to the monastery and the greater the lines of pilgrims at the gate, hoping for healing, miracles or the forgiveness of sins.

In these more enlightened times, it seems we’re playing for tourism dollars. That’s the impression I get from the flap of the alleged remains of John the Baptist. (Custador tried to write about this when it first hit the news, but we couldn’t get the BBC video to embed.)

Archaeologists in Bulgaria claim they have found remains of John the Baptist while excavating the site of a 5th century monastery on the Black Sea island of Sveti Ivan.

A reliquary – a container for holy relics – discovered last week under the monastery’s basilica was opened on Sunday and found to contain bone fragments of a skull, a hand and a tooth, Bulgaria’s official news agency BTA reported.

Excavation leader Kazimir Popkonstantinov lifted the reliquary’s lid in a ceremony in the coastal town of Sozopol attended by dignitaries including the Bishop of Sliven, Yoanikii, and Bozhidar Dimitrov, a government minister and director of Bulgaria’s National History Museum, BTA said.

The name of the island translates to “Saint John,” which would probably considered the first clue. Popkonstantinov argues that the bones are authentically John the Baptist because the reliquary is inscribed with the date of June 24 – the date that the Orthodox Church celebrates as John’s birthday.

This is a very slim twig to hang the identity of the bones on, particularly since the reliquary itself dates to the fifth century. I suspect that Popkonstantinov knows that, and that’s why we’re getting press conferences ahead of the facts rather than journal articles afterwards.

Dr. Christopher Rollston, a historian qualified to talk about the ancient near east, has some suggestions of what evidence would be necessary for Popkonstantinov to make his case:

1. A reliable ancient tradition, preferably from the late(r) 1st century or very early 2nd century CE, stating that the bones of John the Baptist had been moved to an island in the Black Sea; 2. An inscription on the burial box that stated something like “The bones of John the Baptist” (i.e., name and title…something such as ”John” would not be sufficient); 3. A palaeographic date for the inscription itself that was late 1st century or very early 2nd century (after all, arguably no one in later centuries would be able to locate precisely the burial site of John the Baptist in Palestine and it may be that even in the late 1st century no one would have been able to have done so!). (4) Carbon 14 dating of the bones that yielded a 1st century CE date.

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