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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  • Custador

    Haha – wondered if anybody would write that up. I got angry at WordPress and deleted it in a strop :D

  • Custador

    I loved that Popkonstantinov blithely ignores that there is already a set of remains which purportedly belong to John the Baptist, with just as much “evidence” (read: “bland assertions of athenticity”) as his own claim.

    • wintermute

      Didn’t most saints leave behind multiple corpses, anyway? For example:

      Following his own death [Saint Teilo's] body is said to have miraculously become three identical bodies, a detail probably invented due to the fact that the popular saint’s relics were claimed by three churches


      • Peter Cross

        Hilarious. In a pious and respectful way, of course.

  • Dan Tres Omi

    uh oh, i see another movie in the making…

  • Cletus

    Meanwhile, some peasant who lived his own valid life has had his identity forever obscured by a series of people seeking to capitalize on his remains by means of fraud.

  • Darwin

    I’d like to get a slice of this business. I am selling authentic nails from Christ’s cross. 1 for a dollar or a set of four for 3.50. I also have a special on holy grails. Buy 1 and get one free! It’s great for parties, kill your friends and reanimate them! Warning: Any zombie apocalypses are not my responsibility.

  • Nox

    Okay, so I’m already skeptical about religious relics, but there is something going on with this particular relic that even shroud fans should be able to see.

    “Opened on Sunday and found to contain bone fragments of a skull, a hand”

    Matthew 14:6-12
    6 But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod.
    7 Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask.
    8 And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger.
    9 And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her.
    10 And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.
    11 And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother.
    12 And his disciples came, and took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus.

    So why would the skull and hand be found together?

    • Darwin

      You’re not supposed to take the Bible literally, stupid. Only the parts you like.

      • Nelly


    • Olaf

      Why do you need proof? Have faith that is all what god wants.

    • Peter Cross

      Opened on Sunday and…

      There’s the problem right there: they worked on the Sabbath!

    • 100meters

      Sorry Nox, but you have misquoted Matthew 14:8.

      According to my “Groovy, Dude, Bible Edition,” it (it being the unchanging-through-a-gazillion-translations eternal Word) actually reads:

      “And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John the Baptist’s head in a 1970 Dodge Charger.”

      Ergo…his remains should turn up in Detroit.

  • yahweh

    I was skeptical of this story when I first heard it. But then I read that in addition to finding the skull and bone fragments, they also found a King James Bible. No other proof is needed.

    You know what they say….if the King James bible was good enough for John the Baptist, it’s good enough for me.

    • trj


      • Darwin


      • yahweh

        Remember, jesus spoke in red.

        • Nox

          …and 17th Century english.