Bones of John the Baptist?

Bones of John the Baptist? June 16, 2012

The news has been making the rounds that bones have been found which some think might have belonged to John the Baptist. This is a story which first appeared in 2010, but which has been revived by the carbon dating of the knuckle bone to the first century.

The site Skeptic reports on the matter in a way that seems to me level-headed. But the most detailed and fair assessment, complete with suggestions about what sorts of data might be needed to make the case, is offered by Christopher Rollston. Mark Goodacre, John Byron, Michael Heiser, Jim West, and Dienekes’ Anthropology Blog have also mentioned the topic.

A documentary on the topic is apparently scheduled to air tomorrow.

In considering the historical John the Baptist, it may perhaps also be of interest to readers that John the Baptist’s execution/martyrdom is not a focus of the Mandaean tradition, whereas it is one of the main stories told about him in the New Testament (The only account of the death of John that I am aware of in Mandaean literature is in a single passage in the Ginza Rba). What’s more, their stories about John include not just alternate versions of those found in the New Testament about his parents, which I have blogged about before, but they provide a wife and children for him as well.


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  • goodacre

    Thanks for the update, James. Added link to my blog.

  • mattkelley

    The duomo in Sienna, Italy claims to have the arm and hand that John used to baptize Jesus.

    • We can rebuild him. We have the technology to build the world’s first bionic Baptist…

      But seriously, if they did DNA testing and found that the same individual’s bones were at several locations claiming to have relics of John the Baptist, that would be interesting indeed, though it is not clear that it would tell us anything more about John the Baptist while he was alive. and even when it comes to the relics, it seems to me that first century bones could well have made their way from sites in Palestine identified later as the burial places of important figures in Biblical narratives, without the bones actually having belonged to said individuals.

  • John MacDonald

    The death of John the Baptist seems to serve a neat literary role in Mark. While John the Baptist’s “quick” death accomplished nothing except providing a gift for the daughter of Herodias (who didn’t even really want it but was just fulfilling the request of her mother), by contrast Jesus’ excruciating drawn out death from flogging to crucifixion accomplished everything.

    Regarding the literary nature of John the Baptist’s death, Dennis MacDonald comments that:

    The story of John’s martyrdom matches in all essentials the Odyssey’s story of the murder of Agamemnon (3:254-308: 4:512-547; 11:404-434), even to the point that both are told in the form of an analepsis or flashback. Herodias, like Queen Clytemnestra, left her husband, preferring his cousin: Antipas in the one case, Aegisthus in the other. This tryst was threatened, in Clytemnestra’s case, by the return of her husband from the Trojan War, in Herodias’, by the denunciations of John. In both cases, the wicked adulteress plots the death of the nuisance. Aegisthus hosted a banquet to celebrate Agamemnon’s return, just as Herod hosted a feast. During the festivities Agamemnon is slain, sprawling amid the dinner plates, and the Baptizer is beheaded, his head displayed on a serving platter. Homer foreshadows danger awaiting the returning Odysseus with the story of Agamemnon’s murder, while Mark anticipates Jesus’ own martyrdom with that of John. The only outstanding difference, of course, is that in Mark’s version, the role of Agamemnon has been split between Herodias’ rightful husband (Philip according to Mark; another Herod according to Josephus) and John the Baptizer. (Dennis R. MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000 , 80-81, 176)

    • You may be interested to hear that the Mandaeans don’t have comparable traditions about John’s death to what we find in the New Testament and Josephus.

      • John MacDonald

        Maybe the Mandaeans are a more reliable source about the historical John the Baptist than the gospels or Josephus?

        • It’s not impossible, although it may just be that the movement around John was more diffuse and less centered on him, and thus didn’t make as much of an impact on all of the wider circle of people who at some point learned baptism for forgiveness of sins from him.

          • John MacDonald

            The apocalyptic prophet John the Baptist was a very wonderful and famous man (Matthew 11:11; Luke 7:28) It’s fascinating to think that the apocalyptic prophet Jesus might have met him. In hockey, it would have been like a young Wayne Gretzky meeting and training with Bobby Orr!