John the Baptist? Possibly So

There is an old joke about a guy in a monastery explaining that a reliquary contains the skull of John the Baptist as a boy. And it is true that a remarkable number of John the Baptist relics, including multiple skulls, are dispersed over a wide area of Europe and Asia. But who knows? Some of them might actually be genuine.

Two years ago, a sarcophagus was discovered under the site of an ancient Bulgarian monastery on a tiny island in the Black Sea, called Sveti Ivan (St. John):

An inscription on a box found next to the reliquary, which contained a knuckle, part of a leg bone, a fragment of skull and a tooth, suggested that they had formerly belonged to John the Baptist. A team from Oxford University set out to test the relics to determine whether that hypothesis could possibly be true.

There is some evidence–fragmentary, to say the least–that relics of John the Baptist may have been moved from Jerusalem to Constantinople in the fourth century. Some of them could have made their way from Constantinople to a monastery in the Black Sea. Nevertheless, the Oxford researchers expected to debunk the alleged provenance of the Bulgarian bones.

It turned out that for some technical reason, most of the bones could not be tested. The knuckle, however, could be. And, much to the surprise of the scientists, their tests showed that it came from a person who lived during the early first century–in all likelihood a person of Middle Eastern origin, and probably a man.

Professor Higham said: “We were surprised when the radiocarbon dating produced this very early age. We had suspected that the bones may have been more recent than this, perhaps from the third or fourth centuries.

“However, the result from the metacarpal hand bone is clearly consistent with someone who lived in the early first century AD. Whether that person is John the Baptist is a question that we cannot yet definitely answer and probably never will.”

Of course not. Still, the fact that someone went to the trouble to preserve a set of bones from the early first century in this manner is suggestive, to say the least.

Around seventeen years ago, my wife and I spent ten days in Israel, courtesy of a client for whom I was fortunate enough to win a substantial case, and who became a good friend. I have been interested in archaeology ever since. One of these days, if I can afford to retire, I would like to pursue it in a more systematic fashion.


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