Carbon dating tests carried out at Oxford University have provided scientific evidence to support the extraordinary claim that the bones found amid the ruins of an ancient Bulgarian monastery may be of John the Baptist.
A knucklebone has been dated to the 1st Century AD – a time when the revered Jewish prophet is believed to have lived.
Researchers were said to be “surprised” when they discovered the very early age of the remains, but admit “dating evidence alone cannot prove the bones to be of John the Baptist”.
The new dating evidence will be revealed in a TV documentary to be shown on the National Geographic channel on Sunday.
The remains – small fragments of a skull, bones from a jaw and an arm, and a tooth – were discovered two years ago embedded in an altar in the ruins of the ancient monastery, on an island in the Black Sea.
They were kept inside a reliquary – a container for holy relics – on Sveti Ivan – which translates into English as St. John – off Sozopol on Bulgaria’s southern coast.
The “key” clue to the relics” origins was a tiny sandstone box found alongside the reliquary with a Greek inscription: “God, save your servant Thomas. To St. John. June 24.” The date is believed to be John the Baptist’s birthday.
One theory is that the person referred to as Thomas had been given the task of bringing the relics to the island.
Oxford professors Thomas Higham and Christopher Ramsey attempted to radiocarbon date four of the human bones, but only one of them could be dated successfully.
Prof. Thomas 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.”
DNA tests at the University of Copenhagen on three bones confirmed they were from the same person and probably from someone of Middle East origin – where John the Baptist came from.
They also established they were probably from a man.
Dr. Hannes Schroeder, who carried out the research, said: “Of course, this does not prove that these were the remains of John the Baptist but nor does it refute that theory.”
One theory is that the person referred to as Thomas in the inscription was given the task of bringing the relics to the island monastery.
Bulgarian researchers believe that the bones probably came to Bulgaria via Antioch, an ancient Turkish city, where the right hand of St. John was kept until the tenth century.
Many countries around the Mediterranean claim to have remains of St. John, including Turkey, Montenegro, Greece, Italy and Egypt.
According to the Bible, he was the cousin of Jesus and a revered holy man who baptized the son of God.
He is said to have foretold the coming of Christ before being beheaded on the orders of King Herod, with his head served up on a plate.
In a separate study, another Oxford researcher Dr. Georges Kazan has used historical documents to show that in the latter part of the fourth century, monks had taken relics of John the Baptist out of Jerusalem and these included portions of skull.
These relics were soon summoned to Constantinople by the Roman Emperor who built a church to house them there.
Further research by Dr. Georges Kazan suggests that the reliquary used to contain them may have resembled the sarcophagus-shaped casket discovered at Sveti Ivan.
Archaeological and written records suggest that these reliquaries were first developed and used at Constantinople by the city’s ruling elite at around the time that the relics of John the Baptist are said to have arrived there.
Dr. Georges Kazan said: “My research suggests that during the fifth or early sixth century, the monastery of Sveti Ivan may well have received a significant portion of St John the Baptist’s relics, as well as a prestige reliquary in the shape of a sarcophagus, from a member of Constantinople’s elite.
“This gift could have been to dedicate or rededicate the church and the monastery to St John, which the patron or patrons may have supported financially.”
The scientific analysis of the relics undertaken by Tom Higham and Christopher Ramsey at Oxford, and their colleagues in Copenhagen was supported by the National Geographic Society.
The documentary Head of John the Baptist, featuring the scientists’ work is due to be shown on the National Geographic Channel at 8:00 p.m. on 17 June 2012.
John the Baptist – the prophet who foretold the birth of Jesus Christ
John the Baptist was the son of Zachary, a priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Elizabeth – who was related to the Virgin Mary.
He lived as a hermit in the desert of Judea until about A.D. 27.
When he was 30, John began to preach on the banks of the Jordan against the evils of the times and called men to penance and baptism “for the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand”.
John anticipated a messianic figure who would be greater than himself and, in the New Testament, Jesus is the one whose coming John foretold.
When Christ came to him, John baptized Him, saying: “It is I who need baptism from You.” When Christ left to preach in Galilee, John continued preaching in the Jordan valley.
Fearful of his great power with the people, Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Perea and Galilee, had him arrested and imprisoned at Machaerus Fortress on the Dead Sea after John denounced his adulterous and incestuous marriage with Herodias, wife of his half brother Philip.
John was beheaded at the request of Salome, daughter of Herodias, who asked for his head at the instigation of her mother.
John is presented in the New Testament as the last of the Old Testament prophets.