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Bulgarian bones could be John the Baptist's as claimed, scientists say
A reliquary box thought to have been used to carry the bones of John the Baptist.
June 22nd, 2012
07:55 AM ET

Bulgarian bones could be John the Baptist's as claimed, scientists say

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN

(CNN)– When the tools of modern science are applied to religious relics, the results are almost always the same: Science says the relics aren't what their supporters claim.

The most famous of them all, the Turin Shroud, is widely regarded as a Middle Ages forgery, and even the Catholic Church does not insist the shroud was actually used to wrap the body of Jesus himself.

So when Bulgarian archeologists announced two years ago that they had found the bones of John the Baptist, Tom Higham was skeptical.

He got a surprise.

Higham, an Oxford University scientist and an atheist who doesn't believe in "any kind of religion or God or anything like that," was asked to test six small bone fragments found on an island named Sveti Ivan - St. John.

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The bones turned out to be from a man who lived in the Middle East at the same time as Jesus, Higham said.

"We got a date that was exactly where it should be, right in the middle of the first century," said Higham, a radiocarbon dating expert.

It's not proof that they belonged to John the Baptist, since there's no DNA database of early Christian saints, the archeologist who found the bones said.

But the mere fact that the testing didn't prove the bones are fakes is unusual.

Archeologist Kazimir Popkonstantinov led the team that found them under the altar of a fifth century basilica on Sveti Ivan, a Black Sea island off Sozopol on the south coast of Bulgaria.

The bones were in a reliquary, a container for holy relics, with a tiny sandstone box.

Written on the box in Greek were the words, "God, save your servant Thomas. To St. John. June 24."

Scientists take samples of the bones for radiocarbon and genetic analysis.

The date is the Christian feast day of John the Baptist, believed to be his birthday.

When the bones were found in 2010, Popkonstantinov said it was "logical to suggest that the founders of the monastery did their best to bring relics of its patron saint."

Higham, the deputy director of Oxford's Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, got involved because a colleague knew the Bulgarian archeologists. National Geographic was also interested, so it provided funding for more extensive testing than Higham originally planned, and made a film about the project.

Radiocarbon dating showed that the bones were from the right period to be from John the Baptist, Higham said, while genetic testing showed it was a man and all the bones were from the same person.

DNA testing by colleagues at the University of Copenhagen suggested that the person was most likely to have been from the Middle East, he said.

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More detailed nuclear DNA testing could pin down his location even more accurately, Higham said, but "does cost quite a lot of money."

There is reasonably good historical evidence that John the Baptist, whom Christians believe baptized his cousin Jesus, did exist, said Paul Middleton, a senior lecturer in Biblical studies at the University of Chester.

All four gospels and the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus say he was beheaded on the orders of the ruler Herod Antipas, Middleton said when the bones were found.

The six small bones are far from the only relics purporting to belong to him.

Four locations, from a mosque in Damascus, Syria, to a museum in Munich, Germany, claim to have his head, while the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, has a relic alleged to be his right arm.

A monastery in Montenegro says it has his right hand, while another in Egypt has a crypt containing relics of the saint.

Tom Higham says he can test them to see if they match.

"We have a complete genome. It's possible that we could step this a step further and see if there is any similarity," in the genetic material of all the relics.

"We've sort of got interested in this. It's not beyond the realms of possibility, and we know that there were relics moving out of the Middle East in the fourth and fifth century," he said.

But for him, the project remains a purely scientific one.

"I'm an atheist," he said. "I perceive this as an archeological dating problem. We have some bones and we're trying to get as much information out of them as we can."

CNN's Simon Hooper and Susannah Palk contributed to this report.

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Christianity

soundoff (1,475 Responses)
  1. Stopit

    It is Fred Flintstone, Not John the baptist,,, stop the fairy tale BS

    June 27, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  2. Dave Hill

    When the Shround of Turin was carbon dated, the piece tested was cut from a patch put on in the 13th century due to fire damage. Guess what? – the test showed it was from the 13th century so it's a fake. Bogus result to please people desperate to call it a fake.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Primewonk

      Fiber samples were picked from SEVERAL DIFFERENT sites for the STURP project. According to your line of thought, the scientists were so stupid, every site they sampled was from a repair.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • cedar rapids

      Sorry Dave but that is just nonsense put out by those so desperate for it to be real.

      June 27, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  3. Thomas

    One thing you can say about old John, he certainly gets around.

    June 27, 2012 at 7:11 am |
    • sam stone

      "John the Baptist after torturing a thief,
      looks up at his hero, the Commander and Chief.
      Saying 'tell me, great hero, but please make it brief,
      is there a hole for me to get sick in?'
      The Commander in Chief answers while chasing a fly
      saying 'Death to all those who whiper and cry'.
      And, dropping a barbell he points to the sky
      and says 'The sun's not yellow, it's chicken'.
      Momma's in the factory she ain't got no shoes,
      Daddy's in the alley he's for food.
      I'm im in the kitchen with the Tombstone Blues"
      Zimmy 6:2

      June 27, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  4. Robert

    So if we find bones from the 70's then it might be Jimmy Hoffa?
    Since it could be anyone from that time isn't it just a bit of a leap to assume that it's one particular person.
    Churshes have every reason to fabricate this nonnsense since the claim will bring the sheep in droves, which is after all the ultimate goal.

    June 27, 2012 at 6:56 am |
    • Eddie

      We would know it was someone important, because the bones wouldn't have been preserved in this way otherwise.

      What I don't understand is what being an Atheist has to do with anything. John the Baptist was a real person, finding the specific remains of anyone 2000 years old is pretty cool.

      June 27, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  5. John the Baptist Basher

    On a related note, I recently discovered the bones of Barney, The Dinosaur

    June 27, 2012 at 1:51 am |
  6. Jack

    All are welcome to visit ... thestarofkaduri.com

    June 27, 2012 at 12:43 am |
  7. shazam

    jimbo is telling the truth. You can still perchase pieces of the holy cross in some sections of the country

    June 26, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
  8. Rick Springfield

    And found laying in the chest was the Holy Hand Grendade of Antioch.

    June 26, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
    • Just Claims, No Truth

      You shall count to three, nay two, three shall be the number, and four is out of the question....

      June 27, 2012 at 12:37 am |
    • Eddie

      @justclaims – if you're going to quote Python, at least do it right.

      June 27, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Just Claims, No Truth

      Oh sooorrry Eddie,

      Did it off the top of my head quick, wasn't trying to be exact, relax.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
  9. Edwardo

    Consider all of the people who live in the remote regions of the world who have never even heard the "gospel" of Jesus Christ. Consider the people who have naturally adhered to the religion of their parents and nation as they had been taught to do since birth. If we are to believe the Christians, all of these people will perish in the eternal fire for not believing in Jesus. It does not matter how just, kind, and generous they have been with their fellow humans during their lifetime: if they do not accept the gospel of Jesus, they are condemned. No just God would ever judge a man by his beliefs rather than his actions.

    June 26, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
    • JWT

      It's very simple. There is nothing wrong about believing in god until people try to insist that other people live by some particular groups religious covictions. There are a lot of religions in the world and subgroups within those religions.

      Some christians believe that non-chiristians will burn in hell. A simple matter of BS wince their religions rules do not apply to people outside their group. If the more extreme religious pepole could remember that the world would be a much happier place. This applies to atheists as well even though they are nto religious. Most people of course understand this point perfectly well. Write it down: My god is not your god.

      June 26, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • Rick Springfield

      You just described why Northern Baptists have no foreign mission program. If they are presented the gospel and reject it, they are doomed.

      June 26, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
    • shazam

      The God of the Old Testament wasn't a just God until he was made so in The New Testament by Constantine and His scribes>

      June 26, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
    • sam stone

      Faith is fine. Top down faith is toxic. The haste with which some posters include their EMPTY proxy threats show that they are not worshipping a loving god, but rather they are cowering before an eternal bully. These are not born of love, but of fear.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  10. Everett Wallace

    all lies

    June 26, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  11. TheVeteran

    John the Baptist was a Jew. Test the DNA, if possible, and compare it to those of the men with the Jewish markers...

    June 26, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • Edwardo

      Sounds like Xtians are always looking for tangible proof of their god's existence. From Noah's ark (yeh right!), to the shroud, the evidence just never surfaces. Ever wonder why? Because it's nonsense, that's why!

      June 26, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
    • Joe

      Those are actually the bones of Jerry Hurwitz.

      June 27, 2012 at 1:30 am |
    • WASP

      @joe: nah they're the bones of jimmy hoffa. he was finally located; so that is where the mob buried him. XD

      June 27, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • The Wood

      Don't forget Jesus was a Jew too!

      June 28, 2012 at 1:05 am |
  12. slickteigkcmo

    So interesting, in these tough times, we need more reminders of what the Christian Faith is all about. So much faith, that we had people die for Jesus and his teachings.... as in John the Baptist, such love of Christ and all He taught ๐Ÿ™‚ I think we now need these symbols of faith, hope and love. Love of Jesus. We believe, by faith, His teachings to be truth and it gives hope to have remembrances such as Johns bones, to help us believe better, have hope, remember what we're supposed to believe so that we may live the way God wants us to...... even if they are not Johns bones, it reminds us of him and how he lived and who he died for..... yea, this is very exciting. He was quite a man, a man of faith, a true believer and follower of Jesus. We should all live so well! This is what faith is, not seeing all the time but believing , having hope and love too ๐Ÿ™‚ God bless us all.

    June 26, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Edwardo

      Faith is not a virtue. It brings us witch trials, crusades, and other atrocities. Have all the faith you want, it won't make your imaginary friend real.

      June 26, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • TheVeteran

      If Edwardo would admit it, he would realize that it is asinine to think that this universe only consists of things we can see with the naked eye. There are many things that are invisible that we need to live. And a black hole is invisible, but we know it's there, through technology, to go beyond what the eyes can see.

      We know ever little about this universe we live it. Any person who does not realize that is lost. Especially one who thinks they know without a doubt that God does not exist, simply because they cannot see Him with the naked eye....

      Wise up...

      June 26, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • TheVeteran

      * very little...

      June 26, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • Edwardo

      @TheVeteran – nonsense! There is no reason to believe there are magical, invisible beings in the sky. You can't see invisible unicorns, so maybe they exist. To say that the existence of matter = the existence of god is circular logic. That's saying it takes a god, to make a god. total nonsense!

      June 26, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • LDV

      How about the air we breath, or feel when a breeze hits our faces. We don't see it, but we know it exist. Since true faith is โ€œthe assured expectation of things hoped forโ€ and โ€œthe evident demonstration of realities though not beheld,โ€ and since it requires believing that God is โ€œand that he becomes the rewarder of those earnestly seeking him,โ€ those having faith are moved to obey, having confidence and assurance as to the blessings that obedience will bring.โ€”Heb 11:1,ย 6.

      June 26, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
    • JWT

      I am sure there is much in this universe we cannot see or even experience. At least not yet. But I will pass on the biblical concept of god. Nor would I worship him under any circ umstances even if such a being existed in that way.

      June 26, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @LDV

      We may not be able to see air or the currents that we label as wind or breezes, but we can still measure these things. It is testable, demonstrable, and predictable (in a sense).

      June 26, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
    • sam stone

      The Veteran, LDV: How do you make the logical leap from the possibility of a creator to the existence of a "God"?

      June 27, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  13. nitrous

    Grind them up and snort 'em.

    June 26, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • slickteigkcmo

      maybe you should go do your drugs and read something more entertaining to you like..... a comic book, if you can handle that......

      June 26, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  14. Bugs Bunny

    John the Baptist's bones? LMAO! I think they're Porky Pig's bones.

    June 26, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • slickteigkcmo

      sad and sick you are .....

      June 26, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • slickteigkcmo

      yuck, very sad and without faith you are...... sorry for you ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

      June 26, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • Literal

      Slickteaigkcmo- Thanks! Glad you have an opinion. Why you think your opinion is more correct or true than someone else's about something that cannot be proven I'll never know, but thanks for contributing!!

      June 26, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
    • sam stone

      Slick: What makes you think the Bugs has no faith?\

      June 27, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  15. Holy Man

    I have the answer: These are not John the Baptist's bones.

    That's all there is to it.

    June 26, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • slickteigkcmo

      when did you conduct your testing? how long have you been a scientist?

      June 26, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • Xzanthius

      There is much more evidence for the existence of John the Baptist as there is for a historical Christ.

      June 27, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  16. Socal Reggae

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=td8-LEoQZuw&w=640&h=360]

    June 26, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  17. Eric

    Clone him and raise him Hindu. Just for the fun of it!

    June 26, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • Primewonk

      Eric – seriously! You have got to what until after dark to post thinks like this. That way, when the fundiot's heads explode, it looks like fireworks going off.

      June 26, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Really Jersey

      Does it make both of you feel better to be disrespectful. That trait reveals a lot about you.

      June 26, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • lowellthomson

      Yeah, it proves they're agnostic and find religion laughable.

      That is disrespectful, but doesn't demonstrate anything about them as people other than that they have no patience for the religious. Neuroscience suggests religion is basically an addiction, as is anything that redirects our brain chemistry to keep us happy absent rationalization.

      To me, that means we need to be respectful of the religious as people (and not be rude) while still understanding that they're basically being deluded by out-of-whack brain chemistry from an era when such tribalism was essential to developing civilized inter-relational behavior.

      June 26, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • Literal

      Lowellthompson: Very well put..... Thank you.

      June 26, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
    • sam stone

      Really, Really Jersey? Since when is respect something that those who preach exhibit?

      June 27, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  18. Rynomite

    Sort of off topic, but I was wondering. Isn't having a PRO-LIFE platform counter-productive for the Republican party?

    I mean think of it like this. Most abortions are done by people who cannot afford to have a kid, or are otherwise voting Democrat. If all those fetuses were forced to become children, then poverty will most likely render that child into a future democratic voter.

    Republicans should FAVOR abortion because it reduces the number of Democrats!

    June 26, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Primewonk

      That's why the republicans also favor war. It gets rid of excess poor young people, and it's good for their companies that make military equipment.

      June 26, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Try to be Good

      Abortion is a very sad issue. If you have an abortion then you basically murdered a baby. That baby could have become someone important. How do you know that that baby was going to stay poor? How do you know that the baby would have contributed to society? How do you know that baby might have been able to cheer someone up? Everybody helps in some way. Everyone deserves a chance. You make me sick. You make it sound like only you are worthy. You give off the air of being self-absorbed. You disgust me. I mean just say that baby was you. If it was at least the baby might not be so heartless.

      June 26, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
    • Literal

      Try to be good: And how do you know that 'god' wouldn't take the baby in a miscarriage anyway? Then 'god' would be a murderer in your opinion? How do you know that a complication doesn't develop that could kill BOTH mother and child and doctors decided to save the mother so she could try again? The answer is you don't know, you just want to impose your opinion on everyone else.

      June 26, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
    • Just Claims, No Truth

      Exactly Literal,

      And what if that baby turned out to be a serial killer, or another political despot that would have caused the next holocost.....OR WORSE....a gay atheist!!!

      June 27, 2012 at 12:43 am |
    • Sockness Monster

      Got to have bodys to feed the war machine.

      June 27, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  19. Victor

    I don't need proof of anything!! to me the proof I have is to see how people's lives in my community have changed after hearing the word of God and living their lives according to the Gospel. I see how my own life has changed, so what so called "proof" do I need when I AM living proof of what God can do?? I see it in my brothers and sisters in our community. That is all the proof that I need.

    June 26, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Holy Man

      You are living proof of the thousands of gay teens who commit suicide every year, because they feel persecuted and hated by so-called "Christians." You are living proof of the homeless, who get no support from their community, because so-called "Christians" are more concerned with tax breaks for the wealthy than in helping the poor. You are living proof of mankind's Satanic ways, because so-called "Christians" fight FOR the death penalty with everything they have.

      That is who you are.

      June 26, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • matt

      @Holyman. I feel sorry for your mother!

      June 26, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • Allen

      @Victor:

      Indoctrinating young children that anyone who does not think _exactly_ per the religious dogma is going to hell (a concept created by "the faithful" just for that purpose) simply builds bigots.

      Individuals who insist that anyone not believing exactly like they do is going to hell is a BIGOT by definition.

      June 26, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • Allen

      And of course any group that chops up its favorite leaders into little pieces and ships the pieces around the world for folks to worship is sick by any measure.

      June 26, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • shazam

      I believe they just started living by the "golden rule".

      June 26, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • Literal

      Holy Man: You rock!

      June 26, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
  20. jimbo

    This article reminds me of an excerpt from a Western Civilization text for a college Humanities course I took many, many years ago. Christian Churches were gathering holy relics to a common location to prevent them being taken by the Turks. When all the items had been assembled, they found they had twelve skulls of John The Baptist, 300 pounds of the bones of Saint Peter, and enough splinters of wood from the true cross to build a battleship.

    June 26, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Eliza Wood

      Yes, I was thinking the same thing – when all the king's horses and all the king's men try to put Humpty together again, will they have too many parts?

      DNA will tell...

      June 26, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.