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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. PumpNDump

    There are no "bones of John the Baptist". It's a figment and myth of small minds. No such person ever existed.

    June 29, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  2. whatyoudontknow

    A Frayed Knot
    what,
    .p.s the The Hebrew word chugh, here translated “circle,” “There is One who is dwelling above the circle of the earth.” (Isaiah 40:22) may also be rendered “sphere

    June 29, 2012 at 2:08 am |
  3. wamonator

    The fact is that relics and bones from whoever it may be are irrelevant to Christian faith.
    In fact, attributing any significance to them is akin to idolatry which the Bible condemns.

    June 28, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
    • STLBroker

      If one were to worship the bones, you would be correct. However, merely acknowledging that they may belong to a important biblical figure is NOT idolatry.

      June 29, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  4. whatyoudontknow

    Peteyroo " did the folks who wrote the Bible know the earth was round? Actually yes (Isaiah 40:22) . . .There is One who is dwelling above the circle of the earth, the dwellers in which are as grasshoppers, the One who is stretching out the heavens just as a fine gauze, who spreads them out like a tent in which to dwell. . .
    also this is an interesting passage in the bible (Job 26:7) . . .He is stretching out the north over the empty place, Hanging the earth upon nothing;
    FYI

    Yes He is stretching out the north over the empty place,Hanging the earth upon nothing;

    June 28, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      what,

      This is an illustration of what the ancient Hebrews thought the Earth and the Universe looked like:

      p.s. a "circle" is not a "sphere" - they had a word for "sphere", but did not use it in their descriptions.

      June 28, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      I don't buy it.

      June 28, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
    • wamonator

      Hey Peteyroo

      Seems that Red China and Communist USSR are/were officially atheist.
      Hmmmm.....??
      Is that why they have such a stellar record on human rights?
      That Stalin was a regular Saint wasn't he?

      June 28, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      wamonator, absolutely true concerning Red China and Soviet Russia. Spain was officially Christian during the Spanish Inquisition. The Pope sent crusaders to the Middle East to slaughter muslims several times. The French Huguenots were persecuted and suffered the St. Bartholemew's Day massacre at the hands of French catholics who desperately wanted to kill them all because they were protestants. Shall I go on? There is plenty of blood to go around. Or are you trying to say Christians are too fine to do such things? Pizzarro and Cortes were fine Christian fellows who came to the New World and murdered thousands and stole everything they could get their hands on. That's a fine lineage you should be proud of.

      June 29, 2012 at 12:24 am |
  5. The Truth

    It amazes me how so many liberals give Fox News a hard time, when you see the same type of stuff coming from CNN. What makes them so different? Most of the complaints about Fox News are about show segments that are "Opinion-Based" like Bill O'Reilly. I see the same type of things come from opinion articles on CNN. And then there are the comment forums. Where radical liberals will post insensitive comments about how religion "is a joke" or "like believing in the tooth fairy." Aren't these the same people that are supposedly for equality and fair treatment of people aka peace on earth? Those comments don't read like "peace" to me. Do you think it is different or more riteous to oppress people because they believe in religion than those who oppress the one's that don't?

    June 28, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • SouthernCelt

      The News media in general hasn't been factual or balanced since Walter Cronkite retired.

      June 28, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      Ruth, it is absolutely imperative to remind folks of all persuasions that religion is foolish and a waste of time. We are trying to save them from fairy tales and wishful thinking. Oppression comes from people who make laws based on religious belief that good and decent atheists are forced to obey. I would never in a million years live by your religious rules except that you force me to by making them laws.

      June 28, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • Primewonk

      MSNBC, ABC, CNBC, CNN, CBS, NBC, FOX

      One, and only one, of these news organizations went to federal court and the FCC stating they had a constîtutional right to lie to the public during their newscasts.

      Can you guess which one?

      [Hint: It isn't MSNBC, ABC, CNBC, CNN, CBS, or NBC.]

      June 29, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  6. bob

    so carbon dating works for saints, but not dinosaurs?

    June 28, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • KellyinCA

      Carbon-14 has a half-life of about 5700 years; there are humanoid remains dating back about 2 million years in no carbon-14 is left; so, carbon-14 dating techniques would be useless on anything older. So, dinosaurs' presence on Earth is gauged by the fossil record – how far down into the earth's crust they can be found as well as the types of geological activity took place in that region.

      June 29, 2012 at 7:55 am |
  7. Just Claims, No Truth

    rc,

    So apparently you can do better science that all the scientists in the world. AND all of the scientists would at the same time have to be part of a grand conspiracy. You say we shouldn't adapt the evidence to fit the theory and yet that is exactly what biblical creationists do. The bible is your theory and you contort the evidence to fit it. If you have an answer that contradicts the known science, collect the evidence, write your paper and collect your Nobel Prize.

    June 28, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  8. Kebos

    I hear a church in Chicago has the toe and a church in Toronto has the right elbow. What a bunch of whackos.

    June 28, 2012 at 6:58 am |
  9. rc

    Once again, research at its lousiest. "Saint John" is the apostle John, the brother of James, the apostle Jesus loved, but they were not blood related. "John the Baptist" (John the Baptizer) was Jesus' cousin and was not one of the twelve apostles. The New Testament is usually very clear who it's referring to. In fact, in the entire gospel of John (St John), every time "John" is mentioned, it refers to John the Baptizer. When the author John refers to himself, it's always in the third person.

    Contrast this with a CNN story that can't keep the two of them straight.

    Regardless, whether you believe in God or Christianity, these men were in fact real, historical figures. So what if it's bones belonging to one of them? It doesn't change the message of the Bible. In fact, it would be another piece of evidence that the events of 2000 years ago were real. But then again, it won't mean a thing to those that are absolutely determined to believe what they want, contrary to the evidence at hand.

    June 28, 2012 at 2:11 am |
    • Kebos

      Yeah. And all of them were men. They aged, they pushed an ideology of their own design. Some died of old age. Some died after receiving the equivalent of capital punishment. Now they are gone.......forever. As we all will in time.

      June 28, 2012 at 7:00 am |
    • Just Claims, No Truth

      rc,

      If you find the bones of King Arthur it does not prove Merlin could do actual magic.

      June 28, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Pscyclepath

      Indiana Jones probably said it best in one of the throwaway lines from "Raiders of teh Lost Ark": "Didn't you guys ever go to Sunday School?"

      Many didn't (and still don't)... But whether you believe in the Scriptures or not, a general familiarity with the Bible will give you a lot of insight into Western – and especially American – culture and why we often are the way we are.

      June 28, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  10. Peteyroo

    How about a new topic, CNN. Is your new policy to run a topic for two or three months?

    June 28, 2012 at 1:24 am |
  11. Just Claims, No Truth

    Chance,

    So the possibility that life could have evolved naturally over oven a billion years seems so absurd it can't be true but the mythology written by men who had very little understanding of the natural world describing a supernatural god is plausible?

    June 27, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
    • 32pGator

      What makes you believe that ancient peoples had no understanding of the natural world? How do you know that they wrote only mythology? So they were ignorant of a basic understanding of nature? What is your evidence? I believe you underestimate the intelligence of the men and women who lived thousands of years ago. In some ways I think they understood nature better than you or I. They lived much closer to it than we do today.
      And what is so sensible about insisting that the universe came into being from nothing? That life came from non-life? Agnostics laugh at the "talking snake" and an ark large enough to hold two of every species. Well, I laugh at the idea of life originating from some "magic soup." And the idea that over a few billion years a sea creature turns into a human. While a life form is evolving, how does it survive (in that undeveloped stage) long enough to evolve into the next form? I'm not saying you are wrong. But I do see a lot of difficulties in considering only purely naturalistic explanations.

      June 28, 2012 at 1:50 am |
    • Peteyroo

      32Baiter, did the folks who wrote the Bible know the earth was round? Did they have any idea that the earth revolved around the sun? Did Noah take two mosquitos aboard the ark? Did he take any fish? After all that rain, you'd think the salt balance in the oceans would be out of whack endangering the salt water fish. How did Noah stop the tigers from eating the zebras? The elephants from crushing the armadillos? BTW, did Noah go to Texas to grab a pair of armadillos? Do you really think any of these folks really understood nature?

      June 28, 2012 at 3:01 am |
    • Peteyroo

      32Crater, let's talk about the ark. How did Noah get to Indonesia to get a pair of komodo dragons? The North Pole to grab two polar bears? Texas to get two armadillos? Did Noah have a magic carpet? Were the animals delivered to him? Africa to get two Tsetse flies?

      June 28, 2012 at 3:19 am |
    • Just Claims, No Truth

      32pGater,

      I did not say they had no understanding of the natural world, I said little. And campared to us they had LITTLE. They did live more in harmony with nature but that is not my point. They did not know a star was a distant sun, or that the earth moved around the sun, or the reasons for the ocean tide. Get my point? They may have understood an effect but they had very little in understanding causes, many of which they wrongly attributed to a god. Even if there was a god I would not trust that they got the concept correct.

      Who said the Universe came from nothing? Not me. And even if it did a natural explanation would be more likely than 'God did it". Name one thing that has been attributed to a god that was later proven to be caused by a god? Not a single one out of all the claims.

      Everything is a transitional form in evolution.

      June 28, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • eviltwin44

      @Peteyroo
      That's where the theory of Pangaea comes in. It's the theory that all continents were once connected, and if you look at a map it is completely possible. If it was all connected at the time of Noah, the entire world being convered in water for 40 days and 40 nights, aka the Flood, would conceivably be able to split the land masses. Stop attacking someone just because he has a Christian point of view.

      June 28, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      @Peteyroo
      That's where the theory of Pangaea comes in. It's the theory that all continents were once connected, and if you look at a map it is completely possible. If it was all connected at the time of Noah, STOP right there!

      They were NOT connected at the time of the flood.

      June 28, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @Peteyroo

      Could you imagine the utter devestation of that much tectonic movement in the span of thousands of years? Damn it's a good thing that stuff isn't true.

      June 28, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
  12. tony

    What if you, I, everything is in the mind of God, not separate form Him. What if you, I, everything is all in MY mind and all your responses are created on the fly, by me. What if God did create the universe in seven actual days and sculpted us all from mud? What if there is a giant turtle holding the world up on his back? Progress in science cannot disprove any of the above. Faith in God cannot prove any of the above. There is a limit to how far we can think about consciousness - we don't have the language or logic to move beyond cause and effect. In the end what matters is your own peace, my own peace. And in the meantime just be kind to one another, for crying out loud.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • Satan

      Tony, that comment is far too thoughtful to have any place on a cnn.com comment board.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
    • Lily of the Valley

      I working on it, really. But my self centered self gives me trouble.

      June 28, 2012 at 1:33 am |
    • saradode

      I find myself in the interesting position of agreeing wholeheartedly with Satan on this one. 🙂 I'm going on Tony's Option #1, myself. And his last, beautiful three sentences.

      June 28, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
  13. Wholly Mary

    Big whoop, he's still dead.

    June 27, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • Davester

      Actually, he was resurrected and restored the Aaronic priesthood to the earth.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:17 am |
  14. Jeebus

    Please note that many believe the shroud of turnin is believed to have been repaired in the middle ages and that much has been proven, the church will not allow another sample to be taken from outside the area that is believed to be repaired, thus science has not proven anything just yet there.

    June 27, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
  15. Jack

    Good evening. Everyone is invited to visit ... thestarofkaduri.com

    June 27, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  16. tony

    Part the red sea for racism, drown 300,000 in the last coupla tsunamis. Yup, that's a real loving god out there. Genuflect, genuflect, genuflect. . . .

    June 27, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • rc

      Heaven is perfect. The world God created is not. If it were, we'd have no desire or reason to leave it and go on to an eternal paradise. No, this world is subject to powerful natural occurrences that result either by chance, or changing weather patterns, or human influence/interference. Humans have the ability to choose their actions. Actions have positive and/or negative consequences. God set this world in motion. He doesn't keep every bad thing from happening, he lets things run their course. If a tsunami results from a powerful earthquake and thousands of people of their own free will decided to lay out on the shore, reason dictates that they're going to be injured or die if they get in the way of the tsunami. Consequences to decisions. Life may not go on. Eternal life goes on after life.

      June 28, 2012 at 2:23 am |
    • sam stone

      Heaven is perfect because it is an ideal we create in our own minds

      June 28, 2012 at 5:17 am |
    • Barney

      God is just. Those who have never read the Bible and actually understood Jesus's ministry tend to say things like this. God is a loving God, but remember, He is just. He will not reward evil.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      Blarney, how wrong you are. I attended Sunday school and church from infancy all the way until I was 19 years old–every Sunday. It was a price I had to pay to live in my parents' house. I read the Bible several times during those years. I never believed even as a child. I always thought it was utter nonsense. I held my tongue out of respect for my parents. I moved out of my parents' house and never went to church again (40+ years and counting). I do understand your Jesus of Nazareth and your God. I simply believe they are nonexistent–mythological figures akin to the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus. Knowing the Bible as well as I do, I can't understand the good Christians who spew hatred and live their lives completely against the teachings of Jesus. Explain to me how that is possible.

      June 28, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      The only possible explanation Petey is the same one that applies to you.

      June 29, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  17. Squeezebox

    I know that there's no proof that the Shroud of Turin is real, but it wouldn't hurt to test the DNA from it against the alleged bones of John the Baptist to see if there's a maternal link.

    June 27, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • SouthernCelt

      What makes you think there is any viable DNA on the bones or the Shroud? Assuming they are both 1st century if any DNA did exist it would be so degraded to be useless for testing. Both require Faith, which by definition, requires no proof.

      June 28, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  18. Kareful-Kay

    Lots of Christians dismiss science. Lots of scientists dismiss religion.
    Here is the thing. It is all a part of what we are experiencing. It's not one or the other.
    It is all part of a bigger world. Don't you think that God can do science? God created science, He created it all. IMO

    June 27, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • tony

      That's the least likely scenario. Better odds of winning all the lotteries at once.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • JWT

      religion is not something that I experience.

      June 27, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • SouthernCelt

      A lot of the so called "Fathers" of Science were Christians because throughout the ages until recently the Church was the best place to get educated. Universities have only been around for a few centuries.

      June 28, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
  19. Parfin Woodell

    If you could clone Jesus wouldnt that be the Anti-Christ ?

    June 27, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  20. Pheadrus

    Carbon dating? Really?

    Christians claim that even though carbon dating proves otherwise the world is 6000 years old and the Turin rag is really Jesus' shroud, etc., etc. Do you really expect these same Christians to accept that the bones may be John the Baptist just because science dated the things by something they repeatedly claim is bad science?

    Yeah... I guess if it serves their fairy tale world they will...

    June 27, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Chance

      Not all Christians subscribe to the 6K yr old Earth, that is a fallacy. Carbon dating and radioactive dating is nothing that detours the Christian belief. For example some Christians believe that the Earth is 4.6 billion yrs old and conclude that the young age (relative to the universe) indicates not enough time elapsed for living cells to form, much less evolve; thus pointing to creation. This is just one example.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @Chance

      Most of those who indicate that the timeline doesn't allow for the formation of cells or evolution haven't actually studied these things most of the time. 4.6 billion years is a hell of a time, and I think a lot of people underestimate the amount of internal change that could happen depending on where the genetic variation takes place, not to mention the environmental pressure pushing the "adapt or die" thing.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • rc

      Carbon-14 dating itself is limited to no more than 10,000 years or so of accuracy. This is not a Christian opinion, it's scientific fact. When something allegedly older than 10,000 years needs to be dated, there are other methods that are used.

      Carbon-14 dating measures the half-life of organic material. In theory, there shouldn't be enough organic material to get a reading on the accurately predict its age. So scientists test geological material AROUND the object being identified. This of course assumes that the object has always been inside the geological material without changing position or strata.

      So imagine the recent confusion when dinosaur bones allegedly millions of years old...have organic material that should have decomposed less than 10,000 years ago. Either the range of Carbon-14 dating is flawed, or the samples were tainted (and yet more and more samples keep turning up), or the bones aren't actually millions of years old.

      This is the point where you have to start being honest with yourself and adapt your scientific theory to fit the evidence; you don't adapt the evidence to fit the theory. If you have organic material that should not exist past 10,000 years within a bone sample that has been identified as a dinosaur bone dating millions of years ago...the evidence shows that that dinosaur is in fact less than 10,000 years old. Do the math.

      June 28, 2012 at 2:18 am |
    • Just Claims, No Truth

      rc,

      So apparently you can do better science that all the scientists in the world. AND all of the scientists would at the same time have to be part of a grand conspiracy. You say we shouldn't adapt the evidence to fit the theory and yet that is exactly what biblical creationists do. The bible is your theory and you contort the evidence to fit it. If you have an answer that contradicts the known science, collect the evidence, write your paper and collect your Nobel Prize..

      June 28, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • Cal

      rc, carbon dating is only one method of radiometric dating. You are correct about the timelin of C14 dating, but do just a little more research and you see alist of others that range into the billions of years category.

      June 28, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • SouthernCelt

      There is more to Christianity than Protestant Fundamentalism. Even mainstream Protestants consider them wackos. The Vatican, for example has a Science department and has had one for centuries.

      June 28, 2012 at 8:51 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.