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. Science

    Free speech helps educate the masses................POLITICIANS too !

    Where do morals come from?

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    No god(s) needed or required to graduate from public schools in the US

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    For what...................... ? Make sure to read what the pope said !

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    Learning is fun with facts.......................... and facts work when teaching children.

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    “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends,” Einstein wrote in German in a 1954 letter that will be auctioned on eBay later this month. "No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”


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    Cheech & Chong's History of 420


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  2. Sandra Robertson

    Believers in Christ do not need scientific facts.

    March 30, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
    • Doris

      They also don't need facts to feel good after having moved their bowels.

      March 30, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
    • Doobs

      Scientific facts do have a way of interfering with ancient mythologies created by Bronze Age sheepherders.

      March 30, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
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    July 25, 2012 at 4:05 am |
    • eegur beevur

      dude, what are you smoking?

      March 30, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  5. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things*

    July 5, 2012 at 4:30 am |
    • matt in nw

      No sir....

      God has a plan ...prayers are irrelevant ....think about it , what about two sides praying for victory in a war, football game, or say a famine or drought? God seems to be indifferent when a plague hits..believer and atheists have roughly same chance of dieing.

      July 5, 2012 at 4:43 am |
  6. Dorothy

    Scientists, say a lot of things that change from one day to the next and a whloe lot of people believe everything they say. Once again, science cannot and does not prove everything about this world and mankind. Now why would the bones be John the Baptist's bones? If science was the ultimate Truth, then, why can't scientists find a cure for cancer, or solve all the world's problems? If you pick up a Bible you will find a lot more answer's in it than science could ever answer.

    July 5, 2012 at 3:41 am |
    • Bizarre

      "If you pick up a Bible you will find a lot more answer's in it than science could ever answer."

      Like this? In Leviticus 14 "God" spoke to Moses and told him the correct treatment and cure for leprosy. It is the dangedest, silliest thing you'd ever want to read. This was the LORD speaking, Dorothy, THE LORD – how dare anyone search for a better treatment!


      Get two birds. Kill one. Dip the live bird in the blood of the dead one. Sprinkle the blood on the leper seven times, and then let the blood-soaked bird fly away. Next find a lamb and kill it. Wipe some of its blood on the patient's right ear, thumb, and big toe. Sprinkle seven times with oil and wipe some of the oil on his right ear, thumb and big toe. Repeat. Finally find another pair of birds. Kill one and dip the live bird in the dead bird's blood. Wipe some blood on the patient's right ear, thumb, and big toe. Sprinkle the house with blood 7 times. That's all there is to it. Saith THE LORD!

      July 5, 2012 at 3:48 am |
    • Bizarre

      The Bible is a book which includes *some* history of primitive Hebrew culture, and *some* good advice for practical, beneficial human behavior, but mainly it is a compilation of ancient Middle Eastern historical fiction, myth, legend, superst.ition and fantasy.

      There is not a whit of verified evidence for any of the supernatural beings and events told about in that book.

      July 5, 2012 at 4:08 am |
    • nope

      Archaeology proves you wrong

      July 5, 2012 at 4:29 am |
    • Bizarre


      Nope. Archeology does not prove a single supernatural being or event from that book.

      July 5, 2012 at 4:46 am |
    • The Dude

      Dude, reread Leviticus 14 please, pay special attention to verse 3.

      The priest is to go outside the camp and examine them. If they have been HEALED of their defiling skin disease....

      Then the priest offers the sin and guilt offerings to the Lord so that the person in question can be cleansed in the eyes of God. Please stop twisting the Bible, many people will go wayward from seeing that because they don't know any better.

      July 5, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Dotty, Why wouldn't a caring omnipotent god prevent or cure cancer?

      March 30, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
    • Science

      Hey santa

      Time traveler are you ?


      Origin of Life: Natural Cause no god(s) required.

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      So there is Dorothy

      March 30, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  7. Dorothy

    PumpNDump, you're way off course, none of what you said has been proven scientifically or otherwise. Here's something, you might want to think about, "Facts" change all the time, but the Truth never changes. If you were on earth when the dinosaurs were here and lived to tell everyone, then that could be a Truth, but you weren't. Science cannot and does not prove everything that has happened on earth much less the universe, and that's a Truth that you don't seem to grasp. You need to get over it, that you don't know everything about earth, dinosaurs, God, Jesus, the Bible, etc..

    July 5, 2012 at 3:25 am |
    • matt in nw


      Yes, science can change, and as it does our knowlege expands. The sciences, at their core, are very solid- why? because of Observation and Experimentation...hands on experiance if you will.

      Left to God and his servants (read those that make theirLiving speaking for God) – we would still be burning people alive for thought crimes, witchcraft, daring to interpret the will of god (love the circular element on that one:) ect. There is a reason religion is fighting real science- with each new discovery it get harder and harder them to stay relevent. Everyone hates job hunting.

      July 5, 2012 at 4:30 am |
    • The Dude

      "Religion" fights science because people assert that all scientific discoveries must be the truth and therefore be evidence against God instead of evidence of how God made the universe to be. No there is nothing wrong with science, but people will use it to push atheism, much how atheists accuse Christians of using the Bible to push an agenda.

      July 5, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Science does not assert absolute truth. Learn what science is before you go around saying stupid things like that. There is also absolutely no evidence that ANY god exists, let alone YOUR god.

      July 5, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  8. Kodster

    How about the apostle, Thomas? The one that doubted that Jesus had been resurrected, until Jesus Himself proved it to him? With the inscription, that would make a lot of sense, and it would justify why the monks buried him in such a location.

    July 4, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  9. Landon le

    It might not belong to john the baptist and probably belong to a jewish immigrant who immigrated to bulgaria or any other immigrants from the middle east. Bulgaria was part of the roman empire and the roman empire was like the USA, lots of immigrants.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  10. Brad

    And I have a grilled cheese sandwich that looks like the virgin Mary. Astounding, but still delicious.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  11. PumpNDump

    Facepalm. No such thing as "john the baptists" bones. Total myth.

    We are a SECULAR nation founded by men who feared the ignorant, religious, unwashed masses.
    The earth is 4.5 BILLION years old, NOT 6000 years old.
    Dinosaurs existed, just not with man.
    Evolution, and Global Climate change, are scientific facts and our ancestors are over 6 million years old.
    No, the world won't end concurrent with the Mayan calendar.
    The whole "god" & "jesus" thing: myths invented by man and is no more relevant or accurate than the Greek/Roman gods, Hinduism, Mithrasian faiths, etc. 98% of all christianity is LIBERALLY lifted from preceding "pagan" faiths (oh, the irony!).
    There is NO peer reviewed, legitimate academically accepted proof that "jesus" ever existed and you'd think the most important "person" in christianity would have proof of life.
    The parting of the Red Sea, Noah's Ark, "jesus" rising from the dead, etc......all myths.
    Abortion? That issue was decided with Roe vs. Wade, get over it.

    I don't care what you believe provided you keep ALL religion out of public schools, science & academia, foreign and domestic policy, laws & jurisprudence. KEEP IT OUT OF OUR LIVES. FOAD.

    July 3, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  12. Yes, these bones could be JtB!

    But, instead, yesterday afternoon they were confirmed as being the bones of Bozo D Clown. Or Charlemagne. Or Felix the Cat.

    Or how about just some Schmoe that lived a long time ago?

    Yeah, that last one seems like it's the most plausible.

    July 3, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  13. James

    I would keep looking closer to where the bones were found, for a wallet with some sort of identification...Drivers License, Social Security Card, AARP Card etc...Or maybe a belt buckle that has JTB on it...Then you will have real proof....

    July 3, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Steph


      July 3, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
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About this blog

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.