“Relics” Associated with John the Baptist Dated to the First Century C.E.

Bible and Archaeology News


Oxford University research affirms a first century C.E. date for these bones, which have been claimed to be relics of John the Baptist. Photo: Oxford University.

In 2010, archaeologist Kazimir Popkonstantiv discovered a bone box while excavating the Sveti Ivan (St. John) church on an island in Bulgaria. Found alongside ancient Greek inscriptions mentioning John the Baptist, the box contained six human bones that have been considered possible relics of the Saint. New research, published on June 15, 2012 by Oxford University, examines evidence from the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit to indicate that the bones do, in fact, date to the first century C.E. Moreover, additional research conducted at the University of Copenhagen indicates that the bones are from the same individual, and the DNA (mtDNA haplotype) suggests he was likely a male from the Middle East. Oxford and Copenhagen researchers have explicitly stated that there is no definitive connection to John the Baptist; however, they were surprised to see the antiquity of bones that historical records associate with the Baptist.

Biblical and historical accounts say that John the Baptist, who is referenced as a relative of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and a leading prophet who baptized Jesus, was beheaded by Herod Antipas, likely at the Jordanian citadel Machaerus. The discovery of an ancient Greek inscription on a tuff box referencing John the Baptist and asking God to “help your servant Thomas” led Bulgarian researchers to believe that the relics arrived in Bulgaria from Antioch, where some of the Baptist’s bones were held until the tenth century C.E. The waterproof tuff box, likely carried by this “Thomas,” likely originated in eastern Turkey.

Other than Israel, no country has as many Biblical sites and associations as Jordan: Mount Nebo, from where Moses gazed at the Promised Land; Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John baptized Jesus; Lot’s Cave, where Lot and his daughters sought refuge after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and many more. Travel with us on our journey into the past in our free eBook Exploring Jordan.

Oxford University’s Georges Kazan explored historical documents for a different account of how the relics may have reached the Sveti Ivan church. According to Kazan, in the fourth century C.E., monks took relics of John the Baptist’s from Jerusalem to Constantinople. In the Oxford report, Dr. Kazan states “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 confirmed date of a knucklebone is far from final proof that the Bulgarian bones belonged to John the Baptist. A conclusive association between supposed relics and their Saint is impossible to establish; however, the research conducted by Oxford’s Tom Higham and Christopher Ramsey does prove that the “relics” have a better case for authenticity than previously imagined.

Read more in an Oxford University press release.

John the Baptist was beheaded at Machaerus, a Herodian fortress east of the Jordan River. Read about the restoration work being done at Machaerus in the free Bible History Daily articles “Machaerus: Beyond the Beheading of John the Baptist” and “Anastylosis at Machaerus, Where John the Baptist was Beheaded.”

For a recent discussion of relics, see Hershel Shanks’s first person Relics vs. ‘Real’ Archaeology as it appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


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  • Ladislao says

    The tomb of John the Baptist is the most revered place within the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, considered authentic long before the mosque was built.
    If the remains within could be tested, this would make a much better authenticator than those four skulls from Medieval Europe (I remember there was once a smaller skull in the same display, titled “John’s head as a child”, or something similar)
    But currently, testing is disrespectful, since it entails destroying the sample, so no permissions can be expected (The Turin linen shroud was “tested” only by destroying a Renaissance wool-and-cotton patch)
    We must still wait for a simple non-destructive technology to become widely available, such as a respectful ultraviolet multi-frequency scanning of all those relics.

  • Markku says

    How would the relics include a tooth and part of the cranium, as noted by Oxford University article, if John’s head was gone?

  • Gary says

    The disciples of John, acc to Mark 6:29, recovered and buried only the decapitated body, the head going as a prize to Herodias. This would indicate that the four skull relics are probably not genuine and that other bones could be, although this will be impossible to demonstrate. Since the article doesn’t mention it, one would assume that the bones from Bulgaria do not include a severed neck.

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