June 15, 2012

Bones of John the Baptist (?)

Mysterious bones may belong to John the Baptist
A small handful of bones found in an ancient church in Bulgaria may belong to John the Baptist, the biblical figure said to have baptized Jesus.

There's no way to be sure, of course, as there are no confirmed pieces of John the Baptist to compare to the fragments of bone. But the sarcophagus holding the bones was found near a second box bearing the name of St. John and his feast date (also called a holy day) of June 24. Now, new radiocarbon dating of the collagen in one of the bones pegs its age to the early first century, consistent with the New Testament and Jewish histories of John the Baptist's life.

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The human bones in the box included a knucklebone, a tooth, part of a cranium, a rib and an ulna, or arm bone. The researchers could only date the knucklebone, because radiocarbon dating relies on organic material, and only that bone had enough collagen for a good analysis. The researchers were able to reconstruct DNA sequences from three of the bones, however, showing them to be from the same person, likely a Middle Eastern man.
There is a documentary on this to air in National Geographic UK:
He was loved by the public and feared by those in power, this revolutionary popularised a practice that ultimately became central to Christianity.

But he was not Jesus; he was John the Baptist, whose story shows how he threatened the Roman Empire to such an extent that King Herod Antipas claimed his life, supposedly before parading his head in front of his guests during a party.

There, the story ends abruptly. Or does it? Where was this famous saint buried, and what happened to his body?

Find out in the UK premiere of Head Of John The Baptist on Sunday 17 June at 8pm, as experts reveal how a rumour emerged that John the Baptist’s body was retrieved.
Any UK-based readers feel free to comment after the program has aired with any details regarding the DNA testing done on the remains.

16 comments:

Aren Allahverdian said...

So since he's a first-century Middle Eastern man with a severed head, he has GOT to be John the Baptist...

Religious sensationalism is the worst.

Dienekes said...

If the carbon dating showed 5th c. AD, or the cranium belonged to a female, or his DNA was that of a likely European individual, then the hypothesis that the remains belong to St. John would have been falsified.

Slumbery said...

Dienekes

There is no need for falsification. Quite the contrary, the claim that the bones belong to St. John should be proven. Without comparable other remains it is impossible, so this story remains just a story.

Nevertheless, it is possibly a true story, but if we took every not falsified story as truth, we could as well believe in Santa. The faithful had a long history of forging holy remains even before Christianity.

Anyway, how you know if John the baptist had "middle eastern" genes to begin with? Likely, but you cannot be sure even about this.

Dienekes said...

There is no need for falsification.

That makes absolutely no sense. It is not a matter of "need", it is a matter of what can be done and what cannot. One cannot "prove" -as you claim- that the remains belong to John the Forerunner, but one can definitely "disprove" that they do.

Nevertheless, it is possibly a true story, but if we took every not falsified story as truth, we could as well believe in Santa. The faithful had a long history of forging holy remains even before Christianity.

The sanctity of holy relics is not measured by DNA or carbon tests. In any case, DNA and carbon tests when applied can show that some beliefs of the faithful are consistent with empirical facts, and this is the case here.

Anyway, how you know if John the baptist had "middle eastern" genes to begin with? Likely, but you cannot be sure even about this.

We know that people's origins can be determined with a precision of a few 100km today, and I see no reason why it would be different in antiquity. Once again, we can never be sure of anything, but the null hypothesis is that St. John had a Near Eastern genetic profile, and the evidence seems to be consistent with that.

Onur said...

I don't care the least bit whether the bones belong to John the Baptist or not (the evidence is inconclusive either way), as I don't have any doubt about John's existence. John's existence is obvious, because, unlike Jesus, he is mentioned in an authentic passage of Josephus' Antiquities. Unlike Jesus, John's existence rests on solid ground. The real John probably had nothing to do with a religious leader called Jesus. His story was probably attached to the Jesus myth by Christians.

Dienekes said...

One does not need to rely on Josephus on the historicity of Jesus, even though Josephus does speak of Jesus:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_on_Jesus#Testimonium_Flavianum

There are also Roman sources on Jesus. Even the pagan and Jewish writers who argued against Jesus never questioned his historical existence.

The idea that Jesus was not a real individual is a modern invention, and has no scholarly merit.

Aren Allahverdian said...

If the carbon dating showed 5th c. AD, or the cranium belonged to a female, or his DNA was that of a likely European individual, then the hypothesis that the remains belong to St. John would have been falsified.

Sure, but without an ID in the burial chamber card saying 'John, son of Zacharia, Herodian Judea', it isn't much in the ways of conjectural robustness. Joking aside, it is really irritating when scientific procedures are toted around to create the illusion of plausible actuality for some standardized myth, just so a few bucks can be made. The same shtick has created a mini-industry around the "anthropological Jesus", cashing brilliantly on the zealot naïveté of fundamentalist Christians.

Onur said...

One does not need to rely on Josephus on the historicity of Jesus, even though Josephus does speak of Jesus:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_on_Jesus#Testimonium_Flavianum


A passage with very dubious authenticity, which is first attested during the 4th century after Christianity received state support in the Roman Empire.

There are also Roman sources on Jesus. Even the pagan and Jewish writers who argued against Jesus never questioned his historical existence.

None of them are from the 1st century. No reliable source from the 1st century mentions Jesus. The non-Christian sources that mention Jesus beginning from the 2nd century all depend on Christians for information about Jesus, thus they don't constitute independent testimony to the historicity of Jesus.

The idea that Jesus was not a real individual is a modern invention, and has no scholarly merit.

Before the late modern period no one could openly question not only Jesus' existence but also God's existence in the parts of the world dominated by the Abrahamic religions. Modern scholars who believe that Jesus is a historical person have very conflicting views about his life. They can't even agree on the basic details of his life.

Dienekes said...

Onur, by your standard of evidence, we would doubt the existence of most ancient individuals. For example, we would doubt the existence of Solon, because there are no contemporary sources about his life.

Pagan, Jewish, and Christian writers all agree about the historicity of Jesus even if they disagree about who he was. Moreover, there were very early Christian communities all over the place. There was no epidemic of mass delusion during the early Roman Empire.

Onur said...

Onur, by your standard of evidence, we would doubt the existence of most ancient individuals. For example, we would doubt the existence of Solon, because there are no contemporary sources about his life.

No. It is not that simple. That is why there are whole disciplines like historical criticism and textual criticism.

Pagan, Jewish, and Christian writers all agree about the historicity of Jesus even if they disagree about who he was. Moreover, there were very early Christian communities all over the place. There was no epidemic of mass delusion during the early Roman Empire.

People of the ancient world were generally superstitious. Pagans and Jews were no more exempt from superstition and delusion. Skeptic minds were in the minority. The only reliable source about the very early spread of Christianity we have is the authentic epistles of Paul. They don't give a picture of a particularly successful cult. Paul is at pains to spread the Jesus cult, apparently with very little success. He also has problems in maintaining the unity and faithfulness of his congregation. An important point for our discussion: Jesus of Paul is more like a god or demigod rather than a human. Very few details of his life are provided, and those that are provided are of the kind found in ancient myths rather than biographies.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

"likely a Middle Eastern man."

I can't think of any genetic indicators that are common in the Middle East but almost entirely absent from Europe. Most markers follow clines and Bulgaria isn't that far from the Levant.

Unless the provenance is claimed to be via tomb raiding by the Crusaders in the Middle Ages, a Bulgarian home for John the Baptist's bones also isn't a good fit with the rest of the John the Baptist tradition.

John the Baptist was, according to tradition, an early S. Levantine aesthetic, a prototypical "voice in the wilderness" who never ventured far afield from that turf and died there rather than abroad, not a missionary or large geographic scale community organizer like the Saint John fka Saul who is the purported author of many New Testament texts.

Achaean said...

Personaly, I don't doubt Jesus existed.

Firstly because he is -indirectly- mentioned in the Talmud, although the Hebrews (with their holy laws never to utter the name of God aloud except in the Temple inversely applied to Jesus) tried to erase his memory by refusing to mention him by name in it. He is only indirectly mentioned. Indeed, pious Jews do not even utter the title Adonai, "lord", unless in prayer.

Secondly because he is mentioned in the Quran, and Muhammad's Arabs had good reason to be extremely hostile to the Byzantine Empire as well as to Jesus per se, as the leader of their enemies' religion. If Muhammad & Co. did believe in the theory that Jesus never existed, they would never include him in the Quran as a "prophet". They would just say that his existence was yet another "Graeco-Roman lie". What a great way to eradicate the religion of those whom you consider infidels and idolaters. Yet, Muhammad never did that, which probably means that not only he believed that Jesus existed, but also that the existence of Jesus was widely believed both in and out of the limits of the Romaeo-Byzantine Empire.

In addition, I do not agree with Onur's interpretation of the epistles of Paul.

As to the matter at hand, the existence of a Jewish race is widely debated both in and outside Israel. I tend to agree with Dienekes' POV, however. If the man to whom these bones belong was indeed a Jew, modern science will probably find it, perhaps in the same fashion that they are able to tell that Ashkenazi blond and blue-eyed Jews are Jews indeed based on DNA analysis or predisposition to certain rare diseases that are uniquely found in Jews.

Onur said...

Achaean's arguments are very weak arguments and do not constitute evidence in favor of Jesus' existence. The Talmud references to Jesus and especially the Quran are from times centuries later than the 1st century. By the time they were written, Jesus, whether he existed or not (I don't have a clear opinion about his existence BTW), was universally believed to have existed by both Christians and their opponents. As, I pointed out before, non-Christians acquired all their knowledge about Jesus from Christians. So their references to Jesus are completely dependent on what Christians believed and said about Jesus hence do not constitute evidence in favor of Jesus' existence.

Slumbery said...

Dienekes

I re-read you post and your first comment and probably misunderstood you. I am quite annoyed if somebody says anything close to "it is not disproven, so it is true". There are many things that can't be disproven, bit still fairy tales. But I can see that you did not say anything like this, I just read to quickly.

"The sanctity of holy relics is not measured by DNA or carbon tests."

This is very true, contradicting results hardly relevant for the believers either.

Anyway, I do not care if the bones are really of John's or not, I am not Christian. Just misunderstood one of your sentences.

Creative said...

@Achaean
A atheist would argue that the mention of Jesus as a Prophet is based on Justification in a sense of Religious Continuity. In that sense Onur is right, because the knowledge based on Christianity is based on Christians living in the area, notable is the Christian city of Najran “South Arabia” and Christian Arabs like the Ghassanids.

As far as I am concerned Jesus existed as a Messiahs figure ,but Saul of Tarsus can be considered the true Christ of the Heart&Soul.

ssas said...

I have just watched the show on Youtube and they clearly mentioned the bones are haplogroup J1c2.
However, I think the typical Jewish haplogroup was J1c3, J1c2 is found in Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FEGR4N-d9Mw