David Gibson and Michael McKinley
The Bones of John the Baptist
The island of Sveti Ivan does not immediately strike a visitor as the likeliest place to solve one of the most puzzling mysteries of Christian history. Just a quarter-mile square, the hardscrabble patch of land sits in the Black Sea, near the coast of Bulgaria, half a mile from the resort town of Sozòpol and nearly fourteen hundred long miles from Jerusalem. Yet the island always had a rather outsize strategic and cultural importance. After the Romans conquered the area in 72 BCE, they built a lighthouse on the island, and next to an ancient Thracian sanctuary they constructed a temple that featured a forty-three-foot-tall bronze statue of Apollo.
The complex of buildings around the temple eventually fell, along with the fortunes of the empire, and in the fifth century CE, as Christianity began arriving in the region and filling the vacuum left by the Romans, a monastic complex was built on the ruins, and the low-lying island was christened Sveti Ivan, or St. Ivan-or, as the English-speaking world would translate the name, St. John, as in John the Baptist.
In the New Testament, John is known as the Baptizer, or the Immerser, because of his fame for drawing repentant souls to his river baptisms. Yet Christians also know him as the Precursor, or the Forerunner, the man who famously predicted the coming Messiah and then identified Jesus as that man when he baptized him in the River Jordan. John was a plainspoken prophet, a fearless herald of the coming Kingdom of God, the original street preacher who instead of a sandwich board screaming “Repent!” wore camel’s hair as his only garment and subsisted on locusts and wild honey.
John lived by the words he proclaimed, and was imprisoned by Herod Antipas, Rome’s puppet king in Judea, for denouncing Herod’s incestuous remarriage to Herodias, his own niece. John then famously lost his life when Herod agreed to grant his daughter, traditionally identified as Salome, anything she wanted if she danced for his dinner party guests. She did so, apparently quite convincingly, and asked for the Baptist’s head on a platter, which Herod delivered.
Sveti Ivan, St. John’s Island, suffered various tribulations over the centuries. The original basilica was abandoned and then reconstructed in the tenth century, and it flourished in the 1200s along with the growing devotion to John the Baptist. Two patriarchs of Constantinople may have been buried there, a great honor for such a small site. The Ottoman Muslims who would overrun Christian Byzantium sacked St. John’s Island, in 1453, though a church was rebuilt on the site. Then, in the 1600s, Cossack pirates used the island as a refuge, and the church as a feasting hall. The Ottomans eventually leveled all the buildings in order to deprive the pirates of any sanctuary, and the island was last used as a field hospital for Russian soldiers in the nineteenth century.
In the 1980s there was some talk of turning the island into a tourist destination, with a hotel and shops and such. Yet that stalled, and for the most part Sveti Ivan is home only to wildlife, chiefly dozens of species of birds, some of them endangered. Even the rare monk seals that once populated the island’s rocks, their name an echo of the island’s monastic past, are gone.
So it was something of a leap of faith when archaeologists began excavating the island’s old ruins, and truly astonishing when, in July 2010, they discovered beneath the ruins of the original altar a small marble reliquary (or box for relics) that contained a number of bones. Three of the bones were from livestock-one each from a sheep, a cow, and a horse. “The animal bones are the biggest of the group, and they may have just been put there to bulk up what looks like a pretty minimal collection of bones,” Thomas Higham, a professor of archaeological science at the University of Oxford, told Reuters. Higham was a member of the team brought in to test the DNA of the bones to determine if there were any way they could actually belong to John the Baptist.
Along with the animal bits were five human bones: a knucklebone from the right hand, a tooth, part of a skull, a rib, and an ulna, which is a bone from the forearm. Higham and the team took these bones back to the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, one of the world’s top laboratories for carbon-dating archaeological material, and two years later produced a result that left even Higham astounded: the human bones dated right to the middle of the first century CE, the time of Jesus. Testing of the genetic material by experts at the University of Copenhagen showed that the bones all came from the same man, and he apparently came from the Middle East.
Moreover, buried in an older part of the church was a small box made of volcanic stone. The box is inscribed with the name of “Saint John,” in Greek, and the feast day of John the Baptist, June 24, the day tradition says he was born. The stone from which the box was made, called tuff, came from an area in modern-day Turkey, along one of the routes used to take relics from the Holy Land to Constantinople (now Istanbul), where Roman emperors and various aristocrats, as well as patriarchs and bishops, were eager to acquire them.
“They were often bestowed as a sign of favor. The monastery of Sveti Ivan may well have received a portion of relics as a gift from a patron, a member of Constantinople’s elite,” said Oxford archaeologist Georges Kazan, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the movement of relics in the fifth and sixth centuries. He noted that the island was an easy distance from the Byzantine capital, on a major Black Sea trading route.
“It’s really stretching it to think that material from the first century can end up all the way in this church in Bulgaria and still be there for archaeologists to excavate,” Higham said. “But stranger things have happened.” Higham, a professed atheist with no motive to make religious claims look good, told reporters that when he first heard about the relics in 2010, “I thought it was a bit of a joke, to be honest.” Going into the testing phase, he thought the age of the original church (about the fifth century) would give a likely age for the material. “We thought that perhaps these bones would be fourth or fifth century as well. But we were surprised when they turned out to be much older than that.”
Could these be the bones of John the Baptist? So far there is no way to be sure, since there is no DNA database to compare, no genome for the Baptist’s family-which tradition says would include his first cousin Jesus of Nazareth. Even so, just finding these bones-all from the middle of the first century, all from one man who lived in the Middle East-stands as a remarkable discovery.
DAVID GIBSON is an award-winning journalist, author, and filmmaker who specializes in covering the Catholic Church. He is a national reporter for Religion News Service and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and for such leading magazines as New York and Fortune. David is also featured in the CNN series Finding Jesus.
MICHAEL MCKINLEY is an award-winning author, filmmaker, journalist and screenwriter. He has written several books, and wrote and co-produced the CBC TV documentary film “Sacred Ballot”, as well as several documentaries for CNN Presents.