John the Baptist’s Remains Allegedly Found

The world of biblical archaeology and Christendom is all atwitter over the alleged discovery of John the Baptist’s remains, or at least a few of them.  As reported by Teresa Shipley at Discovery, the sparse remains consist of skull and hand fragments and a tooth.  They were found buried beneath the floor of a 5th century Bulgarian monastery in a small reliquary box bearing a Greek inscription — “June 24,” which is the date on which John supposedly was born.

If you watch the BBC video of the unveiling, you will note that the Bulgarians are already convinced these are John’s remains.  The Vatican is awaiting further information and testing before it pronounces on the subject.  The Bulgarians, of course, have good reason to tout the authenticity of the find — there is much money to be made through pilgrimage tourism.

For those not having a financial or emotional stake in the issue, there are good reasons to doubt whether the remains are those of John.  In the centuries following John’s and Jesus’ deaths, there was a brisk and lucrative trade in alleged relics.  Churches and monasteries throughout Europe and the Mediterranean competed with one another for sacred objects, which attracted pilgrims and parishioners who would either pay or make a “donation” to see the relics.  Forgeries and fakes were commonplace.

What additional testing might confirm the remains are those of John the Baptist?  The date of the reliquary box and inscription are, for the reasons previously mentioned, of dubious value.  Obviously, neither the box nor bones can be dated using stratigraphic methods.

DNA testing will not do much good in the absence of a confirmed relative who provided a sample for comparison and matching.  I doubt that such a sample exists, and contamination would be a major issue.

Radiocarbon dating of the bone will produce results that, depending on the methods and calibration curves used, will provide an estimated date with margins of error ranging from 25-75 years.  An exact C14 date will be hard to generate and contamination will be a concern.

Although amino acid racemization offers some possibilities, perhaps the most useful tests would be isotopic studies of the tooth.  Such studies can be used to identify the area in which the person lived and where he/she might have traveled; Matt Sponheimer and colleagues are pioneering these and similar methods.

If it can be shown that the former owner of the tooth lived for a period of time in the Judean desert and visited the areas around Jerusalem, then the Bulgarians will have at least one piece of data to validate the St. John shrine they surely will build.  Whether this will amount to proof of identity is an entirely different matter.

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