John the Baptist’s Bones, Relic Hunting, and Serious Science
by James Tabor
Despite all the hype, publicity, and academic snickering generated by the story last week regarding the tests on the relic bones of “John the Baptist” there is some serious science that should not be downplayed. The bones were found in a relic box in the ruins of a medieval church on the island of Sveti Ivan, or Saint John, off Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast near the resort of Sozopol. C-14 tests dated them as from the 1st century CE and apparently the mitDNA sequence was also recovered. You can read the official Oxford press release here. These tests are have nothing to do with naively “proving” that the bones are those of John the Baptist, which was certainly not in the mind of the researchers (Schroeder, Higham, Willerslev, Ramsey) who are doing this scientific work. What should be surprising to all is that the C-14 tests confirmed a 1st century CE date for the bones when any of us would have expected a late Byzantine date at the earliest.
So far as the mitDNA results, it remains to be seen whether this sort of research might end up telling us something of significance. Shimon Gibson, Boaz Zissu, and I have pioneered both C-14 tests and mitDNA studies from a 1st century Jerusalem tomb, the Akeldama “tomb of the Shroud,” that we found in 2000. It had been freshly robbed and its investigation allowed us to run some tests before the skeletal remains and ossuaries were removed. The published results are available here. The “shroud” we discovered, the first of its kind ever found in Jerusalem, was wool and linen fabric dated to the 1st century CE. Douglas Donahue, at the University of Arizona lab, who also ran the tests on the Shroud of Turin, did the tests for our university. This is respectable, responsible, scientific work and has yielded a surprising amount of data, including a tentative “family tree.” We also have tested bones samples from the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb, now at two different labs, and hope to test the bones from the “James ossuary” in the future. Despite the gainsaying of some about these tests being done improperly, and thus possibly being contaminated, such is not the case. As with the Bulgarian samples, the mitDNA samples were so degraded that they were easily distinguishable from modern DNA. We have good readings now on at least four individuals from the Talpiot tomb. Our idea was to begin a mitDNA data base for such 1st century skeletal remains, particularly from Jerusalem. Interestingly enough, there were “matches,” or better put, “correspondences,” between two individuals in the shroud tomb and the skeletal remains of one individual in the “Jesus” tomb, showing some kind of familial connection based on mitDNA polymorphisms in the standard base positions. We also have “relic” skeletal materials from the Suba “John the Baptist” cave which are yet to be so tested. One might assume in 1st century Jerusalem there were any number of related “clans” that would show such connections. We have also begun similar mitDNA and C-14 tests on skeletal remains from a 1st century tomb in Nazareth where one might particularly expect to find a closely related clan or group of clans buried together. I for one was extremely pleased to hear about these latest results from Sozopol and I have been in touch with the principle researchers regarding possible collaboration once they publish their official results.