Friday, June 15, 2012

John the Baptist's Bones have been found -- again!

This morning's papers are full of another new story about the discovery of a Biblical figure's bones.  This time it is John the Baptist's bones and the story has the standard marks of modern-day relic hunting according to which some detail will in some way link the relic(s) to the first century.

The story appears in several news sources, e.g. MSNBC's Science pages and Live Science, but a nicely illustrated version is the Daily Mail's one here:

'Found', bones of John the Baptist: Tests on knucklebone provide support to extraordinary claim
By Chris Brooke
When archaeologists claimed to have found the bones of John the Baptist amid the ruins of an ancient Bulgarian monastery experts were understandably sceptical. 
But carbon dating tests carried out at Oxford University have provided scientific evidence to support the extraordinary claim. 
A knucklebone has been dated to the 1st Century AD - a time when the revered Jewish prophet is believed to have lived.
If the story sounds familiar, it may be because it had an earlier incarnation in 2010, e.g. on Discovery News (see Robert Cargill's post).  What is new is some carbon dating of one of the bones, carbon dating that dates the bones to the first century.

How, though, do the researchers know that these are the bones of the baptist?  According to the Daily Mail article:
The ‘key’ clue to the relics’ origins was a tiny sandstone box found alongside the reliquary with a Greek inscription: ‘God, save your servant Thomas. To St John. June 24.’ The date is believed to be John the Baptist’s birthday.
Well, that's the date of his feast day.  We have no idea when his birthday was.  I'd like to see the actual Greek inscription, but I can't find any pictures of it on the web at present and so, of course, any remarks are provisional.  From the translation here, the only thing that would connect these bones to John the Baptist (rather than any other St John) is the feast day.  However, that is probably too late to provide any serious link to the first century.

According to the article, the radiocarbon research was carried out by Oxford professors Thomas Higham and Christopher Ramsey.  Also mentioned is "Dr Hannes Schroeder, who carried out the research", who is quoted as saying, "Of course, this does not prove that these were the remains of John the Baptist but nor does it refute that theory."

I will watch the story with my usual mixture of interest and scepticism.  It may perhaps be worth mentioning that the only reports we have about John's body post-mortem is the report of his disciples burying his body (Mark 6.29).  Perhaps later on, after his secondary burial, some of the same disciples saved a few bones for posterity to be carried half way across Europe a few centuries later, no doubt leaving a few bones in each of several other countries too, Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Italy.

Oh, and it's all connected, of course, to a National Geographic TV documentary this weekend.

Update (10.18): Comments from Michael Heiser on PaleoBabble, John Byron on The Biblical World (very funny) and Jim West on Zwinglius Redivivus.

Update (13.30): See now the superb and authoritative response by Christopher Rollston, John the Baptist and the Reliquary of ‘Sveti Ivan’ : Methodological Reflections.

Update (Sunday, 00.29): Round-up from James McGrath on Exploring our Matrix.


Jeremiah said...

What about the rest of the bones? I bet it's a grab bag of bovine femurs and chicken wings.

Michael said...

I can find a couple pics of the inscriptions here:

And here:

But neither is easy to make out.

Chris Tilling said...

Mark, an idea: You surely know enough to put out a really convincing forgery, or at least a convincing case for a forgery. You could have some fun with the Daily mail and "find" all kinds of bones of NT characters, perhaps even a Q document while you are at it!

Holistic Healer said...

There seems to be some confusion around between John the Baptist (got beheaded not long after Jesus started his ministry - honey and locusts guy) and John the Apostle, one of the 12 original apostles who was exiled to Patmos who wrote the Gospels of John and possibly Revelation.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...


There seems to be more than a little confusion, unless you left out a lot of "supposedly"s in that last sentence.


Cute idea, Tilling, bit I don't think it's in Goodacre's personal interest to be known as the Sokal guy of NT studies.

That's not to say that a good Sokal hoax couldn't do some good.

Problem is, as we saw with the dude trying to challenge Ehrman with a 1st century fragment of Mark, it doesn't really take much to fool those who want to be fooled.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for all the enjoyable comments. Tempting, Chris. :)

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Michael. Hadn't thought to look in the older articles -- that's very helpful. Second pic. is reasonably clear but I can't do a lot with it at this point, I must admit. Hope they release some clearer pics in due course.

Palpatine's Way said...

It is possible that Jesus knew John the Baptist, but there is no reason to think that it’s probable. Mark might have just been inventing a pericope that showed Jesus was greater than the well known John the Baptist, the way Matthew invented material to show Jesus was greater than Moses. There is (possibly) some intertextuality in the gospel of Mark. Mark says “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ ; as it is written in the prophets.” Mark then immediately interprets John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (a la Elijah in II Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6. II Kings 1:8.) He then says John ate locusts and wild honey,the food of the wilderness in which Elijah lived (and so on and so on). Perhaps the baptism of Jesus by John in Mark is meant to reflect 2 Kings 2 near the Jordan where Elijah bequeathed a double portion of his power to Elisha, making Elisha his successor and superior. Maybe later writers misunderstood this as an historical event, and because it was already understood that way in their communities and so couldn’t deny it, they included it as an embarrassing event that had to be explained away. Just because later writers were embarrassed by it doesn’t mean Mark was, or even that Mark ever meant for the pericope to be taken literally.