Tuesday, June 26, 2012

How Did John the Baptist’s Bones Get to Bulgaria?

In July 2010, when my wife and I were still living in Sofia, a strange, somewhat sensational story made its way into the news. Bulgarian officials confirmed that remains of Saint John the Baptist were discovered during archaeological excavations on the Black Sea island of Sveti Ivan, not far from the town of Sozopol which we had visited.

According to the report, archaeologists discovered an exquisite reliquary, or ‘relic urn’, that contained six human bones: a knuckle bone from the right hand, a tooth, part of a cranium, a rib, and an ulna, or forearm bone. The remains were buried under a church in a fourth-century monastery. They were linked to John the Baptist because archaeologists also found a small box nearby which bore an ancient Greek inscription mentioning John the Baptist and his birthday. The inscription also asks God to "help your servant Thomas."

The discovery received huge publicity in Bulgaria, with government officials envisioning the box office draw of a new pilgrimage site that would transform Sozopol into a new Jerusalem. Others were much more skeptical, claiming that the relics mixed fact with fiction as there was no way to prove their connection to the revered leader of early Christianity.

The relics went on display in Sofia where long lines of Bulgarians came to view them. The relics were also put on display at the St. Dimitar church in the town of Sliven, where one of the ancient bones was apparently stolen from the collection.

Scientific testing dates relics to first century

Scientific testing was done on the remains. As reported in National Geographic, “DNA and radiocarbon testing of collagen from the knuckle bone show that the remains likely belonged to a Middle Eastern man who lived in the first century A.D.”

The study cannot confirm, or disprove, that the bones belonged to John the Baptist.

"The problem is we don't have a baseline for comparison," study team member Thomas Higham, an archaeological scientist at the U.K.'s University of Oxford, told National Geographic.

According to the magazine’s report, “three animal bones - from a sheep, a cow, and a horse - were also part of the cache. Tests showed they were about 400 years older than the human remains.”

So, if they are authentic, how did John the Baptist’s bones end up in Bulgaria? There are thousands of alleged relics of John the Baptist scattered around the world. Vatican officials believe the relics may have been donated to the monastery on the Sveti Ivan island by the Byzantine church.

Extra note: Just recently I had breakfast in Ein Kerem, the small village outside Jerusalem where John the Baptist was born.

The image is from the Novinite.com website.


  1. I love that there are ancient animal bones among the relics. I find these types of stories so fascinating...maybe they were his bones. Great post Ellis!

  2. When studying Art History, I learned about MANY relics and the mysteries surrounding them. Radiocarbon dating is a MUST when analyzing them. However, there are many questions that need to be answered. There is one such funeral box that claims to be the bones of Jesus brother. Many, many mysteries of the Vatican....hmmmm?

  3. 'Many, many mysteries of the Vatican'
    Not only the Vatican but also the whole Christianity ...!