Dan Brown’s tales of mystery and intrigue have dominated the bestseller lists for the last decade with their heady mix of crime, mystery and religion. But now a real life plot, so unlikely that even Brown could not have dared to imagine it, has come to light in Bulgaria.
Six small bones were said to be the remains of John the Baptist when they were dug up two years ago during excavations at a medieval monastery in Bulgaria, leading to laughter, ridicule and allegations of a scam. One of the bones was later stolen, presumably by a believer, but authorities were slow to act, declaring it ‘worthless’.
However, a research team led by Thomas Higham, an atheist professor from the University of Oxford, agreed to use carbon dating to test the veracity of the claims. Expectations were low, but, to their surprise the bones dated from the correct period, the first century AD. And they were all from the same man. And, even more surprising, this man came from what was then the ‘near east’.
Professor Higham said that there was little that could prove beyond doubt that the bones were, indeed, those of John the Baptist, but that it remains a distinct possibility. Believers have queued for hours to see the bones, on display in Sofia, and the results of the Oxford tests could make the city a renewed centre of pilgrimage for Christians from around the world.
One way of ‘proving’ whether these bones are indeed those of St John the Baptist is to conduct similar tests on other medieval relics – bones of St John the Baptist – which are stored in other churches throughout Europe.
The bones examined by the Oxford team were uncovered in July 2010 at a medieval monastery on Sveti Ivan, a Black Sea island near Sozopol. Three animal bones were also found in the sarcophagus. Also uncovered, close to the sarcophagus, was a small box made from hardened volcanic ash. It bears inscriptions in ancient Greek that refer to John the Baptist and his feast day, and text asking God to “help your servant Thomas”. The archaeologists believe that the bones probably came to Bulgaria via Antioch, an ancient Turkish city, where a relic which was said to be the right hand of John the Baptist was kept until the tenth century.
The Monastery on Sveti Ivan
Professor Higham concludes, however, that “The result from the metacarpal hand bone is clearly consistent with someone who lived in the early first century AD. Whether that person is John the Baptist is a question that we cannot yet definitely answer and probably never will.”
John’s bones are not the only relics to have caused controversy. In medieval Europe, one of the most controversial relics in medieval Europe was the foreskin of Christ, known as the Holy Prepuce. No fewer than 18 were in circulation during the middle ages. Frederick III of Saxony acquired more than 5000 relics in an attempt to shorten his time in purgatory, including a strand of Christ’s beard, threads from the Virgin Mary’s veil and a twig from the burning bush. The priciest relic was probably the crown of thorns, acquired by Louis IX for nearly half of France’s annual budget.
Relics are one of the most fascinating and powerful legacies from the Middle Ages. They are also some of the most difficult objects for modern day audiences to understand. Oxford Royale Academy offers an adult summer course that explores the philosophy of religion and structures of belief. For more details of the Interface between Religion, Science and Philosophy course, click here. This is one of our few remaining adult summer courses with any capacity, so don’t delay!