By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) - Bulgaria's claim to have unearthed six bones belonging to John the Baptist has received a boost from scientists who have concluded after dating them and analyzing their genetic code that they could indeed be relics of the man who baptized Jesus.
The remains, which include a molar and a piece of cranium, were found in July 2010 in a marble sarcophagus 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.
They are on display in a church in Sozopol where thousands of worshippers have flocked to view them, untroubled by questions about their authenticity.
"When I first heard this story in 2010 I thought it was a bit of a joke, to be honest," said Tom Higham of the University of Oxford's Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, one of the world's top laboratories for carbon dating of archaeological material.
Higham's team dated a knuckle-bone to the first century AD, when John the Baptist would have lived, while geneticist colleagues from the University of Copenhagen established the full DNA code of three of the bones.
The genetic analysis showed that the bones were from the same person, a man who most probably came from the Middle East.
Higham, who is an atheist, said that it was obviously impossible to say with any certainty that the remains belonged to John the Baptist. But it could not be ruled out.
"I'm much less skeptical than I was at the beginning. I think there's possibly more to it. But I'd like to find out more," he told Reuters on Friday.
12 HANDS AND SIX HEADS
Relics of saints or fragments of the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified, according to Christian tradition, have been a powerful draw for pilgrims and tourists for centuries. Thousands of such relics can be found in churches across Europe.
But skeptics have always dismissed these items as a scam to lure the credulous, and some joke that if all the bones said to have belonged to John the Baptist were authentic the Biblical figure would have had 12 hands and six heads.
Higham plans to apply for funding to analyze purported John the Baptist relics from other places to see if any of them came from the same individual whose remains were found on Sveti Ivan.
"I look at this as a bit of fun. I'm not a hard core ecclesiastical researcher. I actually study Neanderthals and stuff like that, older stuff," said Higham.
"But I'm really interested in applying radio carbon dating more widely to find out information about the past."
John the Baptist, who is revered in Christianity and Islam, announced the coming of Jesus and baptized him in the River Jordan. The Gospels say King Herod had him beheaded.
Oxford archaeologist Georges Kazan, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the movement of relics in the 5th and 6th centuries, said that there was historical evidence to support the claim that the Sveti Ivan remains could be authentic.
The evidence includes a small box made from volcanic tuff, or consolidated ash, which was found next to the bones and is inscribed with John's name and his feast day in Ancient Greek.
The tuff came from Cappadocia, in modern Turkey, which was one of the routes used to take purported relics from the Holy Land to Constantinople, now Istanbul, where in the 5th and 6th centuries Eastern Roman Emperors were keen to acquire them.
The emperors, who were copied by pious aristocrats, wanted relics for devotional purposes or to be buried with them.
"They were often bestowed as a sign of favor. The monastery of Sveti Ivan may well have received a portion of relics as a gift from a patron, a member of Constantinople's elite," said Kazan, adding that the island was an easy distance from the Byzantine capital on a major Black Sea trading route.
(Additional reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia; Editing by Jon Hemming)