Aug. 4) — Archaeologists in Bulgaria claimed to have located a sarcophagus containing the bones of John the Baptist, drawing enthusiasm from politicians but doubts from some experts.
An ancient alabaster reliquary, a box for relics, was found embedded in an altar at the ruins of a fifth-century monastery on the tiny Black Sea island of Sveti Ivan. On Sunday, the excavation’s leader, Kazimir Popkonstantinov, carefully pried open the miniature casket at a ceremony attended by local government figures and an Eastern Orthodox bishop in the nearby coastal town of Sozopol.
Inside, researchers found parts of a cranium, tooth and arm bone, according to Bulgarian news agency Novinite. Further tests are now being carried out on the remains, and the country’s culture minister, Vezhdi Rashidov, declared that people should wait for results before making “emotional statements” about the identity of the bones’ original owner.
But Popkonstantinov is convinced that the fragments belong to Jesus’ baptizer, largely because a Greek inscription on the 8-inch-long, 4-inch-high and 4-inch-wide reliquary mentions June 24, the date Orthodox and Catholic Christians celebrate John the Baptist’s birth.
According to Bozhidar Dimitrov, former director of the country’s National History Museum and now diaspora minister, that inscription goes on to detail how the bones ended up on the Black Sea isle.
“[It says that] some time in the fifth century a man named Toma transferred the holy relics exactly on the birthday of St. John the Forerunner,” he told Novinite. “Professor Kazimir Popkonstantinov … is a rare and lucky man. It is very seldom that one would find an inscription, and in archaeology the inscription is considered the most authentic proof.”
Dimitrov added that he believed church leaders in Constantinople — now Istanbul, but then the capital of the vast Byzantine Empire — donated the relics, as many of the city’s patriarchs started their religious careers at the island monastery.
Other clues to the body parts’ owner lie in the island’s name, Sveti Ivan, which means Saint John in Bulgarian and other Slavic languages. The rocky outcrop acquired that name in the 11th century when a new monastery was built and dedicated to John the Baptist. But Popkonstantinov told news agency Focus that it was possible the earlier, fifth-century basilica — abandoned between the seventh and ninth centuries — “could also have been dedicated to Saint John.”
Certainly, the monks who originally inhabited the isle must have believed that the remains belonged to an important Christian figure or they would have never housed them in the altar, a place of real honor. And John the Baptist is considered an especially important saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church, which regards him as the last of the Old Testament prophets before the coming of Jesus.
Some experts, however, have cast doubt on the find, noting that since John was first buried in northern Israel around 36 A.D., dozens of sites around the world have claimed possession of significant chunks of his corpse. For example, Damascus’ Umayyad Mosque, once a Christian church, says it has the holy man’s head, but Munich’s Residenz Museum also argues it owns the divine brain box — famously chopped off by King Herod at Salome’s request — which it displays on a pearl-lined pillow.
Bulgaria now plans a similarly grand setting for its own bones. On Thursday, they’ll be installed at Sozopol’s Church of Saint George — also home to a (supposed) piece of the cross Jesus was crucified on, and relics of St. Andrew — after being paraded through the town’s streets. Dimitrov, a Sozopol resident, told Focus he hoped this new relic would make the town a “second Jerusalem” and lead to a surge in “pilgrim tourism.”