Home » Archaeology, Epigraphy » John the Baptist and the Reliquary of ‘Sveti Ivan’ : Methodological Reflections

John the Baptist and the Reliquary of ‘Sveti Ivan’ : Methodological Reflections

This article is a slightly revised (June 2012) version of a post published here in August 2010, at the time of the initial press release. Fortunately, the most recent press reports (June 2012) are more circumspect and cautious than those of two years ago. Furthermore, please allow me to emphasize here that these excavations are useful and impressive, with some significant archaeological material culture having been excavated. Nevertheless, the conclusion must still be that there is no good evidence to suggest that these bones are probably those of John the Baptist.

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I. Summary of the Salient Details of the ‘Sveti Ivan’ Excavation and the Claims regarding the Reliquary

A portion of a small island known as ‘Sveti Ivan’ (a Bulgarian term that means “Saint John”) has been the site of excavations for a number of years. This island is located in the Black Sea, about a kilometer from the Bulgarian town of Sozopol, one of the oldest on Bulgaria’s southern coast. Kazimir Popkonstantinov is the director of the excavations on Sveti Ivan. Aerial images reveal that there are (at least) two prominent sets of monumental archaeological remains on the island. These have been affirmed to be the remains of: (1) a church of ca. the 6th century CE; (2) and a monastery (and church) of ca. the 13th and 14th centuries CE.

Under the ruins of the 6th century church are the remains of an older basilica, and these older remains have been dated to ca. the 5th century CE. It was in the ruins of this older basilica that a reliquary was found. (1) The reliquary’s measurements are ca. 20.5 cm. x 12.5. cm. x. 14.5 cm. The reliquary is reported to have been made of alabaster. Within this reliquary were found bone fragments (six human bones and three animals bones), and the human bones included portions of a skull, a hand, a tooth, a rib, and an arm bone. (2) Near the reliquary was a small sandstone box measuring ca. 4 cm. x 6 cm. On this small sandstone box is a Greek inscription that reportedly says “May God save you, servant Thomas. To Saint John, June 24.”

Popkonstantinov had stated (in 2010) that the inscription is the “key” to the interpretation of the finds. That is, based on this inscription, he has stated that the remains found in the alabaster reliquary may very well be those of John the Baptist, a figure of the Greek New Testament.

II. Summary of the Salient Features of the Greek New Testament’s Statements regarding John the Baptist

Although New Testament scholarship has cogently argued for more than a century that the New Testament documents are not historical in all of their details, it has been argued convincingly that certain things can be known about John the Baptist with a high degree of historical certainty. Namely, (1) He was a Jewish Apocalypticist of the 1st century CE; (2) He was connected in some fashion with a movement surrounding Jesus of Nazareth; (3) John the Baptist was imprisoned in the Galilee by Herod Antipas (note: Herod was the Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea from ca. 4 BCE to ca. 39 CE). (4) John was martyred by Herod Antipas, arguably some time between 26 CE and 30 CE. (5) John had followers (referred to in Greek as mathetai) and these followers buried John the Baptist after he was killed, arguably (according to the Marcan tradition), in a tomb (for these details, see Mark 6:14-29; Matt 14:1-12; Luke 9:7-9; for the birth narratives of John the Baptist, see Luke 1; for his apocalyptic message, see Mark 1:2-8; Matt 3:1-12; Luke 3:1-20). (6) Josephus has some material about John, but this material does not alter the details about John the Baptist that I have noted here.

III. A Critique of Popkonstantinov’s (2010) Arguments, and any similar arguments made now in 2012

1. John the Baptist was buried in a tomb in Palestine, arguably in the Galilee (where he died). (2) John the Baptist died during the early 1st century CE. Therefore, without some compelling evidence for the moving of the body (or portions thereof) of John the Baptist (centuries later!) from the place of burial in Palestine, it is not cogent or prudent to propose that the remains found on a small island in the Black Sea, in the archaeological ruins of a basilica of the 5th century CE, are those of a Palestinian Jews named John the Baptist who lived, died, and was buried in the 1st century CE, in Palestine.

3. To be sure, Popkonstantinov has argued (2010) that the inscription on the sandstone box near the reliquary is the “key” to his interpretation. However, this is not particularly convincing. After all, the inscription certainly does *not* state that “these are the remains of John the Baptist.” 4. The date of June 24th is one of the feast days for John the Baptist (e.g., within Orthodox Christianity), but this cannot be construed as evidence that the bones themselves are actually those of John (indeed, the date of the founding of this church would argue against this, as the church was founded centuries after the death and burial of John the Baptist). 5. Furthermore, the inscription is not on the reliquary (where the bones were found), but rather, they are on a sandstone box that was found *near* the reliquary. One might propose that the bones are those of a certain man named “Thomas,” but even this is not necessarily the case, for a number of reasons (not the least of which is the fact that the reliquary and sandstone box need not have belonged to the same person or been deposited at precisely the same time in the basilica).

6. Mostly, the inscription strikes me as a plea of a pious believer from the island of Sveti Ivan to a famed patron saint, namely, a plea to John the Baptist. That’s it. That’s the way I would interpret the totality of the evidence.

7. Note that Popkonstantinov had stated (2010) that he knew of no DNA database for the relatives of John the Baptist. This is correct…there is certainly *not* such a database of DNA data for the relatives of John the Baptist. 8. Of course, carbon tests have recently been done on three of the human bone fragments, and these are ostensibly helpful in establishing the basic chronological horizon for the interred remains (assuming they have not been handled so much that carbon dating will be very difficult or almost impossible), but even these sort of data can do no more than suggest that these bones came from the same basic chronological horizon as John the Baptist. That’s a far cry from demonstrating that these are the actual bones of John the Baptist.

Ultimately, I would contend that for someone to suggest that these bones could be those of John the Baptist, a figure of 1st century CE Palestine, is tenuous in the extreme. In this connection I should note that Popkonstantinov (knowing that his understanding of the evidence is strained to the breaking point) was quoted as saying (in 2010): “Here, I believe, the science stops. Since we cannot prove the attribution of any of the relics with scientific methods, we have to be tolerant of those who want to believe that they are” (Popkonstantinov). I would gently suggest, though, that archaeological and literary analyses are about evidence, not about authority, faith, or piety. Thus, with all due respect, it is necessary to state that Popkonstantinov’s conclusions do not follow from the evidence.

IV. For the Sake of Argument, Here are the Sort of Data that would be Needed for Popkonstantinov’s Case.

1. A reliable ancient tradition, preferably from the late(r) 1st century or very early 2nd century CE, stating that the bones of John the Baptist had been moved to an island in the Black Sea; 2. An inscription on the burial box that stated something like “The bones of John the Baptist” (i.e., name and title…something such as “John” would not be sufficient); 3. A palaeographic date for the inscription itself that was late 1st century or very early 2nd century (after all, arguably no one in later centuries would be able to locate precisely the burial site of John the Baptist in Palestine and it may be that even in the late 1st century no one would have been able to have done so!). (4) Carbon 14 dating of the bones that yielded a 1st century CE date. We now have a carbon date which is helpful, but without the other data just outlined above (numbers 1-3), the carbon dates cannot be considered particularly useful in identifying the remains, even if they do come from the same basic chronological horizon. 5. Thus, in light of the general dearth of necessary data, it is necessary to conclude that these bones are not those of John the Baptist himself.

Sincerely,

Christopher Rollston

Archaeology, Epigraphy

3 Comments to “John the Baptist and the Reliquary of ‘Sveti Ivan’ : Methodological Reflections”

  1. Thanks for a wonderful and authoritative article, Chris. Minor comment: “John the Baptist was imprisoned in the Galilee by Herod Antipas”; according to Josephus, it was Machaerus, which I think is in Perea? (Ant. 18.5.2). This is also relevant to the comment ” John the Baptist was buried in a tomb in Palestine, arguably in the Galilee (where he died).”

    Also your points 2, 4 and 5 and 8 have got merged in with the previous paragraphs and I think want line-breaks.

  2. [...] assessment, complete with suggestions about what sorts of data might be needed to make the case, is offered by Christopher Rollston. Mark Goodacre, John Byron, Michael Heiser, Jim West, and Dienekes’ Anthropology Blog have [...]

  3. Thanks for the comments, corrections, Mark. All best wishes, Chris.

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