Professor Kasimir Popkonstantinov and the marble reliquary that potentially held John the Baptist’s bones.

Can We Ever Find Jesus’s DNA?

(Read the article on one page)

It was the first stop on an extraordinary journey. On a bright but bitterly cold January afternoon earlier this year, I found myself on a small island in the Black Sea, just off Sozopol on the east coast of Bulgaria. Sveti Ivan has long been a destination for travellers: it boasted a temple of Apollo in ancient times. But I was there to speak to an old Bulgarian archaeologist about the most important find of his career.

In 2010, Kasimir Popkonstantinov discovered what he believes are the bones of one of the most famous of all saints: John the Baptist. I was interested in what DNA analysis could tell us about these bones, and other ones. Together with biblical scholar Joe Basile, I was travelling around the world filming a  documentary about the religious and scientific evidence linking archaeological artefacts to Jesus Christ himself.

Popkonstantinov made his discovery when excavating a sixth century church on the island, built on top of a basilica from the century before. As he carefully scraped through the mud where the altar would have been, he came across a stone slab and was amazed to find a small marble box underneath. He immediately knew what it was. For a church to be consecrated in this part of Europe in the fifth century, it needed to contain a relic from a holy saint or religious person. This box, known as a reliquary, would have housed such a relic.

He continued to dig around and found another, smaller box about a metre away. On the edge of the inferior box was an inscription: “May God save you, servant Thomas. To Saint John.” When Kasimir later opened the reliquary, he found five bone fragments. The epitaph on the smaller box, probably used to carry the bones when travelling, was the key piece of evidence that led him to believe that the bones could perhaps be those of John the Baptist. The finding is hugely important, partly because John the Baptist was both a disciple of Jesus and his cousin – meaning they would share DNA.

Early morning on the Mount of Olives looking over the old city of Jeruasalem

Early morning on the Mount of Olives looking over the old city of Jeruasalem. George Busby

Thanks to a number of scientific advances, the field of ancient DNA – the extraction and analysis of genetic material from bones and fossils of organisms dug up out of the ground – is booming. We now have DNA sequences from hundreds of people who are long since dead, and analysis of these sequences is further refining our understanding of human history.

DNA as proof of identity

I was initially sceptical about what the Bulgarian bones could teach us. For a start, no DNA test can prove that these were bits of John the Baptist, Jesus or any other specific person. We can’t extract and analyse an unknown DNA sample and magically say that it belonged to this or that historical character. To do that, we’d need to have a DNA sample that unambiguously came from John the Baptist that we could compare the bones to. So sequencing DNA in itself is not going to be too helpful.

Another major consideration is the risk of contamination. In an ideal scenario, ancient material we want to use for genetic analysis should be untouched by anyone since that person had died. The best ancient samples are dug out of the ground, put into a bag, and then sent straight to an ancient DNA lab. In the 500 years between John’s death and the bones being sealed in the church, any number of people could have handled them and left their DNA behind.

But this doesn’t mean that all is lost. DNA degrades over time, so we can test any DNA extracted from ancient remains for telltale signs of degradation. That means we can differentiate modern contamination from ancient genomes. We can also try to take DNA from the inside of bones and sequence DNA from the people who are known to have come into contact with the artefacts to help tell the ancient DNA and modern contaminants apart.

What DNA can tell you

DNA should be used as an additional tool to archaeology. In my opinion, there are two clear benefits that the analysis of DNA can bring to this particular party. We can compare the DNA from a relic to DNA from other relics. If we find other relics purported to be from John the Baptist, or a close relative like Jesus, then we could use genetics to compare the two to see if they are likely to have come from the same or related people. Also, we have growing collections of DNA sampled from people around the world, which we can use to make a guess on the geographical origins of the relics.

Comments

The author states “John the Baptist was both a disciple of Jesus and his cousin” while the latter part of the statement is true, the first is not. Although there is no proof, since the Bible doesn’t say either way, it is possible that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist. I found the explanation of DNA result and extraction to be easily understood by a lay person and I agree that no one can guarantee that these are the bones of John the Baptist. It is possible that John’s bones, if they were originally in the box, could have been stolen and replaced by the bones of anybody. Also, if I’m not mistaken, the James as a brother of Jesus inscription was deemed a forgery. Of course, this doesn't mean that the bones are not the aforementioned James, just that the inscription doesn’t prove that it is. Also, the inscription on the box that might seems ambiguous to me, could the bones be from St. Thomas, also suspected the be a brother of Jesus?

The author has certainly set himself a daunting task sifting through 2000 yrs of questionable evidence to link to a mythological figure, one of dozens of dying and resurrecting gods. Good luck with that.

I doubt that he was mythological in the sense that he didn't exist. Josephus, who lived at about that time, mentioned both Jesus and James - and James was the more important figure in those works. A recently discovered, very early copy of his works without the "Messiah" remarks would tend to indicate those passages were not later interpolations.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Myths & Legends

Open Book Photo
A legend is a tale regarded as historical even though it has not been proven, and the term “myth” can refer to common yet false ideas. Many myths and legends describe our history, but they are often treated skeptically. This is because many of them, while explaining a phenomenon, involve divine or supernatural beings.

Human Origins

Noah's Sacrifice - watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot
The imperfect state of archaeological researches in the Near East impedes any definite identification of the original race or races that created the earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. According to Gordon Childe, however, the predominant racial element in the earliest graves in the region from Elam to the Danube is the ‘Mediterranean’.

Ancient Technology

Invention of Wheel - Sumer
In today’s world, technology is developing at an unprecedented rate. The latest gadget today is tomorrow’s antique. As a result of this rapid development of technology, we often take things for...

Ancient Places

Google Earth image of manmade stone structures in Saudi Arabia
Deep in the heart of Saudi Arabia, 400 peculiar stone structures have been found, dating back thousands of years ago. These stone features were discovered by archaeologists with the use of satellite imagery, identifying what they call stone "gates" in an extremely unwelcome and harsh area of the Arabian Peninsula.

Opinion

The ancient and mysterious Sphinx, Giza, Egypt.
In 1995, NBC televised a prime-time documentary hosted by actor Charlton Heston and directed by Bill Cote, called Mystery of the Sphinx. The program centered on the research and writings of John Anthony West, a (non-academic) Egyptologist, who, along with Dr. Robert Schoch, a professor of Geology at Boston University, made an astounding discovery on the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article