The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Friday, August 13, 2010

John the Baptist's Bones? In Bulgaria?

Once again I've encountered another archaeological tidbit of the kind that always intrigues me. For the past few weeks I've been reading articles in the internet media about a team of Bulgarian archaeologists who believe they might have uncovered the bones of St. John the Baptist in a fifth century monastery located on a Black Sea island off the coast of southern Bulgaria. (Here's a link to one of the articles: John the Baptist's Bones

To most of us Bulgaria might seem an unlikely place to find the bones of this great prophet, but in the early days of the Church the relics of Christian saints were as mobile as the living Christians who, like St. Paul, were able to move easily about the Roman Empire. And so it's certainly possible that relics from first-century Palestine could have made their way to Bulgaria, which really isn't all that far, less than 1,000 miles as the crow flies, from Jerusalem.

As for the relics themselves, well, the Gospel tells us that John had a large and loyal following, so we might expect some of his followers to remove a bone or two from his tomb. And if they didn't do so, the early Christians certainly might have taken some during the first few hundred years of Christianity. As we know from St. Helena's Holy Land excavations in the early 4th century, Christians had in interest in relics almost from the beginning.

Apparently the belief that the bones belong to St. John the Baptist stems from fact that they were found in a reliquary under the altar in a monastery dedicated to the saint. The archaeologists also found a small sandstone box next to the reliquary bearing a Greek inscription that reads, "God, save your servant Thomas. To St John. June 24." The June date is that traditionally celebrated as the nativity of St. John the Baptist. I suppose they could be John's bones, but it's certainly not definitive evidence. Anyway, it's all very interesting.
The ancient monastery and adjacent church where the relics were found
The Orthodox Church is, of course, predominant in Bulgaria, so they're the folks who will presumably evaluate the relics' authenticity. But it won't be easy. The discovery and subsequent statements made by some of the archaeologists and others involved in the find have already generated no small amount of controversy. Many other archaeologists have characterized the claims that the relics are authentic as premature at best. The fur always flies when scientists disagree.
The bones and reliquary
As one might expect, the Vatican has taken a diplomatic wait-and-see attitude. A spokesman for the Vatican Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology stated that alleged relics of St. John the Baptist number in the thousands, and that the commission would "wait until a more thorough study has been conducted" before expressing an opinion. My guess is that it will be a few decades before we hear from them on this one.

Of course, this isn't the only place that claims to possess St. John's bones. Indeed, a mosque in Damascus and the cathedral in Amiens, France both claim to have his head. My money's on the French. Although I noticed that the bones found in Bulgaria are said to include part of the saint's skull, so this could complicate things even more. It seems that sorting out relics can be a challenge.

One of the more interesting articles covering this story appeared in the Wall Street Journal's online edition in which the Bulgarians' assurances of the relics' authenticity is attributed to their desire to boost the economy by making the island and the nearby city of Sozopol a major site for future pilgrims. According to the Journal, "Tens of millions of dollars have already been earmarked to prepare for an anticipated surge in visitors. Construction crews are enlarging the port and building a big new parking lot. Tour guides are being rewritten and new signs are going up to direct people to the relics." Better make your reservations now before the hotel and B&B rates shoot through the roof.

But my favorite quote is from a Sozopol woman named Milenna Dimitrova, a local fruit vendor for over 20 years. Business is so good, she told a reporter, that she doesn't have time to go to church. "The season was awful before—this is clearly a gift from God," she said. There seems to be a mixed message in there someplace.

If you'd like to check out this little island -- about 1/2 square mile in size -- and its monastery you can view it on Google Earth. Just do a search for "St. Ivan Island, Sozopol, Bulgaria". It's not the highest resolution satellite view, but it's good enough to show the island's one building, which I assume is perhaps the contemporary monastery. 
St. John Island near Sozopol, Bulgaria
It will be interesting to see how this all plays out, after carbon dating and palaeography and perhaps even DNA testing are complete. We'll probably never know for certain if these are truly John the Baptist's bones but, in the meantime, I hope they bring people back into the churches of Eastern Europe. And, who knows? They might also pull Bulgaria out of its economic doldrums.

St. John the Baptist pray for us.

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