The skulls, plural, of John the Baptist

The tomb of John in Damascus

Breaking news from Bulgaria: archaeologists excavating a monastery devoted to John the Baptist have discovered a skull, a hand and a tooth, which they believe to be relics of the famous Jewish prophet who “prophesied the birth of Christ and baptized Jesus in the River Jordan”.

The journalist has obviously messed up the information. It’s not really necessary to mention that they’ve found a tooth after you’ve already mentioned the skull, of course, and John did of course not predict the birth of Christ; he was one of the first to recognize that Jesus was the Christ. You don’t have to be an archaeologist or historian to do this right.

But there’s another problem. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that you indeed find the bones of John. Then it is inevitable that people won’t believe you, because the famous skull is already venerated in Rome and Damascus. Both places of worship, the Lateran basilica and the Umayyad Mosque, are very well-known. There are also relics in the Topkapi museum in Istanbul. So, if you want to sound convincing, you must at least address the question that your reader will immediately ask: “But aren’t those bones somewhere else?”

Our archaeologists would have done a better job explaining their discovery – which is sufficiently interesting to report to the press – if they had said something like: “Well, similar relics can be found on other places, and of course it is impossible to prove that one of them is really John, because we don’t have a sample of the man’s DNA. However, this skull is very old indeed, and so we will do some additional testing to see whether it’s from the first century.” Readers would see their doubts addressed, would recognize the doubts that are characteristic of a true scholar, and would not be left puzzled. The present report, although it does mention further tests, will only add to people’s doubts about the professionality of modern archaeology.

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