A great number of churches have the relics of some past saint which may or may not be genuine.  Louis IX of France spent something like half of the French annual budget to purchase the crown of thorns worn by Jesus (I wonder?) and Frederick III of Saxony had a massive collection including supposedly a whisker from Jesus beard, threads from the Virgin Mary’s veil and a twig from the burning bush.


Many such relics are kept hidden in very fancy boxes but on a holiday to the former Yugoslavia, now Croatia, I remember visiting the massive parish church of St. Blaise, Vodnjan capable of holding 5000 worshippers.  Here relics were displayed behind glass and these were certainly not for the squeemish, being the mummified remains of six Italian saints dating back to the 12th century but which had been placed there for safety in the early 19th century. One, St. Nicolosa, a Benedictine Nun who died in 1512 is well reputed to have healing properties and it is said that there have been 50 miraculous cures in close proximity of her body.  I won’t go into further descriptions of her and her fellows but let’s just say that whilst St Nicolosa is thought to be the best preserved mummy in Europe none of them were a very pretty sight.


Three years ago six small bones were dug up in a monastery on the Bulgarian island of Sveti Ivan - St. John which were said to be be bones from the hand of St. John the Baptist.  Also uncovered, close to the sarcophagus in which the bones were found was a small box made from hardened volcanic ash bearing inscriptions in ancient Greek that refer to John the Baptist and his feast day, and text asking God to “help your servant Thomas”. The archaeologists believe that the bones probably came to Bulgaria via Antioch, an ancient Turkish city, where a relic which was said to be the right hand of John the Baptist was kept until the tenth century.


A research team led by Thomas Higham, an atheist professor from the University of Oxford, agreed to use carbon dating to test the veracity of the claims. Expectations were low, but in June 2012 published their report.  To their surprise the bones dated from the correct period, the first century AD. And they were all from the hand of the same man. And, even more surprising, this man came from what was then the ‘near east’.


Professor Higham said that there was little that could prove beyond doubt that the bones were, indeed, those of John the Baptist, but that it remains a distinct possibility. Believers have queued for hours to see the bones, on display in Sofia, and the results of the Oxford tests could make the city a renewed centre of pilgrimage for Christians from around the world.

Roger Stapenhill

Who’s In Your Church

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