Finding Jesus Episode 2: “Inventing” John the Baptist

The latest episode of CNN’s Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery, a mini-series which aims to present “fascinating new insights into the historical Jesus, utilizing the latest scientific techniques and archaeological research,” focused on relics of John the Baptist. The episode was a sequel of sorts to a 2012 National Geographic documentary called The Head of John the Baptist, which examines claims that a set of bones found in Bulgaria belonged to John (details HERE). CNN followed the efforts of experts to authenticate another relic of John from Kansas City but derived some of its content for the episode from the NGS production and even included commentary by Candida Moss, who was featured prominently in the early documentary.

The Bulgarian bones were discovered in 2010 among the ruins of a fifth-century church on the island of Sveti Ivan (“Saint John” in Bulgarian). They were found mixed together with animal bones in a marble reliquary beneath the church altar. No name is on the box, but a portion of a smaller box found nearby in an older part of the church bears an inscription that reads, “Lord hep your servant Thomas…of Saint John…in the month of June 24th.” The date is significant as it is the traditional date of John the Baptist’s birthday. One theory has it that this Thomas brought the bones to Bulgaria in the small box and they were subsequently moved to the larger box. Unfortunately, the Finding Jesus episode mentions nothing about the smaller box, stating only that the bones were found in the reliquary and that they were believed to be John’s. Certainly the connection between the bones and John the Baptist is a stretch: we have a reliquary with bones, which may or may not be related to a smaller box likely not large enough to contain the bones but with an inscription that mentions John the Baptist. There’s no telling whose bones are in the reliquary; they could be from anyone. But scientific experts featured in the two documentaries have narrowed the possibilities somewhat; they established from the DNA that the bones belong to a man who died in the first century.

But what does this to do with Jesus? Well, the Gospel of Luke says that John was Jesus’ cousin (his mother Elizabeth and Mary are called “kinswomen”). So if we have DNA of John, we have some DNA of Jesus too. Kindof.

What do we know about the fate of John’s remains? The Gospels of Mark and Matthew report the famous story of John’s death (Mark 6:17-29; Matt 14:3-12). The story finishes with John’s disciples taking his body and laying it in a tomb. That is all. But there are a number of apocryphal texts about John the Baptist that provide more information about what happened to John’s remains. Unfortunately, little work has been done on these texts. Over a century ago Alexander Berendts (Die handschriftliche Überlieferung der Zacharias- und Johannes-Apokryphen [TU, N. F. 11/3; Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1904]) separated a number of them into five Greek recensions and two in Slavonic. Only one of these has been examined since Berendt’s day; English readers can find it in the forthcoming first volume of New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures (MNTA). My student Sarah Veale and I are working on three of the others (see below, items 1-3) for MNTA vol. 2. Berendt’s texts have been recategorized and supplemented by the Bollandists and are cataloged as following:

1. The martyrdom and perfection of the holy prophet Zacharias, the father of the Forerunner, by Eurippios, the disciple of John (CANT 180.1; BHG 831; also listed as BHG 1881m).
This text was not known to Berendts. It is extant in one manuscript: Cod. Messan. 30, fol. 9v-10v (dated 1307).
2. The testimony on the beheading of the holy John, the Forerunner, by Eurippios, the disciple of John (CANT 180.2; BHG 832; Berendts 2; related to Slav II).
This text is found in six manuscripts: Italy, Cod. Casin. 431 (11th cent.), Vat. gr. 1192 (15th cent.), Vat. gr. 1989 (12th cent.), Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, 770 (1315; listed also as BHG 833g), Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, 683 (9-10th cent.; listed also as BHG 833d); and Bodleian, Canonic. 19 (15/16th cent.; listed also as BHG 833e). The text was published from Cod. Casin. 431 in A. Vassiliev, Anecdota graeco-byzantina, pars prior (Moscow: Imperial University, 1893), 1-4.
3.The birth of the holy John, the Forerunner (CANT 180.3; BHG 833; Berendts 3).
Known in one manuscript: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Coislin 296 (12th cent.).
4.The birth and perfection of the holy John the Forerunner and Baptist and his father Zachariah (CANT 180.4; BHG 833f; Berendts 1).
Known in one manuscript: Cod. Athen. 1007 (17th cent.) and related to Slavic I.
5.The life and Martyrdom of John the Baptist (CANT 181; BHG 834; Berendts 5).
Extant in seven manuscripts, the most important being the palimpsest Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, suppl. gr. 480 (8th cent.). There are also eight Slavonic manuscripts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This text was edited by François Nau (“Histoire de saint Jean Baptiste attribuée à saint Marc l’Évangéliste,” PO [1908]: 521-41) and an English translation was prepared by Andrew Bernhard for MNTA vol. 1. The text is attributed to an unnamed disciple of John, but some manuscripts identify this disciples as Mark the Evangelist.
6. Simeon Metaphrastes, Lives of Saints (CANT 182; BHG 835-838; Berendts 4).
Extant in numerous manuscripts with varying contents. For more information see Berendts, Die handschriftliche Überlieferung, 12-15.

There are several additional accounts of John’s life and death available in other languages: the Latin compendium of lives of the saints, the Golden Legend (ed. 2 vols.; trans. William Granger Ryan [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993], 2:132-40); the Life of John the Baptist by Serapion, extant in Garshuni (also featured in MNTA vol. 1 in a new translation by Slavomír ?éplö); three Coptic encomia; and Solomon of Basra’s the Book of the Bee 41 in Syriac. For more on these texts, see my essay, “The New Testament and Other Early Christian Traditions in Serapion’s Life of John the Baptist,” in Christian Apocrypha: Receptions of the New Testament in Ancient Christian Apocrypha (ed. Jean-Michel Roessli and Tobias Nicklas; Novum Testamentum Patristicum; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014), 281-99.

The apocryphal John the Baptist texts all combine the traditions of John from the New Testament Gospels and the Protevangelium of James, and variously expand and add to these stories. The Life of John by Serapion is noteworthy for how it portrays Herodias as particularly culpable in orchestrating John’s death. It is her idea initially to silence John, and she starts Herod on his path to destroy Philip, thus allowing Herod to marry her openly. She continually moves the events on by using her seduction, “perform[ing] for him obscene acts and immoral artifices” (p. 249). And it is Herodias too who instructs Herod to arrest John. Finding Jesus similarly adds to Herodias’ culpability in its discussion of John’s death. Nicola Denzey Lewis states in the episode, “Herodias was a formidable character; she acts on her own desires, her own lusts, and breaks laws in doing so.” In the accompanying dramatization, Herodias tells Herod, “A man insults your wife and you let him get away with it? You’re not a man, you’re a coward!” She then tells Herod to arrest John and is shown later seething with anger and scheming as she watches Herod speaking to John in prison. Certainly the canonical Gospels (Matthew and Mark) portray Herodias as tricking Herod into beheading John, but we read nothing in the Bible about her motivations; Mark says only that “Herodias has a grudge against him” and that Herod considered him a “righteous and holy man” (Mark 6:19-20).

Many of the apocryphal accounts include a narrative of what happened to John’s remains, typically linking it to the establishment of a church in John’s name (for more on this common motive for the creation of late antique apocrypha see Paul C. Dilley, “The Invention of Christian Tradition: ‘Apocrypha,’ Imperial Policy, and Anti-Jewish Propaganda,” GRBS 50 [2010]: 586-615). In Life Mart. Bapt. (item 5) one of Herod’s guests is a secret disciple of John and asks for the head and he gives it to six of John’s disciples. They take it to Emesa and hide it in a cave. The text seems to have been written, at least in part, to provide justification for the apparent discovery of the head in Emesa in 453 C.E. by a monk named Marcellus (as reported in the Chronicle of Marcellinus). Another text, the Discovery of John the Baptist’s Head (not included above, but extant in Greek, Latin, Coptic, and Armenian) also supports the tale of this discovery, as does the Life of John by Serapion.

Perhaps so much effort was made to bolster this claim because the emperor Theodosius I had already used a head of the Baptist to consecrate a church built near Constantinople in 391 C.E. (See Sozomen, Hist. eccl. 7.21; Chron. Pasch. 391). And other heads of the Baptist are known to have resided in Damascus, Sebaste, Rome, and other locations. As for John’s other remains, the Life of John by Serapion (supported by Theodoret, the pilgrim Egeria, and Jerome) says they were buried in Sebaste, and there is a tomb of John there over which was built a cathedral. From Sebaste they were taken, upon the orders of Julian the Apostate (see Life of John; Theodoret, Hist. eccl. 1.3.7, and Philostorgius, Hist. eccl. 7.4), burnt, and scattered in the fields. The Life of John says they were rescued from the flames and brought to Alexandria and used to consecrate a church under the reign of Theophilus. This claim receives partial support in Rufinus of Aquileia, Hist. eccl. 2.28, which says some were taken to Alexandria and others to a new church on the mount of Olives in 370. Not all of the apocryphal texts agree about the ultimate fate of John’s remains. The Testimony on the beheading of the holy John (item 2 above) says that Elizabeth brought John’s body to Bethlehem and buried it with his father Zechariah; it then states, perhaps as a response to the Emesa and Alexandria traditions, that “the burial place of your husband and your son no-one will know.”

Relics of John the Baptist proliferated in medieval times, and Finding Jesus mentions at the start of the episode that by the fifteenth century there were over 200 relics of John held in locations throughout Europe. It turns out that the Kansas City relic is a fake—it was carbon-dated to the seventh century. Scholars are wise to be skeptical that any relics of early Christian figures are genuine. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see the interplay between late antique apocrypha and relic invention (from the Latin inventio, “discovery”). Though the canon was largely (though not entirely) settled in the fourth century, and though orthodox Christianity condemned texts valued by so-called “heretics” as “apocryphal” and spurious, members of the Church had no compunctions about creating their own texts to support relic-veneration, church-consecration, and pilgrimage.


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