St. John the Baptist in Bulgaria?

Head of St. John the Baptist, by Andrea del Sarto, c. 1523

Now how did he end up there?  And is it even him?

Archaeologists working on an island just off the town of Sozopol, Bulgaria, announced earlier this week that they had found an ancient reliquary in the altar of an old church named for St. John the Baptist (the island, too, is named for the Baptist). The reliquary, shaped like an urn, was opened today and seems to contain bone fragments from an arm and a leg.

Of course, the mere presence of bone fragments is no proof at all that St. John the Baptist is involved. The fact that the church and the island are named for him constitute better proof – that there is some connection between location and saint. Such a connection often results in a special devotion to the saint in question. Age is another important element. The church that the archaeologists are digging around in dates from the 4th century or so, and Sozopol has a long Christian history. It was home to a Bishop Athanasius as early as 431. It clearly wasn’t just any Christian settlement.

The relics discovered could be those of St. John. It certainly is not unheard of that relics travel long distances after a saint’s death. The Baptist was beheaded not long after he baptised Jesus, so very early in the first century. His followers, who would later merge into the followers of Jesus, buried his body after it was released to them (Matthew 4:12). It is not inconceivable that they later took relics with them on their travels to spread the news of Christ. Sozopol, being on the coast of the Black Sea, would have been in easy reach of merchants from Greece and modern Turkey, and so it could have been an inviting location to introduce the Christian faith.

All elements that point at the possibility of the relics belonging to St. John the Baptist. But the fact is that we don’t know. Not yet, at least.

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