'John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist, and his diet was locusts and wild honey. And he was preaching, and saying, "After me One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."' Mark 1: 6-8
John, the cousin of Jesus of Nazareth, is the first name mentioned (other than the name of Jesus himself) in what is commonly believed to be the earliest of the Gospels. Despite a lot of information contained in the New Testament about John the Baptist, there is little external evidence that he ever lived.
Certainly, he is mentioned in Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.109ff where Josephus confirms that John the Baptist was "put to death" by Herod. The relevant language reads:
Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God as a just punishment of what Herod had done against John, who was called the Baptist. For Herod had killed this good man, who had commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God. For only thus, in John's opinion, would the baptism he administered be acceptable to God, namely, if they used it to obtain not pardon for some sins but rather the cleansing of their bodies, inasmuch as it was taken for granted that their souls had already been purified by justice.
Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words. Herod, who feared that the great influence John had over the masses might put them into his power and enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best to put him to death. In this way, he might prevent any mischief John might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late.
To my knowledge, unlike the famous testament about Jesus in Josephus' writings, this rather unremarkable passage about John has not had its authenticity brought into question. Thus, Josephus as a contemporary historian seems to confirm that John the Baptist (who he says was called "the Baptist" in Antiquities) was a true historical figure.
But what happened to John's body? The Catholic Encyclopedia notes,
[John the Baptist's] burial-place has been fixed by an old tradition at Sebaste (Samaria). But if there be any truth in Josephus's assertion, that John was put to death at Machaerus, it is hard to understand why he was buried so far from the Herodian fortress. Still, it is quite possible that, at a later date unknown to us, his sacred remains were carried to Sebaste. At any rate, about the middle of the fourth century, his tomb was there honoured, as we are informed on the testimony of Rufinus and Theodoretus. These authors add that the shrine was desecrated under Julian the Apostate (c. A.D. 362), the bones being partly burned. A portion of the rescued relics were carried to Jerusalem, then to Alexandria; and there, on 27 May, 395, these relics were laid in the gorgeous basilica just dedicated to the Precursor on the site of the once famous temple of Serapis. The tomb at Sebaste continued, nevertheless, to be visited by pious pilgrims, and St. Jerome bears witness to the miracles there wrought. Perhaps some of the relics had been brought back to Sebaste. Other portions at different times found their way to many sanctuaries of the Christian world, and long is the list of the churches claiming possession of some part of the precious treasure. What became of the head of the Precursor is difficult to determine. Nicephorus (I, ix) and Metaphrastes say Herodias had it buried in the fortress of Machaerus; others insist that it was interred in Herod's palace at Jerusalem; there it was found during the reign of Constantine, and thence secretly taken to Emesa, in Phoenicia, where it was concealed, the place remaining unknown for years, until it was manifested by revelation in 453. In the many and discordant relations concerning this relic, unfortunately much uncertainty prevails; their discrepancies in almost every point render the problem so intricate as to baffle solution. This signal relic, in whole or in part, is claimed by several churches, among them Amiens, Nemours, St-Jean d'Angeli (France), S. Silvestro in Capite (Rome). This fact Tillemont traces to a mistaking of one St. John for another, an explanation which, in certain cases, appears to be founded on good grounds and accounts well for this otherwise puzzling multiplication of relics.
But perhaps we have come to the end of the line after all. According to a recent news account the bones of John the Baptist have been discovered. In an article entitled John the Baptist's Bulgaria Remains Found, Newsoxy reports:
Archaeologists in Bulgaria believe they have found the remains of John the Baptist. John the Baptist remains were found near the Bulgarian city of Sozopol.
Archaeologists investigating the Sv. Ivan (St. John) island off Sozopol have found an exquisite reliquary, a relic urn, built in the altar of an ancient church bearing the name of St. John the Baptist. The reliquary has the shape of a sarcophagus and is dated end of 4th - beginning of 5th c. AD. It was discovered by the team of Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov.
The church's name, as well as the fact that it had a special emperor's statute issued, has hinted to archaeologists that it might actually contain St. John's relics.
A related article carried by KRQE news in Albuquerque entitled John the Baptist remains found? suggests that a date found written on the urn adds further confirmation that the bones are those of John the Baptist.
A reliquary - a container for holy relics - discovered last week under the monastery's basilica was opened on Sunday and found to contain bone fragments of a skull, a hand and a tooth, Bulgaria's official news agency BTA reported.
Excavation leader Kazimir Popkonstantinov lifted the reliquary's lid in a ceremony in the coastal town of Sozopol attended by dignitaries including the Bishop of Sliven, Yoanikii, and Bozhidar Dimitrov, a government minister and director of Bulgaria's National History Museum, BTA said.
Further tests on the fragments are due to be carried out. But Popkonstantinov is convinced the relics belong to John the Baptist because of a Greek inscription on the reliquary referring to June 24, the date when Christians celebrate John the Baptist's birth, according to the website of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
A later monastery on the island, built in the 11th century, was dedicated to John the Baptist - "Sveti Ivan" means "St. John" in Bulgarian and other Slavic languages. Popkonstantinov told Bulgarian news agency Focus that it was possible the earlier basilica was also dedicated to the saint.
I remain skeptical that the remains are necessarily those of John the Baptist. I certainly believe that it is likely that these remains are remains that were identified as the remains of John the Baptist by some early church. Nevertheless, given the fact that these remains may be yet another archaeological confirmation (to be added to the vast number of other archaeological confirmations already found) for the veracity of the Bible, I wanted to get the information out.