A team of researchers believe a knuckle bone found buried beneath a Bulgarian church may belong to John the Baptist, the New Testament prophet who heralded the ministry of Jesus.
The archaeologists from Oxford University were surprised that the bones dated from the first century AD, the time of John's life, and the DNA was consistent with a person of Near East heritage.
Scientists cautioned that although the bones discovered in a marble sarcophagus on the remote Black Sea island Sveti Ivan, Bulgarian for John the Baptist, bare intriguing similarities to those belonging to the biblical martyr it is impossible to conclusively prove they are John's remains.
"We were surprised when the radiocarbon dating produced this very early age. We had suspected that the bones may have been more recent than this, perhaps from the third or fourth centuries. However, the result from the metacarpal hand bone is clearly consistent with someone who lived in the early first century AD," said Oxford archaeologist Thomas Higham in a statement.
"Whether that person is John the Baptist is a question that we cannot yet definitely answer and probably never will," he said.
When first excavating the site two years ago, Bulgarian researchers discovered alongside the sarcophagus another small box made from volcanic ash and bearing an ancient Greek inscription referencing John and his feast day as well as a personal prayer asking God to "help your servant Thomas."
Researchers believe Thomas may have been the person assigned to transport the relic to the island. They believe the box came from Cappadocia, a region of modern day Turkey. Bulgarian scientists believe the bones themselves may have come from the ancient city of Antioch, where a relic of John's right hand is believed to have been kept until the tenth century.
There is some historical evidence, researchers say, to support a theory that John's bones were removed from Jerusalem and brought to Constantinople, called Istanbul today, then the capital of the Roman Empire in a box resembling the sarcophagus found on Sveti Ivan.
A National Geographic Channel program about the discover premieres on June 17.
John the Baptist, venerated as a saint in many Christian denominations, was a New Testament Jewish prophet whom Christians believe heralded the ministry of his relative Jesus. According to the Bible he was martyred by decapitation on the orders of King Herod.