Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Bones of John the Baptist?

During the Middle Ages there was a thriving trade in phony relics of the early Christian martyrs. In fact, I used to joke that there were enough "splinters of the True Cross" floating around Medieval Europe that if you gathered them all together you would have enough wood to build a full-size replica of Noah's Ark. Recently a group of researchers from Oxford University performed a series of tests on a set of knucklebones found buried in a marble sarcophagus beneath a chuch on the Bulgarian island of Sveti Ivan. They were surprised to find that the carbon dating and genetic analysis showed that the bones belonged to a man of middle eastern descent who died during the first century AD. Furthermore, according to local history bones from the right hand of John the Baptist were said to have been kept at a church in the Turkish city of Antioch until the tenth century, after which they may have been transported to the island.

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.

The researchers noted that while the tests on the bones check out, it's impossible to determine for sure whether or not these were the bones of John. They could be those of another man from the same part of the world who lived at the same time. Still, with so many fake relics out there it's intriguing to come across one that could very well be genuine. The identification of more such relics could help to shed some light on the murky history of the early Christian church. I always thought it was too bad that Jesus ascended into Heaven, since if he really was the son of God it would be interesting to get a look at his DNA. But John is said to have performed miracles as well, so scanning his might be the next best thing. I figure that religious figures like John must have been powerful magicians, so if we could gather a big enough sample from such indivituals we might be able to identify some of the particular genes that correlate with high magical and mystical aptitude.

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Unknown said...


Is about how those with schizotypal and schizophrenia are talented and useful magicians when they have half the gene set, but are useless to the real world when they have both. Having once met a schizophrenic I think that this idea has some serious basis to it. It wouldn't mean, of course, that to do magic you would need some of schizotypal genes, but it might help.

Scott Stenwick said...

I actually think there's a fair amount of experimental evidence that "schizotypal personality" as described by Sapolsky and magical/mystical aptitude have little to do with one another. Advanced meditators exhibit high-frequency gamma brainwaves when engaged in practice, whereas scans of schizophrenics show an overall reduction in neural firing rate concentrated in a few key areas. Similarly, spiritual practitioners show increased tonic (that is, semi-regular) brainwave patterns in the theta range during waking consciousness, while there isn't much difference in that regard between schizophrenics and normal people. So if you look at functional scans, mystics and schizophrenics have practically nothing in common in terms of how their brains appear to work.

There's an enormous difference between believing that you're in communication with deities or spirits and actually being in communication with them. However, it's pretty difficult for non-magicians to tell the two states apart. If schizotypals were once seen as religious figures, it may very well not be that they had much in common with genuine mystics, but rather that they were mistaken for them. Ken Wilber has a term for this sort of misunderstanding that plays an important role in his model of consciousness - the Pre/Trans Fallacy. The idea is that pre-rational states (which is where I would classify schizophrenia) and trans-rational states (genuine mystical realization) are hard to distinguish from each other. This is because even though the two states are fundamentally different, both appear irrational and can produce behaviors that make little sense to outside observers.