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Planet Earth

In Search of John the Baptist

By Maia WeinstockDecember 1, 2002 6:00 AM

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An international team of archaeologists may have found the remains of the legendary Teacher of Righteousness—an early religious leader who some historians identify as John the Baptist. Richard Freund of the University of Hartford and colleagues were exploring an ancient cemetery in Qumran, Israel, that contains many graves of Essenes, the Jewish sect known to have contributed parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. One skeleton, found on the site's highest hill, may have belonged to the sect's leader. "The most prominent figure in the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran was the mysterious Teacher of Righteousness," says Freund, leading him to conclude that these could be the bones of John the Baptist.

Other archaeologists disagree. "No scholar takes seriously the suggestion that the skeleton belongs to John the Baptist," says Magen Broshi, codirector of the Qumran excavation. That the skeleton was buried in an east-west orientation, he adds, suggests the deceased was a Muslim, not a Jew. What's more, the skeleton was intact; the Bible says John was beheaded.

Freund counters that "a scholarly hypothesis has been established placing John at Qumran. It now remains for science to test the hypothesis." DNA tests and carbon-14 dating will nail down the precise age of the skeleton.

Whatever the tests turn up should reveal a great deal about the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, including what diseases they harbored and how they are related to various ethnic groups of today.

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