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Remains may be those of John the Baptist

It's a tantalizing find in a Biblical mystery -- Oxford University researchers have concluded that a set of skeletal remains which many Bulgarians attribute to John the Baptist probably belonged to a first century male from the Middle East.

While that doesn't prove that the bones belonged to the man revered by Christians as the forerunner to Jesus, it does mean that those who believe the relics are the remains of the first century saint have a scientific case.

The discovery of a sarcophagus containing a knuckle bone, a tooth, a skull fragment and other remains under an ancient church on an island off Bulgaria's coast -- paired with a small urn bearing a Greek-language reference to John the Baptist -- drew enormous interest when it was announced two years ago.

Officials didn't wait for scientific evaluation before offering the relics up for public view; thousands waited for hours to catch a glimpse of the bones when they were displayed in Sofia, Bulgaria's capital.

Oxford professor Thomas Higham, whose lab subjected the bone fragments to radiocarbon dating and DNA sequencing, said he was skeptical at first.

"We didn't expect results that would be consistent with the expected -- or hoped for -- results of our Bulgarian colleagues," he said in a telephone interview. But he promised that the find, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, would stand up to scrutiny.

According to Christian tradition, John the Baptist foresaw the coming of Jesus and baptized him in the River Jordan. The ascetic desert-wandering prophet was later beheaded after criticizing the ruler of Galilee, Herod Anitpas.

Higham's research was funded with a grant from National Geographic, whose channel is due to air a documentary on the find this Sunday.