Body of St. Luke - Gains Credibility
- NEW YORK TIMES
'Body of St. Luke' Gains Credibility
October 16, 2001
By NICHOLAS WADE
A new DNA analysis gives tentative support to the belief that the
remains in an ancient lead coffin are those of St. Luke,
traditionally considered the author of the third Gospel and the Acts
of the Apostles.
Dr. Guido Barbujani, a population geneticist at the University of
Ferrara, Italy, has extracted DNA from a tooth in the coffin. He
concluded that the DNA was characteristic of people living near the
region of Antioch, on the eastern Mediterranean, where Luke is said
to have been born. Radiocarbon dating of the tooth indicates that
it belonged to someone who died between 72 A.D. and 416 A.D.
A report by Dr. Barbujani and colleagues appears today in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.
The Evangelist, according to ancient sources, was a physician who was
born in Antioch and died at 84 in about 150 A.D. in the Greek city of
Thebes. The coffin with his remains was taken to Constantinople, the
capitol of the Byzantine empire, in 338 A.D. and later moved to Padua,
Dr. Barbujani and his colleagues speculate that the coffin may have
been sent out of Constantinople for safekeeping, either during the
reign of the Emperor Julian, who tried to restore paganism, or during
the iconoclast period of the eighth century, when many religious
images and objects were destroyed.
The coffin is known to have been in Padua at least since 1177 A.D. It
was placed in a marble sarcophagus and kept in the Basilica of Santa
Giustina. It was last opened in 1562 A.D. and seems to have been
somewhat ignored until October 1992. At that time the bishop of
Padua, Antonio Mattiazzo, received a letter from Hieronymos, the
Orthodox Metropolitan of Thebes, asking that part of the relics to
be donated to the site of Luke's tomb in Thebes.
Bishop Mattiazzo, according to an article in November 2000 in Traces,
a Catholic journal, decided to investigate the relics under the
leadership of Dr. Vito Terribile Viel Marin, a pathologist at the
University of Padua. In 1998 the 400-year-old seals were removed from
the lead coffin, and the study began.
The dimensions of the coffin exactly fit the tomb in Thebes onsidered
to be Luke's. In the coffin was a skeleton, but not the skull.
Dr. Barbujani and his colleagues say the body appears to have
decomposed in the coffin because of matching insect marks on the lead
and the pelvis, which has fused to the lead.
The spread in the radiocarbon dating indicates at least two
possibilities. One is that the body is that of Luke or a man who died
at the same time, the other is that for some reason, a new body was
put in the coffin in Constantinople around 300 A.D.
To help distinguish between the two, Dr. Barbujani, an expert on the
genetics of European populations, analyzed fragments of DNA from the
tooth, a canine, found on the floor of the coffin, and sought to
compare them with likely living representatives of the ancient
populations of Antioch and of Constantinople. An Antioch match would
suggest the body could be Luke's.
Since the present population of Antioch includes many Kurds, Dr.
Barbujani sampled the DNA of Syrians from nearby Aleppo. In place of
the inhabitants of ancient Constantinople, now Istanbul, he tested
Greeks from Attica and Crete.
The DNA from the Padua tooth, a type inherited only through the
mother's line, turned out to resemble Syrian DNA more than Greek DNA.
"Our data tell us the body is absolutely compatible with a Syrian
origin," he said. "But I am aware of the limitations of the DNA data,
and though a broad spectrum of ages is possible, the most likely is
300 A.D." Hence both possibilities should remain open, he said.
The body, if indeed it is Luke's, has experienced a simpler voyage
through history than the head, which was removed by the Emperor
Charles IV in 1354 and taken from Padua to Prague, where it rests in
the Cathedral of St. Vitus, in the Prague Castle.
"There were officially two heads of St. Luke, one at Prague and one
in Rome," Dr. Barbujani said. At Bishop Mattiazzo's request, the
Prague skull was brought to Padua and found to fit perfectly to the
topmost neck bone. The tooth, found on the floor of the coffin, also
fit into the right socket in the jawbone.
Though many relics turn out to be forgeries, executed in modern or
medieval times as demand arose, the Padua body seems more likely than
most to be what it is claimed to be, although exact proof is lacking.
"I think we should accept that there is no way to tell if it was the
Evangelist Luke, but the genetic evidence does not contradict the
idea," Dr. Barbujani said.
Last October, according to the Traces article, at least part of the
body completed the circle to its original resting place. Bishop
Mattiazzo sent a rib from the skeleton for Metropolitan Hieronymus to
place in the empty Theban tomb.
If you have trouble getting access to this article in the NY Times,
try the BBC site which has another article.
Zoom down to the bottom and look for SCI/TECH (with photographs of
Saint Luke's teeth)