Digging for the Baptist

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Have archaeologists discovered the skeleton of John the Baptist? Don't send for your color slides yet, but it's possible. Last year scholars combing a graveyard at the Qumran site in the West Bank, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, turned up an elaborate burial mound and some bones, which they theorized belonged to the Teacher of Righteousness — the leader of the Essene sect thought to have assembled the scrolls. The Teacher has long been felt by some scholars to be John the Baptist, since John's Messianic Judaism and stress on immersion were strikingly similar to Essene beliefs.

That first set of bones may actually have come from two women (oops), but two weeks ago, the scientists found a full skeleton farther down, a 5-ft. 4-in. male whose location and orientation in the grave may indicate high importance. Balancing on the leg bones, says expedition leader Richard Freund of the University of Hartford, was a pot in the style of the 1st century A.D., which places the find in the right era. "There are 1,212 burials at Qumran, but there's only one like this," says Freund. He thinks the bones belong to the Teacher and, therefore, perhaps are the Baptist's. Others are skeptical, pointing out that the skeleton has a head, while John's was famously removed. Expedition archaeologist Magen Broshi fumes that the identification amounts to "shameless publicity seeking." Freund has sent out teeth for carbon dating. Says project official Robert Eisenman, the discovery of a leader of a movement closely related to Christianity at the time of its birth would be "tremendous."