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Monday, 15 October, 2001, 22:19 GMT 23:19 UK
Genetic tests shed light on biblical body
Ancient teeth: PNAS
The two teeth have been dated back to between AD 72 and AD 416
Image copyright: National Academy of Sciences, US

By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

DNA tests on a body said to be St Luke's provide some evidence of authenticity.

Genetic analysis suggests that whoever is buried in the tomb did come from Syria, which, according to historical records, was the birthplace of the evangelist.

We can identify important features of the human past by studying samples coming from ancient bones

Guido Barbujani
One of the gospels is attributed to St Luke, a physician who followed the apostle Paul on some of his missionary journeys.

Legend has it that St Luke came from the ancient city of Antioch, which in Roman times belonged to Syria, and died in Thebes, Greece, around AD 150, at the age of 84.

It is thought that St Luke was first buried in Greece, before being moved to Constantinople in Turkey around AD 300, arriving at his final resting place in Padua, Italy, about a thousand years ago.

According to radio carbon dating, the body belongs to a person who died between AD 72 and AD 416.

Thus, it is conceivable that the remains could have been replaced by those of another person, from Greece or Turkey, at some point on its journey.

Ancient teeth

Scientists in Italy were asked by the Bishop of Padua some years ago to find out what they could about the body said to be St Luke's.

Graphic BBC
The tomb in the basilica of St Justina was opened by a committee led by the Bishop and two teeth removed.

DNA extracted from the teeth suggests that whoever is buried in the lead coffin placed inside a marble sarcophagus was not Greek.

Although the most likely explanation is that the person came from Syria, experts cannot rule out the possibility that a Turkish individual was placed in the tomb when it was moved to Constantinople.

Because Turkey and Syria are geographically close, the two populations are unlikely to differ much genetically and thus are hard to distinguish.

Past lives

Guido Barbujani, who led the study, told BBC News Online: "We can be confident that the body does not belong to an individual who came from Greece.

"We cannot rule out the possibility that the body belonged to an individual who came from Turkey."

DNA could not answer the question of whether the body was really that of a saint, he said, but could establish where that person came from.

"We can identify important features of the human past by studying samples coming from ancient bones," he told BBC News Online. "A piece of DNA can often attribute an individual to a continent but not to a sub-continent or country unless you have a specific hypothesis to test."

To answer the question of where the body came from, Dr Barbujani, of the University of Ferrara, Italy, and colleagues at the universities of Florence, Geneva, Rome and Calabria, collected DNA samples from modern Greek, Turkish and Syrian citizens.

Good Samaritan

They examined the individuals' mitochondrial DNA - the scraps of genetic material found in cell structures known as mitochondria - and compared it with DNA extracted from the teeth.

Genetic markers show the body is three times more likely to have a Syrian than a Greek origin.

The patron saint of physicians and artists, St Luke is said to have been the author of the gospel attributed to him in the Bible. This includes the well-known parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, and also tells the Christmas story of the angels appearing to the shepherds.

Luke joined St Paul on some of the missionary journeys which are documented in the Bible, in the book The Acts of the Apostles. St Luke's feast day is on Thursday, 18 October.

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