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Proving the authenticity of the relics of Saint Luke

Saint Luke’s body was first buried in Greece, then moved to Constantinople and then to Italy. But do these relics that have been sealed in a marble sarcophagus for more than 400 years, really belong to Saint Luke?

Mark, Matthew, Luke and John – they are the four Evangelists, the traditional ascribed authors of the four gospels, our only source of information on Jesus. Aside from the third gospel, the writings of the Acts of Apostles are also attributed to Saint Luke. Saint Luke is the patron saint of artists, physicians, surgeons, students and butchers. Saint Luke is believed to be a Greek physician who lived in the city of Antioch, an ancient city in the Roman province of Syria, which is now Antakya, Turkey. He died around AD 150 at the age of 84 years in Thebes, the capital of Boeotia, Greece.

Map showing the travels of Saint Luke
Map showing the travels of Saint Luke during his life (Antioch to Thebes) and the movements of his remains after his death. (Figure from Vernasi C et al. (2001) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA)

According to historical records, Saint Luke’s remains were moved from Thebes to Constantinople in AD 338 during the reign of Emperor Constantius, and placed in the Church of Holy Apostles along with the relics of Saint Andrew. Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and is now present day Istanbul, Turkey. The Church of Holy Apostles was later damaged by fire, but the coffins remained unharmed. When the Emperor Justinian rebuilt the church in AD 527, a shrine was erected around Saint Luke’s tomb. Sometime before AD 1177, the leaden coffin bearing the images of three calves’ heads (Saint Luke’s symbol being a winged ox or a bull – figure of sacrifice, service and strength) was transferred a second time, from Constantinople to its current resting place within a marble sarcophagus in Pauda, Italy. The exact time of this move and the reasons behind it are still up for debate. The coffin was last opened in 1562, and then remained undisturbed for more than 400 years until a request was made by a Greek Orthodox Church from Thebes for a fragment of the relics to be placed in the empty sepulchre of Saint Luke in Thebes.

Ancient relics are sometimes not what they seem, and science has been used to disprove the authenticity of even the most famous religious relic – the Turin Shroud. Historians have long questioned the identity of the body attributed to Saint Luke. They have especially wondered whether the remains may have been switched in Greece or Turkey. Delving more into the history of the relic also revealed the skull from the skeleton in Padua was removed in 1354 by order of the Roman Emperor Charles IV, and moved to Prague.

In 1998, a committee opened the marble sarcophagus in Padua that was said to contain the skeleton of Saint Luke. The sarcophagus contained a leaden coffin whose size fits into the empty tomb attributed to Saint Luke’s in Thebes. Within the coffin was the skeleton (minus the skull) of a male between the age of 70-85, two loose teeth and various other objects, including coins dating from 229. Radiocarbon dating indicated the skeleton belonged to someone who had died between AD 72 and 416 BC. Furthermore, the skeleton and teeth anatomically matched to the skull in Prague that was said to belong to Saint Luke.

Teeth from the coffin of Saint Luke
Teeth analyzed from the coffin of Saint Luke. (Figure from Vernasi C et al. (2001) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA)

So far, all evidence suggested that the remains were indeed authentic. But scientists wanted to take this confirmation a step further and prove that the skeleton was really from a male of Syrian origin (the location of Saint Luke’s birthplace). Using modern DNA technology, anthropologists compared the DNA samples from the skeleton to modern DNA samples from people of Syria, Turkey and Greece. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is often the DNA of choice for analyzing ancient remains, due to its high copy number (hundreds per cell), rapid evolution rate and strict maternal inheritance. There are three regions of the mtDNA that can be analyzed – HVR1, HVR2 and the coding region. In this study, researchers sequenced the HVR1 region and analyzed a single marker (marker 7028) from the coding region of the mtDNA extracted from the tooth sample. This mtDNA sequence was compared to the mtDNA HVR1 sequences obtained from individuals from Syria, Greece and Turkey.

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The mtDNA profile of the skeleton matched to individuals from Syria three times greater than the match to individuals from Greece, rejecting the hypothesis that the body belonged to an unnamed Greek. The probability that the body belonged to a Turkish person was only slightly lower than the match to people from Syria, so it is still possible that the remains were swapped in Constantinople (modern day Turkey). However, the closest match to Syrian people indicates that the body is most likely of Syrian origin, the original birthplace of Saint Luke, helping to dispel the theories that the body was replaced at some point in history. Of course, there is still a possibility that the body belongs to a Syrian other than Saint Luke, but unfortunately science cannot confirm or refute this possibility.

Both historians and anthropologists agree that the skeleton in Padua is indeed the remains of Saint Luke. And now a part of Saint Luke (the rib closest to his heart) has been returned to his original resting place in Thebes. The DNA tests from this study have defined the mtDNA HVR1 region maternal line profile of Luke the Evangelist. If you have taken the DNA Maternal Ancestry Test, you can compare your DNA against Luke the Evangelist to see if you may have descended from the same maternal lineage.

Reference:

Vernesi C et al. (2001) Genetic characterization of the body attributed to the evangelist Luke. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 98(23):13460-3.

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