Scientific dating fails in Western Roman context

Radiocarbon dating of St James and St Philip relics

Reading the newspaper this morning, an article with the title: Worshipped dead in Rome were not apostles, caught my interest.

The story was about the scientific examination of the relics of two of Jesus’ disciples worshipped for fifteen hundred years in the Basilica dei Santi XII Apostoli in Rome, St Philip and St James, the brother of the Lord. Both are said to have died in the second half of the first century AD.

However, the author stated with enthusiasm that the relics very clearly were not from the apostles but from other persons living a long time later, because in a recent study a radiocarbon date between 214 and 340 AD (2σ confidence) was obtained from one of the bones kept in the reliquary.

Now, on the contrary, this radiocarbon date is very good news for us and for all who were convinced that these relics really are from the two apostles. This is because Jesus and his disciples are historically dated in Western Roman Empire contexts as living around the time of Emperor Augustus and his immediate successors. Having postulated that Western Roman history is conventionally dated too old by 232 years, we generally would expect organic samples like bone collagen from that time to produce calibrated radiocarbon dates more than two hundred years younger than conventional dates. And in this case, with a secure provenience of the sample material, we find just that. In other words, if the persons died around year 70 in Western Roman context, we would expect a radiocarbon date centered around 300 AD which actually is what we find. Otherwise our hypothesis would be in trouble.

Another of our studies involved dendrochronologically-dated Western Roman timber which produced radiocarbon dates more than 150 years younger than conventional dates.