Skeleton in Italy may be St Luke, say scientists

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A genetic analysis of a skeleton entombed in a church in the Italian town of Padua has shown that it could be the body of St Luke the Evangelist, who died about AD150.

Scientists who did DNA tests on the teeth of the skeleton believe the man was probably born in Syria, the birthplace of Luke, who wrote the Third Gospel of the New Testament. The Catholic Church asked the scientists, led by Guido Barbujani of the University of Ferrara, to analyse the body buried in the church of Santa Giustina because of doubts over its provenance.

Historical texts suggest that St Luke was born in Antioch in Syria about AD70 and died in the Greek city of Thebes 84 years later. His body was supposed to have been moved to Constantinople, now Istanbul, in Turkey, before being taken to Padua some time before 1177.

However, scholars have wondered whether the body in Padua was of a Greek man who died at about the time as Luke. This would not have been an unusual fraud in a time when there was a thriving trade in saintly relics.

Dr Barbujani's team concluded that the body was three times more likely to be of Syrian origin than Greek, and was probably not switched with a Turkish corpse in Constantinople.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, extracted mitochondrial DNA – which is maternally inherited – from a pair of teeth independently dated as belonging to a person who died between AD72 and AD416. The scientists compared the DNA signature with present-day people living in Greece, Syria and Turkey to find the closest match and therefore the most likely birthplace of the Padua skeleton.