In work that highlights the value of using genetic data to confirm history, molecular biologists have analyzed ancient DNA to test whether remains attributed to the evangelist Luke do in fact belong to him or whether they instead represent a replacement from Greece. The findings appear today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Historical accounts hold that Luke was born in Syria around 150 A.D. and died at age 84 in Thebes, Greece. Initially buried in Greece, so the story goes, his body was moved to Constantinople in 338 A.D. and eventually taken to Padua, Italy, sometime before 1177. Of course, all that moving around left plenty of opportunity for corpse substitutions. But Guido Barbujani of the University of Ferrara in Ferrara, Italy, and his colleagues figured they might be able to narrow down the possibilities by using DNA to assign the remains to a geographic region of origin. To do that, the team obtained DNA from teeth belonging to the skeleton in Padua and collected DNA samples from modern Greeks and Syrians. Comparison of the genetic sequences revealed that the remains presumed to represent Luke are three times more likely to come from a Syrian individual than from a Greek. "Therefore," the authors write, "genetic data indicate that replacement of the body of the evangelist Luke with the body of a Greek individual is unlikely."

The possibility that an exchange occurred in Turkey, however, is more difficult to address. "Anatolia and Syria are geographically close and, along the coasts, they are not expected to differ much genetically," the authors write. Indeed, they report, linking the remains to either Syrian or Turkish populations proved tricky. Given the DNA sequence obtained from the ancient remains, the researchers conclude, a Syrian origin is the most likely. Replacement of the body in Constantinople, however, "cannot be ruled out."