The Cave of John the Baptist: The Stunning Archaeological Discovery that Redefined Rabbinic Judaism

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Excerpt The title of this article is a take-off on the book 'The Cave of John the Baptist: The Stunning Archaeological Discovery that has Redefined Christian History', by archaeologist Shimon Gibson. I am sure his title will sell a lot more books... Continue reading

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This article was first published in the Spring 2005 issue of Bible and Spade.

The title of this article is a take-off on the book The Cave of John the Baptist: The Stunning Archaeological Discovery that has Redefined Christian History, by archaeologist Shimon Gibson (Byers 2004a). I am sure his title will sell a lot more books, but I am also certain my title is more accurate, based on the evidence published in his book.
 
On August 16, 2004, Gibson announced his discovery of a cave that he identified with the ministry of John the Baptist. His announcement was made at a press conference and tour of the site about two weeks before the release of his book.
 
The cave is 7 mi (11 km) west of Jerusalem, on the grounds of Kibbutz Tzuba, and 2½ mi (4 km) from Ein Kerem, the traditional birthplace of John the Baptist. The cave is actually a stone-carved subterranean structure with a horizontally cut entrance and steps leading to the floor. A niche was carved in the right wall along the steps and at the bottom was a large oval stone with a “right-foot” impression on the top, associated with another niche cut in the sidewall. From the base of the steps a gravel walkway led to a reservoir cut in the floor on the cave’s far end. Cut into the plaster that lined the cave were schematic reliefs depicting a man holding a staff (and wearing an animal skin garment?), a face (disembodied head?) and a cross. Large quantities of Byzantine and Roman pottery were found on and above the structure’s floor.
 
Gibson, who heads the Jerusalem Archaeological Field Unit, a private research group, identified the site in 1999 and excavated it over the next 3 years. He suggests the “foot-impressioned” stone and accompanying niche were used in a water or oil anointing ritual. The water reservoir at the far end served as an immersion pool. Pottery found within the structure may have been used as part of ritual practices during the early and late Roman periods. Byzantine monks presumably carved the wall reliefs in the cave.
 
According to Gibson, the Byzantine reliefs depict John the Baptist dressed in an animal skin (Mt 3:4; Mk 1:6) and his disembodied head (Mt 14:10–12; Mk 6:27–29). The presumed connection of water rituals and the proximity of John’s birthplace also associate it with John in the excavator’s opinion. Gibson notes that John arrived at the Jordan River with a full-blown concept of baptism and he believes it was here that John developed his views.
 
The discovery of a site associated with John the Baptist would be a very important and exciting archaeological find. Yet preliminary information relayed from the various press conferences at the site offers no significant information tying this site to the Biblical character. The actual location of John’s birthplace in the “hill country of Judea” (Lk 1:39) is unknown; Ein Kerem is only a tradition. And the Scriptures are clear. John did not spend his formative years in the hill country of Judea, but in the “desert” (Lk 1:80; literally the “deserts”). The Bible offers no indication of John developing his concepts in the hill country near home. In fact, first century Jews were very familiar with the idea of baptism—as ritual immersion in a stone-carved subterranean miqveh. It was a daily religious practice. John simply presented a new spiritual meaning to this already familiar religious concept.
 
The almost 400-page book is Gibson’s major publication of evidence from his excavation. While there had been a flurry of press conferences and media reports prior to its publication, the lack of references to any publications in his “Select Notes and Bibliography” suggests this is the only publication on the site. Admittedly, the book is a popular presentation of both Gibson’s dig and subsequent research. Consequently, he does not offer sufficient data for scholars to respond to the evidence with anything but tentative opinions. It was good marketing, but not great for scholarship.
 
This article is not intended as a book review, but as a response to Gibson’s published evidence. Since I am aware of nothing else about the excavation in print, I can only refer to the evidence (and the lack thereof) given in his book.
 
I do admit that Gibson presents the excavation in an interesting manner. His additional research also adds considerably to the text. He explains his theoretical reconstruction of events and rituals well, giving the reader a clear understanding of his ideas. In fact, the book shows Gibson to be a careful field archaeologist, well versed in his discipline.
 
But the book is weak in the most important aspect: presenting archaeological evidence for the cave complex. This is, after all, the basis of his research and theoretical reconstructions. Site plans and sections of the complex, as well as some pottery plates from each significant period he discusses, would have offered far greater understanding of the evidence. I doubt either would have taken away from the book’s popular interest. It was also an unfortunate decision not to label the illustrations. The reader has to refer back to the “List of Illustrations” at the beginning of the book to find out what they are about. Especially in a popular presentation, better understanding of both illustration and associated text would have been served with appropriate labeling of each illustration.
 
While archaeologists do not like to talk about it in public, we all know that a good imagination is an asset in our field. That sounds very unscientific, so “creativity” might be a better word. Fieldwork experience and creativity often help us ask the right questions of the evidence. That can lead to correctly understanding the situation that the evidence presents. What archaeologists do is basically CSI (as in Crime Scene Investigation on television) with evidence, not from last night, but from the last millennium or so.
 
Gibson has a healthy dose of creativity, based on the claims he makes in the book and the evidence he uses to support it. I am willing to accept his ideas as appropriate academic theories and even as helpful in scholarly debate. But the certainty with which he makes conclusions on major historical and theological themes and persons is simply over the top. His suggestions about Jesus and John the Baptist are radical and absolutely unfounded, based on his published evidence.
 
I admit I found myself more worked up over his theories about Jesus and John than I was over Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code (Byers 2004b). Here is a scholar presenting theories on the relationship and ministries of John and Jesus based on historical evidence, as opposed to a journalist presenting ideas that he may or may not even believe. Based on the evidence Gibson presents, I suggest his book title could be sued for non-support. This is not a “stunning archaeological discovery.” I acknowledge it is a unique discovery and he does a good job of making it interesting, but it is far from stunning. And to say it has “Redefined Christian History” is as ridiculous as the thesis of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. A careful scholar should know better, especially when the published evidence supporting his views is so speculative.
 
Instead, the real “redefining” in Gibson’s book does not come from the time of John the Baptist, but from the time of the cave’s formation (see also Shanks 2004: 18). The cave, itself, is 82 ft (25m) long, 13 ft (4 m) wide and 16 ft (almost 5 m) high. The interior is entirely covered with lime plaster, except for the ceiling. Entrance to the cave is in its short south wall, with 12 wide steps decending to the floor. Halfway down is an alcove cut into the eastern wall. One set of the carved “John the Baptist” reliefs is found on each of the cave’s long east and west walls.
 
Outside the rectangular entrance, large enough to pass through while standing, is a porch also carved out of the bedrock. Here, on the left (west) side of the entrance, is a third set of carved reliefs. Seven more carved steps lead up from the porch to the surface of the hill. Outside, to the east, are two large stone settling basins carved from bedrock. All of this—basins, steps, porch and cave—were plastered with the same lime plaster and most assuredly constructed as a single unit. The plaster was typologically and geologically dated to the eighth–sixth centuries BC, a date confirmed by the earliest pottery sherds in a stratified level at the site. [1]
 
In addition, a wide trough was cut into the bedrock above the cave. It was designed to collect runoff rainwater and to channel it to a vertical shaft cut into the cave’s ceiling. In addition, two channels cut into the bedrock in front of the cave also brought water from the valley floor to the settling basins. A stone-built barrier wall across the valley floor collected water to be channeled to the settling basins. These features, too, were believed by Gibson to be original parts of this water collection system. Clearly the time, energy and resources needed to construct such a complex were significant. And, while aspects of this water system are known throughout the country, all the features together at this location from this time period does make it unique. [2]
 
Gibson identifies the nearest ancient Iron Age city, about 3/4 mi (1 km) away, as Old Testament Suba (2 Sm 23:26) and Crusader period Belmont Castle. After surveying the city, Gibson suggests it was much larger during the Iron Age than previously suspected, with even upper and lower cities. Almost 3/4 mi away, and having a spring of its own, suggests to Gibson that his cave was probably not constructed as part of the city’s water system. The complex’s location at the bottom of the valley also made it useless as part of an irrigation system. If there is truly a “stunning archaeological discovery” at the cave, as Gibson suggests, it might be an early (late Iron Age II) Jewish ritual water system, maybe even a prototype for the Roman period Jewish ritual bath (miqveh).
 
Gibson looked into the Old Testament to find terms that might explain his discovery. He proposed that the cave might be an example of a cavity in the ground sometimes used to store water, often translated “cistern” (Hebrew bor; 1 Chr 11:18). Gibson suggests it might be understood and translated as “reservoir.” The water collected in the valley in front of the cave, Gibson theorizes, may be identified with the Hebrew gbi (2 Kgs 3:16–17) and be translated “artificial pond.”
 
Based on the published evidence, the complex of cave, steps, and settling basins were hewn and plastered sometime during the eighth–sixth centuries BC. Along with a water-collecting trough above and a stone retaining wall in front, the entire complex was constructed together in the late Iron Age II period. Gibson presents an interesting scenario that this water system from the end of the First Temple period did not appear to be constructed for drinking water or irrigation, but may have had a ritual purpose. If he is correct, that would truly be a “redefining” of Judaism and water rituals (especially in reference to the origin of ritual bathing and miqvaoth [plural; miqveh, singular]).
 
I agree that the complex is unique and that its original function is unclear, making Gibson’s explanation an interesting proposal. If correct, it would add tremendously to our understanding of late First Temple Judaism, the water rituals and water complexes mentioned in the Old Testament, and the origin of the Second Temple practice of ritual bathing in miqvaoth.
 
In the end, Gibson may be right about the site being recognized during the Byzantine period as a special site. His interpretation of the complex as originally created is also insightful. But his ideas about the structure during New Testament times are far more creative than the archaeological evidence allows.

Footnotes

[1] Excavation demonstrated that the cave was not natural, but man-made for the purpose of collecting runoff rainwater. The cave, steps, porch and exterior basins, along with stone-cut channels, a stone-built retaining wall outside the cave’s entrance and a trough cleared on the hillside above, were all constructed together as a unit during the late Iron Age (eighth–sixth centuries BC). While the time, effort and engineering necessary for its construction indicates its importance, the complex’s isolated location does not connect it to any settlement, or even to a main road. The large rectangular entrance was cut horizontally into the cave’s narrow southern end. Twelve wide steps went down from the entrance into the cave. Along with the cave itself, the porch, steps and two stone basins east of the entrance were carved out of the soft limestone hill and plastered.

[2] Plaster on the complex, both interior and exterior, was typologically and geologically dated to the eighth–sixth centuries BC (late Iron Age II). Reliefs were carved in three groups into the plaster. One set was carved in the porch west (left) of the cave’s entrance. Two other groups were carved into the cave’s long sidewalls, east and west. All sets of reliefs have been stylistically dated to the Byzantine period (probably the fifth–sixth centuries AD). A large quantity of pottery from New Testament times suggests the structure was utilized during that period.

Recommended Resources for Further Study

     
50 Proofs for the
New Testament
 
In Their Sandals
How His Followers Saw Jesus
 
Archaeology and the
New Testament

Bibliography

Byers, Gary A.
2004a An Initial Response to the Announcement of the Cave of John the Baptist. ABR Newsletter 4.9 (September 2004).
2004b The Historical Basis of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. ABR Newsletter 4.7 (July 2004)

Gibson, Shimon
2004    The Cave of John the Baptist: The Stunning Archaeological Discovery that has Redefined Christian History. New York: Doubleday.

Shanks, Hershel
2004    John the Baptist’s Cave??? Biblical Archaeology Review 30.6: 18–19.

 

 

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