1In those days, John the Baptizer came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 2“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” 3For this is he who was spoken of by Isaiah the prophet, saying,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness,

make the way of the Lord ready!

Make his paths straight!”

4Now John himself wore clothing made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then people from Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him. 6They were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.

7But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Therefore produce fruit worthy of repentance! 9Don’t think to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I tell you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 10Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down, and cast into the fire.

11“I indeed baptize you in water for repentance, but he who comes after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing floor. He will gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.”

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14But John would have hindered him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?”

15But Jesus, answering, said to him, “Allow it now, for this is the fitting way for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him.

16Jesus, when he was baptized, went up directly from the water: and behold, the heavens were opened to him. He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming on him. 17Behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

A Possible Site for the Cave of John the Baptist

A Possible Site for the Cave of John the Baptist
Matt 3:1
Ain Karim
Credit: © 2012 PD

It has long been believed John the Baptist ministered exclusively in the area of the Jordan River since the Gospels tell us that is where he was baptizing. Tradition and archaeology seem to validate this belief (see Bethany Beyond the Jordan and Sites of Jesus’ Baptism).

However, in 1999 Shimon Gibson and James Tabor were conducting an archaeological survey of agricultural remains at Kibbutz Tzova, near Ain Karim, the traditional birthplace of John the Baptist. They found the entrance to a cave, hidden by thorn bushes. When they entered the cave, they discovered several paintings and carvings on the walls that appeared to have been made by Christian pilgrims. They decided to launch a full excavation of the site.

The cave turned out not to be natural but cut from the rock by hand. It is 78 feet long and 13 feet wide. At one time it was 16 feet high, but over time the floor had filled in almost to the ceiling. The walls of the cave were plastered, usually an indication that the space was meant to hold water. It appears the cave was dug in the ninth or tenth centuries B.C., and used for water storage for a time. The cave changed use sometime in the late first century B.C. and was used up to the mid-second century A.D. It was abandoned for a time, then reoccupied during the Byzantine period.

 

Gibson and Tabor found very puzzling remains in the cave. The floor was littered with hundreds of broken ceramic pots, dating mostly from the first to mid-second centuries A.D. – a period of 150 years. Curiously, the pots seem to have been intentionally smashed. Also, the silt which accumulated during the winter months as a result of rainwater flooding the cave was not removed over time but was simply hard-tamped by foot traffic creating clearly discernable layers. Within these layers, Gibson and Tabor found stone basins and paving stones grouped in a circle. Near the bottom layer, the archaeologists found a stone with unusual shapes carved into it. Gibson and Tabor interpreted one shape as being meant for the right foot and another for oil to be poured into. There also appeared to be a channel for the oil to run down over the foot.[1]

Near the ceiling of the cave, the excavators found carvings that appeared to have been chiseled into the plastered walls. There are several crosses, a head, an upraised arm, and a figure. The figure seems to be wearing a rough garment on his bottom half, has a staff in one hand and his other arm is raised. There appears to be some object in this hand as well. He also appears to have a crown or halo. The inscriptions seem to date to between the fourth and eleventh centuries, although this is based mainly on their height from the original floor. It is possible they could have been carved earlier using a ladder or some other means of reaching that high on the wall.[2]

Gibson and Tabor interpret all these remains as having to do with the cave being the site of some kind of baptismal ritual, associated with John the Baptist, if not stemming from John’s use of the cave himself. They argue that perhaps baptismal candidates would come and have their feet anointed either before or after a ritual cleansing in the circle of pavers near the entrance to the cave.  They argue oral tradition helped preserve the memory of the cave being associated with John the Baptist. The cave is near his hometown, and they see the figure described above as representing him. Both Gibson and Tabor wrote books on their discovery, and both think the cave completely changes what we know about the history of Christian belief.[3] This interpretation is very controversial (even being called “imaginative speculation”[4]), and “few, if any, scholars in Israel think this cave has anything to do with John the Baptist.”[5]

[1] Shimon Gibson and James D. Tabor, “John the Baptist’s Cave.” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/Jun 2005, 36-41, 58. http://members.bib-arch.org/publication.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=31&Issue=3&ArticleID=6 (accessed 4/17/2010)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Shimon Gibson, The Cave of John the Baptist: The Stunning Archaeological Discovery That Has Redefined Christian History. Gibson's claims are not widely accepted.

[4] Shanks, Hershel. “John the Baptist’s Cave???.” Biblical Archaeology Review, Nov/Dec 2004, 18-19. http://members.bib-arch.org/publication.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=30&Issue=6&ArticleID=4 (accessed 4/17/2010)

[5] Ibid.