20 August 2004
Prehistoric cave linked to John the Baptist
Archaeologists think they've found a cave where John the Baptist baptized many of his followers - basing their theory on thousands of shards from ritual jugs, a stone used for foot cleansing and wall carvings telling the story of the biblical preacher. Only a few artifacts linked to New Testament figures have ever been found in the Holy Land, and the cave is potentially a major discovery in biblical archaeology. But some scholars said Gibson's finds aren't enough to support his theory, and one colleague said that short of an inscription with John's name in the cave, there could never be conclusive proof of his presence there.
Tradition says he was born in the village of Ein Kerem, which today is part of modern Jerusalem. Just 2.5 miles away, on the land of Kibbutz Tzuba, a communal farm, the cave lies hidden in a limestone hill - 24 yards long, four yards deep and four yards wide. It was carved by the Israelites in the Iron Age, sometime between 800 BCE and 500 BCE, the scientists said. It apparently was used from the start as a ritual immersion pool, preceding the Jewish tradition of the ritual bath.
Over the centuries, the cave filled with mud and sediment, leaving only a tiny opening that was hidden by trees and bushes. Yet in recent years, it had occasional visitors - Reuven Kalifon, who teaches Hebrew at the kibbutz, in December 1999, Kalifon asked Gibson, a friend, to take a closer look. Gibson, who has excavated in the Holy Land for more than 30 years, moved a few boulders near the walls and laid bare a crude carving of a head. Excited, he organized a full-fledged excavation.
Over the next five years, Gibson and his team, including volunteers from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, cleared out layers of soil, picking up about 250,000 shards from small jugs apparently used in purification rituals. The explorers uncovered 28 steps leading to the bottom of the cave. On the right, a niche is carved into the wall - typical of those used in Jewish ritual baths for discarding the clothes before immersion. Near the end of the stairs, the team found an oval stone with a foot-shaped indentation - about a shoe size 11. Just above, a soapdish-like niche apparently held ritual oil that would flow through a small channel onto the believer's right foot.
On the water-covered floor of the cave, stones and boulders were moved aside by the worshippers and a middle path was filled with gravel, said Egon Lass, an archaeological consultant at Wheaton College, near Chicago, who also worked on the dig. Crude images were carved on the walls, near the ceiling, and Gibson said they tell the story of John's life.
Stephen Pfann, a Bible scholar and president of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, said that further study is needed. Gibson said he has left about a third of the cave untouched for other archaeologists to explore.
Sources: Associated Press, Yahoo! News (17 August 2004)