The Stunning Archaeological Discovery That Has Redefined Christian History
New York: Doubleday, 2004, 382 pp.
Reviewed by James F. Strange
This book is an engaging, first-person account of the excavation of an ancient cave near Beth Ha-Karim, west of Jerusalem, that Shimon Gibson, the author/excavator, associates with John the Baptist. The cave appears to have been first occupied in the Iron Age from the eighth to the sixth century B.C.E., but its most unusual period of use was from the first to third century C.E., when it seems to have had a cultic role (a role that continued as late as the eighth century C.E.). The book also reviews scholarly research on John the Baptist and Jesus and their relationship. It concludes with a series of speculations about John the Baptist. In no way does it live up to its subtitle.
The cave is in the side of a hill less than a mile from modern Suba, a tiny, abandoned Arab village about 3 miles west of Ain Karim, one of modern Jerusalem’s more picturesque suburbs. Radiocarbon dating of the plaster in the cave showed that the cave was constructed between 700 and 500 B.C.E. There was a pool outside the cave, which had a broad entrance and internal staircase. No provision existed to channel water from the pool and cave into surrounding fields, so it was not for irrigation. The cave entrance was too broad to keep light out, so the water would eventually be unfit for drinking. Gibson hypothesizes that the cave was originally an Iron Age ritual bath (miqveh) because of the porch, large entrance and broad flight of stairs into the interior. The cave was abandoned for several centuries and was cleaned out in the Hellenistic period.
Gibson’s narrative of the excavation of the cave detours through ancient literature in search of the ancient name of the nearby village (which turns out to have been Suba). During the Byzantine (fourth to sixth century C.E.) and Islamic periods (seventh to eleventh century C.E.), drawings were scratched into the plaster on the walls of the cave.
Gibson surveys the canonical Gospels for information about John the Baptist and his baptizing activities and locates John within the various forms of ancient Judaism. In the second section of the book, Gibson traces traditions about John from the traditional baptismal site on the Jordan River, to Sebasté, near modern Nablus, and even to Italy. In my view this would have better formed the core of a second book rather than the second part of the present book.
In addition to Gospels material about John the Baptist, Gibson also turns to the apocrypha and other writings for help in hypothesizing about the history of the cave, John’s clothing and diet, and the location of the “wilderness” that the Gospels say John inhabited. Gibson also attempts to locate John within ancient Judaism, taking into account the Gospels, the first-century C.E. Jewish historian Josephus and ancient Byzantine inscriptions.
Nested within consideration of John’s baptizing and what it meant in ancient Judean society is an interpretation of the finds within the cave to suggest that it was used for foot-washing rites. The hypothesis of a cultic use for foot washing tends to be confirmed by the presence of a large stone with an imprint for a right foot chiseled into it. A collection cup with drain to the foot imprint is also chiseled into the stone.
Gibson proposes that John the Baptist chose the cave at Suba near his hometown of Beth Ha-Karim, which was already associated with an ancient tradition of ritual bathing, for his baptizing.
Gibson is at his best when he considers what he loves best?the archaeology. He notes the placement of every artifact and the distribution of the potsherds on a series of ancient surfaces within the cave. But what is equally important is the sheer number of these sherds and the fact that they are mainly from jugs or pouring vessels with one handle. There are a few cooking pots, storage jars and other forms, but the pottery repertoire is lopsided in favor of jugs or pitchers.
The pottery in the cave is probably cultic. Hundreds of jugs were used in the cave and then broken. This is a pattern that resembles “votive offering” behavior in the ancient Near East. The Bible speaks of votive offerings in the Temple (Leviticus 7:16, etc.), and of course the rabbis knew of them (see Tosephta Hagiga 2.10). A Hellenistic-era reference to votive offerings in Israel is found in 1 Esdras 2:7. The Tel Dan bilingual inscription mentions a vow (euche¯n) in line 3 of the Greek, implying a votive offering. The golden shields that Pontius Pilate dedicated to the Temple may also be considered as offerings (Philo, Legatio ad Gaium 299). Simple ceramic offerings were ceremonially broken and left in a repository in the sanctuary where they were used.
The argument linking the Suba cave to John the Baptist, however, is difficult and circumstantial. The claim that John the Baptist was venerated in the cave from Byzantine to Islamic times is based on the figure of a man incised on a wall high up in the cave (after centuries of soil deposition, the floor of the cave rose 7 feet). The figure, which is about 28 inches high, has no name attached, so we must guess who is depicted. He is wearing a garment like a skirt that is decorated with punctures in the plaster, perhaps to depict a garment of camel’s hair. He wears no shirt and bears a staff in his left hand. His oversized head bears a crown (or a hat). More striking to me is that he is beardless (a youth?), though all the figures Gibson adduces as parallels are also beardless. John is adult and bearded, however, in Christian art in the West.1 The crescent-shaped object sticking out to his left I take to be a shepherd’s bag, though Gibson seems to prefer seeing it as a lamb. The figure’s right hand is raised, perhaps in blessing. There is a hole in the plaster between his lower legs, which Gibson speculates held a relic of John the Baptist. That is possible but not demonstrated.
The identification of the figure with John the Baptist rests upon (1) the general similarity of the figure to the person as described in the Gospels, (2) rough similarity to John the Baptist figures on eulogia tokens (good luck charms carried by pilgrims)a and on Byzantine metal ampullae, or holy water vessels (where he is bearded, wears a long garment and has a halo). The similarity is not very close, but then we do not know the artistic tradition of drawing John the Baptist in early Byzantine contexts.
I am willing to accept the hypothesis that the cave drawing depicts John the Baptist, especially given the strength of the local tradition that locates his home at Beth Ha-Karim. The recent find that the so-called Tomb of Absalom, in Jerusalem’s Kidron Valley, bears a Byzantine Greek inscription mentioning Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, and the Simon of Luke 2:25-32 b shows that there was a well-developed veneration of John the Baptist, if not a John the Baptist cult. However, the case is not airtight, as Gibson is aware. An inscription would help, and I wonder if graffiti might yet be found on the plaster in the cave.
The Cave of John the Baptist can be read by aficionados of archaeology, though some may feel frustrated by the asides within it (I found some of the personal matter simply distracting, such as Gibson’s driving to various sites with this or that person, or Gibson being chatted up by a student), and some of the more arcane speculations may mystify many readers. But it is a welcome addition to the popular literature on the archaeology of early Christianity and Judaism.
The Suba cave was an important site, and it may indeed have been associated with John the Baptist. Yet I think that much more work needs to be done before the book can begin to deliver as much as its subtitle suggests.
1. See Graydon F. Snyder, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church life Before Constantine (Macon, Georgia: Mercer Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 44, 77.
James F. Strange is Distinguished University Professor and director of graduate studies in the religious studies department of the University of South Florida. He has excavated in Israel since 1969 and has directed the university’s excavations at Sepphoris since 1983.
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