Experts: John the Baptist’s cave found

By Aaron Klein

Archaeologists say they have found a cave in Israel where they believe John the Baptist anointed many of his disciples, marking one of the most important discoveries of biblical archaeology in the Holy Land.

Archaeologists presented to the press ancient wall carvings they said tell the story of the John the Baptist, as well as a stone they believe was used for ceremonial foot washing. The cave contains 28 steps leading to an underground pool of water.

Archaeologists also pulled about 250,000 pottery shards from the cave, the apparent remnants of small water jugs used in baptismal ritual.

“John the Baptist, who was just a figure from the Gospels, now comes to life,” said British archaeologist Shimon Gibson, who supervised the dig outside Jerusalem.

But some archaeologists said there was no actual proof that John the Baptist ever entered the cave, which is about two miles from Ein Kerem, the preacher’s home town and now part of Jerusalem.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t find any inscriptions,” said James Tabor, a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Tabor and his students participated in some of the excavations.

Both Tabor and Gibson said it was very likely the wall carvings, including one showing a man with a staff and wearing animal skin, told the story of John the Baptist. The carvings stem from the Byzantine period and apparently were made by monks in the fourth or fifth century.

Gibson said he believed the monks commemorated John at a site linked to him by local tradition.

John, a contemporary of Jesus who also preached a message of redemption, is one of the most important figures in Christianity. The discovery, if confirmed be John the Baptists cave, would be among the most significant breakthroughs for biblical scholars in memory.

The cave is on the property of Kibbutz Tzuba, an Israeli communal farm just outside Jerusalem. A member of the kibbutz, Reuven Kalifon, knew of the cave’s existence – the community’s nectarine orchards run right up to the mouth of the cave – but it was filled with soil almost to the ceiling.

In 1999, Kalifon asked Gibson to inspect the cave more closely.

The archaeologist, who has excavated in the Holy Land for three decades, crawled through the small opening and began removing boulders near the wall of the cave. When he pushed aside one of the stones, he said he saw a head carved into the wall – the top of the figure he believes depicts John.

Gibson, who heads the Jerusalem Archaeological Field Unit, a private research group, organized an excavation.

He said the cave – 24 yards long, around 12 feet wide and 23 feet deep – was carved in the Iron Age, somewhere between 800 and 500 B.C., by the Israelites who apparently used it as an immersion pool.

“It apparently was adopted by John the Baptist, who wanted a place where he could bring people to undergo their rituals, pertaining to his ideas of baptism,” Gibson said.

Believers would have walked down 28 stone steps. To their right, they would have discarded their clothes in a niche carved into the wall.

At the bottom of the steps, they would have placed the right foot onto a stone with an imprint of a foot, about shoe size 10.5. A small depression to the right of the imprint would have contained oil, to be poured over the foot for cleansing, Gibson said.

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