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The Cave of John the Baptist? (2005)

The Cave of John the Baptist? (2005)

All photos © Shimon Gibson.

Being the Holy Land, some sites dug by archaeologists in Israel develop into Holy sites. This was the case with a cave Dr. Shimon Gibson excavated recently nearJerusalem. For the last 25 years Dr. Gibson has been surveying numerous sites in the hills west of Jerusalem with an aim to learn more about the ancient agricultural practices of this region. His survey led him to a cave within the cultivated land of Kibbutz Tzuba, a kibbutz (communal farm) built by veterans of the War of Independence in 1948. Although the members of the kibbutz knew of the cave for many years, none were aware of its significance until Dr. Gibson cleared the rubble that filled it. The cave is in the shape of a rectangular tube, 24 m long, 4 m wide and 4 m deep, with 28 steps leading to its bottom. Covered with plaster the cave was originally intended to hold water, like a cistern.

Rainwater was collected in drains further up the valley and directed into  the cistern by means of a small dam. The cistern was built in the 8th century BCE, and went out of use in 70 CE when the Romans destroyed all of Judea, as punishment for the Jewish rebellion. About 300 years later people returned to this cave and above the thick layer of rubble they created a floor of beaten earth. They made a fire hearth, and on the walls they chiseled some graffiti. It is these graffiti that are so intriguing.

One shows a man wearing a tunic with dots, apparently meant to suggest an animal hide. He grasps a staff and holds up his other hand in a gesture of proclamation. Over his head appears to be what may be a halo. Next to him an arm and two crosses are chiseled on the wall.

chiseled graffiti in cave

On the opposite wall can be seen a crude image of a face and next to it an unidentified object and three crosses, and a bird(?) can barely be distinguished.

Christian graffiti

In Gibson’s view, however, these signs are very clear. In his opinion the graffiti were made by pilgrims who visited the cave. He claims that they venerated the place as the cave where John the Baptist baptized. According to him, the human figure is John the Baptist and the severed head is of John after Herod Antipas executed him. The arm is said to be John’s too, kept to this day by Christian tradition as a relic in Constantinople (Istanbul). The bird represents the Holy Spirit, and the three crosses are of the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves. These interpretations are possible. It could be that in the Byzantine period Christian pilgrims believed John the Baptist was active in this cave, and visited and venerated the place. In fact we know of many sites, especially caves, which were venerated by Christians as holy sites in the Byzantine period (4th to 7th century CE). Some of these sites are venerated by Christians to this day, such as the “Milk Grotto”, a white cave in Bethlehem, where Mary allegedly breastfed Jesus, and some of the milk dropped on the ground, turning all the rock white.

drawing of cave interior

a fire hearth in the cave

But Dr. Gibson goes a step further and suggests that in the first century CE John the Baptist actually baptized new believers in his apocalyptic doctrine inside the newly excavated cistern/cave (!).

He claims that the first century CE floor level at the entrance to the cave was like an embankment, where believers gathered and prayed before the baptism. Large amount of broken jugs were used in some way in this ceremony, and also a big slab of stone with an imprint of a right foot. According to his theory, a smaller indentation next to the foot imprint held oil, which was poured on the right foot, “to anoint the first symbolic step the new believers are going to take in their new spiritual journey” as Dr. Gibson explained to me recently on the phone. Is there any historical evidence to these rituals? Not that I know of. Other explanations, less exciting I admit, could be equally given to these finds, but they are less attractive.

Drawing of anointing feet ritualRight food impression in rockDr Shimon Gibson in cave

The announcement of a new find possibly linked to John the Baptist was widely reported in most of the western media, newspapers and TV alike. Even the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem visited the site.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch

Even if Gibson’s theory is not on solid ground, one group of people have happily accepted his interpretations – the members of Kibbutz Tzuba. The cave is in their property, and their hope is that the new “holy site” will attract Christian pilgrims—and many of them. They have already cleared a path to the cave, cleaned its surroundings and are paying for the preservation work to be carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority. But they have also closed the area. Visiting the cave can only be done with a guide from the kibbutz, and only for an entrance fee..

Recently I visited the cave with Yael, a guide from the kibbutz, who told me with great excitement of the find and its significance and also of its promising economic implications. “During the last Feast of Tabernacles” she boasted, “we had a few buses of Christian pilgrims from Europe.” And just as in some other famous sites, stories of miracles are already being told.

“Among a group of Dutch pilgrims,” she told me, “one of the older ladies was complaining about chronic leg pains. But as she entered the cave, she announced her pain has miraculously disappeared.” ..

Dr. Gibson published a book presenting the site and its finds entitled

The Cave of John the Baptist. I admit I have not read it yet, but I think the title is somewhat misleading. Perhaps a question mark at the end of the title would have been more appropriate.

The cave of john the baptist book