The AP published a report yesterday, run
by everyone, that an archaeologist had found "the cave of John the Baptist."
You can find it online everywhere, including this
CNN page which has 3 photos (also
Jerusalem Post). People have asked me what I think, so what follows is
my response. I would note that I know Dr. Shimon Gibson, respect him and his
work, and even participated in the excavation of this cave with our students
on a handful of days in the past couple of years.
The question is: how do we know that this cave is associated with
John the Baptist? In the last decades, scholars have been criticizing
"biblical archaeology," particularly for its haste in associating sites and
levels with biblical events. Archaeological "proof" for such biblical
stories is hailed until a later discovery shows the evidence to be flimsy
and the conclusion incorrect.
Gibson is not a "biblical archaeologist" and has no intention to prove the
Bible correct. But I believe he makes the same mistakes as previous
archaeologists in jumping to a conclusion for which the evidence is slim -
particularly a conclusion which associates it with the Bible and therefore
makes it headline-worthy. If this was just another Iron Age cistern used by
hermits in a later period, no one would care about it. But if it's
identified with an important, and little-known, biblical figure as John the
Baptist, the potential attention is profound and book sales multiplied (the book
was released today - here it is at
Amazon). And yesterday's headlines bore this out - every website I
visited had a link to the story, and the book's sales rank at Amazon
Gibson is confident of the identification. He said, "I am now
certain that this cave was connected with the ancient cult of John the
Baptist. Indeed, this may very well be ‘the’ cave of the early years of
John’s life, the place where he sought his first solitude in the
‘wilderness’ and the place where he practised his baptisms" (source).
This is the claim that must be evaluated.
First, it must be noted that the main claim is that this cave was used by
followers of John the Baptist, hundreds of years after his death
(in the Byzantine period, 330-630 A.D.). Pilgrims allegedly came to this
cave to commemorate this man. The next issue is whether or not this pilgrim
tradition is correct - if so, the cave could have been used by John the
Baptist himself. These are two separate issues and answering one
affirmatively doesn't necessarily mean that the second is also true. If the
first is true, but not the second, what is being hailed is yet another cave
that pilgrims visited (erroneously). There are hundreds of such caves in
Israel! Among the many examples, Byzantine pilgrims visited the cave where
Mary allegedly breastfed Jesus (and milk dropped on the ground) - this is
the Chapel of the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem (and pilgrims still visit and
So I am not impressed if this is another cave that the Byzantines believed
to be a holy place. But I'm not convinced that this was such a cave in the
first place. It's a cistern. It has steps leading into it. There is a
drawing of a man on the wall and another drawing of a head without a body.
There is a foot carved into a rock. The cave is about 2.5 air miles (4 km)
from Ein Kerem, the traditional place where John the Baptist was
born (not grew up, not ministered). It is about 1 mile from the
"St. John in the Wilderness" monastery, built over another cave
which was the site of a chapel in the Crusader period (12th century). From
the reports and from my own knowledge of the excavation, that's the
The strongest support, in my opinion, is the location. The closest thing to
this cave as far as important biblical events or people is John the Baptist.
But what is to say that this cave is connected with biblical people at all?
figure sketched on the wall - what does this mean? There is nothing that
identifies this as an important person, let alone John. There are no
inscriptions or direct evidence to tie this to the biblical figure. The
evidence is all circumstantial, and appears to me to be weak. I know of no
other scholar or archaeologist who follows Gibson in this
identification, though perhaps some will come to light with this dramatic
announcement. The book's subtitle also suggests this discovery is
being oversold: "The Stunning Archaeological Discovery That Has Redefined
It bears repeating that I have great respect for Dr. Gibson and his
archaeological expertise. He is one of the most popular lecturers in our
school's weekly series. I also note that he has written numerous books
that are highly recommended, including last year's
Jerusalem in Original Photographs. But I always felt during our time at
the site and now with this announcement that this claim was very bold and
the evidence meager. Perhaps the book contains the compelling evidence, but
it seems strange that such would not be mentioned at the press conference.
More recent articles:
Letter by James Tabor, giving details not in published sources.
(Now offline, but see Tabor's recent blog posts
Christianity Today Weblog, suspicious of the claim
NTGateway Weblog, refers to a number of sources
Thoughts, observations of a doubter
Search for the
Sacred (Newsweek), a longer article giving some of the background of
biblical archaeology and concluding with the assessment of the cave by some
scholars ("It's pure fiction. It's not archeology," says one).
John the Baptist Cave (xtra) - 42 second clip by a news organization.
The Cave of John the
Baptist - apparently the official website of the excavation, this site
gives a brief description, contact information, and most helpfully, some
good photos. (Now available only through the