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St. John's Cave? Volume 57 Number 6, November/December 2004
by Sandra Scham

Respected Israeli archaeologist Shimon Gibson's discovery of the so-called Cave of John the Baptist has gotten a lot of press in recent months. But in his lengthy tome The Cave of John the Baptist: The Stunning Archaeological Discovery That Has Redefined Christian History (New York: Doubleday Broadway; $24.95), he more cautiously says the cave was the site of first-century A.D. "complex baptism rituals" and sixth-century cult activity by Byzantine monks. But to credit the cave with "redefining Christian history" is a bit much. Gibson himself has called the sensationalistic title "unfortunate."

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Written in an appealingly intimate style, the book details virtually every survey, excavation, and piece of research connected with the erstwhile Suba Cave and offers a complete picture of John-related archaeology sites, such as Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where he baptized Jesus, and Machareus, where his head was brought to Herod on a plate by Salome. But the book is also frustratingly uncritical of the association of biblical personages with archaeological sites (including this one); it's almost impossible to identify a single person in the archaeological record.

Caves have long been associated with John. In the Bible, his mother, Elizabeth, flees with him to a cave to escape Herod's massacre of male infants, and as an adult he frequently lives in caves. After John's beheading, cults formed around his memory and often held religious rituals in caves.

Suba Cave was discovered on a kibbutz west of Jerusalem just outside the village of Ein Kerem, where ubiquitous churches and monasteries commemorate John's supposed birth there. Gibson excavated it in 1999 and 2000. Around its perimeter he discovered the remains of walls with large dressed stones--always an indicator of an important place in the Near East. Gibson isn't too clear on their age. Inside, a unique water-channeling system suggests the presence of a reservoir from its earliest occupation, probably between 800 and 500 B.C. It is this reservoir that Gibson proposes was used for baptism rituals. They also found artifacts, including thousands of pieces of pottery, dating from Hellenistic times (second century B.C.) through the sixth century A.D., though there was a long absence of occupation after the Romans sacked Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Perhaps the most informative find was a series of primitive drawings, indicating that the cave was periodically used by Early Byzantine monks who may have associated it with John. The drawings include several crosses and at least one Early Byzantine depiction of the saint, probably dating to before the sixth century and potentially the earliest ever discovered.

Sandra Scham is editor of Near Eastern Archaeology.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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