Is This the Cave of John the Baptist?

JERUSALEM — One American professor says the skeptics are wrong about John the Baptist's cave.

After the Aug. 16 announcement that a cave that once housed John the Baptist had been found, scholars adopted a “wait-and-see” attitude.

They had good reason to, they said. First, no one other than the team that found the cave had seen it. Second, the only reports about this so far are what British archeologist Shimon Gibson told the Associated Press. N scholarly journals have yet published peer-reviewed articles on it.

This has not stopped James Tabor, though, from agreeing with Gibson's identification of the cave as one used by John the Baptist.

Tabor, is chairman of the religious studies department at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. A team of students from his school helped Gibson in the excavation of the site, and Tabor says Gibson's new book, The Cave of John the Baptist, makes its case effectively.

There are many reasons for the identification, Tabor said. One is the site itself. Located outside of Ain Karam, which patristic history identifies as John's hometown, the cave is in a remote, desolate and environmentally hostile area. That makes it easy enough to identify this with the “wilderness” to which John went as he grew up, he said.

“The word aramos [wilderness] means a solitary place,” Tabor explained. “What I think Luke was trying to say is that he was reclusive and solitary. It's more a statement about his spiritual formation” than his actual location.

Msgr. John Meier, a New Testament professor at Notre Dame, said the “identification of Ain Karim with John the Baptist is a patristic, not a New Testament, tradition.” But Tabor countered that it's a very old tradition coming from St. Sera-pion of Antioch in the late second century.

There are also a number of churches in the area that have connections to the Baptizer, including an Orthodox monastery with a cave where the monks claim John stayed.

Along with this are images found in the cave which appear to be representative of St. John. One shows only a head, another a man with his hand raised as in a proclamation mode dressed in what appears to be an animal skin. There is also a hand stretched out in blessing and a cross nearby. “We would normally bring in an art historian on such a case,” Tabor explained, “but that style is just not around.”

The possibility exists that this is the earliest Christian art to have ever been found, though Tabor and Gibson have initially identified it as from the Byzantine era.

But what is most remarkable about the cave is how it appears to have been used. There are a number of steps leading down into the cave, and in the Roman period diggings, “we found thousands and thousands of broken vessels,” Tabor said.

There is also a pool in the cave. While one might think the broken vessels could have been large water-holding jars, that was not the case, he said; these were all the size of small pitchers. In addition, there is “nothing practical” in the cave, suggesting that it was “used as a sacred space.”

Anointing Feet

The Associated Press also reported that “a niche is carved into the wall, typical of those used in Jewish ritual baths for discarding the clothes before immersion.”

And there was an unusual find at the bottom of a flight of stairs — a channel in the wall leading to a deep footprint in the floor. “We speculate it had something to do with anointing the right foot” with oil, Tabor said.

Possible parallels to this in Scripture, Tabor thinks, are found in Leviticus 8:23 when Moses anointed Aaron for ordination with the blood of a sacrificed ram on his right ear lobe, right thumb and the big toe of his right foot. There is also Mary anointing Jesus' feet before the Last Supper and Jesus' washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper.

There is a group still in existence today in Iraq and Iran, the Mandaens, who claim to be followers of St. John, though they do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah and scholars “are up in the air” about their identity, Tabor said. But they “practice baptism and do anoint with oil before going into the water,” he said.

“And they don't do it just once, but as often as possible,” he added. While it's not a definitive link, he said, it does allow for possibilities.

All of these factors indicate that some sort of purification ritual was done on a regular basis, he said.

Another point of concern scholars raised is that this cave is very close to Jerusalem but about 15 miles away from the Jordan River where the all the Gospels state John performed his public ministry. In fact, in 2000, officials in Jordan unveiled what they claim was the spot where John baptized.

But the two are not necessarily in conflict, Tabor said. “The cave would be earlier in John's life,” he said. “What did he do for the previous 15 years in the wilderness before he revealed himself?” The hypothesis shows that John was “already practicing some kind of water purification.”

Another possibility, Tabor added, is a second century apocryphal document that says when Herod sent his soldiers out to kill the Innocents, Elizabeth fled with John, who was only six months older than Jesus, “to a cave with a spring.”


Despite Tabor's and Gibson's scholarly reputations and confidence in their identification, other scholars are skeptical.

“I've known Shimon Gibson for several years…and consider him a careful scholar with a good reputation,” wrote David Aune, a professor of New Testament at Notre Dame in an e-mail to the Register.

What seems most likely to him given the reports so far is “that the cave in question was a cultic center for activity of a largely unknown group in Byzantine Judea who revered the memory of John the Baptist.”

Salesian Father Francis Moloney, chairman of the theology department at The Catholic University of America, said there could be a link to John, “but I don't think it goes back to his presence” in the cave. There is nothing in Scripture or Tradition “of any cave practice or anointing” in connection to John the Baptist, he added.

Max Bonilla, a New Testament scholar at Franciscan University of Steubenville, said there could have been any number of uses for the cave since ritual purification was a constant in Jewish life.

In spite of all this, Tabor is steadfast. “John is the best guess,” he said. “It's a hypothesis, it's not proven.” Others who question it “will have to come up with a better explanation.”

Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz writes from Altura, Minnesota.