Biblical and archaeological evidence of John the Baptist:
The Gospel of Matthew describes John the Baptist as being
a contemporary of Jesus. He preached "...in the wilderness of Judea."
1 He urgently called on
people to repent because he believed that the kingdom of heaven was in his
immediate future. 2 The
author of the Gospel of Mark relates that John survived by eating locusts
and wild honey. He recognized Jesus as the "...one mightier than I after me,
the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose." 3
He baptized Jews by full immersion in the Jordan river, or in a
stream that flowed into the Jordan, "...in that part of the Jordan valley (Luke,
iii, 3) which is called the desert (Mark, i, 4)." 4 The Gospel of John mentions that
the baptisms were "done in Bethabara (Bethany) beyond Jordan."
5 This should not be confused with
the town also named Bethany where Lazarus lived. After John was executed, Jesus was
attacked by his fellow Jews in Jerusalem. He escaped, and "...went away again
beyond Jordan into the place where John at first baptized."
6 The location where John first
baptized his followers appears to be on the East side of the Jordan river, in
what is now the Kingdom of Jordan. In the fourth century
CE, "The Byzantine writers Jerome and Eusebius mentioned 'Bethabara
beyond the Jordan' ...as a pilgrimage destination where people went to be
the mother of Emperor Constantine, is [said] to have crossed the Jordan River
and visited Elijah's Hill and the cave where John the Baptist lived, and built a
church there to commemorate him." 7
Also on the east side of the Jordan, near the location of John's baptisms there
is a hill called Hermon where it is believed that Elijah was caught up.
8 "The ongoing survey excavations at Bethany in Jordan have
uncovered a 1st Century AD settlement with plastered pools and water system that
were used almost certainly for baptism, and a 5th-6th Century AD late Byzantine
settlement with churches, a monastery, and other structures probably catering to
religious pilgrims." 9
However, "Israel has long held that Jesus was baptized by
John the Baptist at Qasir al-Yahud, a West Bank area just north of the Dead
This is an area that is currenlty occupied by Israel. Vassilios Tzaferis, of the Israel
Antiquities Authority, said that neither location can be proven to be the
site of John's baptisms. He said: "Archaeologically speaking, we don't have
any real evidence. Pilgrims are connected by faith, religion and dogmas. You
either believe it or you don't." 10
John's spiritual movement survived his execution. When Paul visited Ephesis, he found a group of John's followers there. The modern-day Mandeans
(pronounced Man-DE-uns) believe regard John the Baptist as their founder.
They live in southern Iran and Iraq and number about 25,000.
A cave that some believe is linked to John the Baptist is located on an
Kibbutz Tzuba, a communal farm just to the west of Jerusalem. It is not far from
John's birthplace. The cave is about 25 meters long, 4 meters wide and 5 meters high.
It was carved by the ancient Hebrews during the Iron Age, between 800 and 500
BCE. "It apparently was used from the start as a ritual
immersion pool, preceding the Jewish tradition of the ritual bath." 12
The cave contains:
28 steps leading to an underground pool of water.
A niche "carved into the wall ó typical of those used in Jewish
ritual baths for discarding the clothes before immersion."
Whitewash on the cave walls has been dated to approximately the 7th
century BCE. 17
An oval stone near the bottom of the stairs with a foot-shaped
indentation carved into it -- large enough to accept a size 11 foot or
Just above the stone is a small niche carved in the wall which
apparently "held ritual oil that would flow through a small channel onto
the believerís right foot." 12
Carvings in the walls which appear to tell the story of John the
Baptist's life. They depict a person whose hair and clothing identify him as
a member of the Nazarite sect. Another carving shows a man's severed head.
They resemble early Byzantine images of John. They may indicate that some
Christians during the 4th and 5th centuries CE regarded
the cave as having been linked to John the Baptist.
About 250,000 pottery shards discarded in the pool. They appear to be
remnants of small water jugs used in a baptism ritual. The oldest shards are
dated circa 150 BCE, almost two centuries before John
and Jesus' ministry.
Opinion is divided over whether the cave is linked to John the Baptist:
Shimon Gibson, a British archaeologist who supervised the excavation
said: "John the Baptist, who was just a figure from the Gospels, now
comes to life." He has written a book about the archaeological
He told The Times: "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 practiced his baptisms."
[He is presumably using the term "cult" as a neutral
term in its theological sense to refer to a system of worship.]
James Tabor, a professor of religious studies at the University of
North Carolina at Charlotte said that there is no proof that John ever
set foot in the cave. He said: ""Unfortunately, we didn't find any
inscriptions....We actually have a geographical location near Ein
Kerem now, at which water purification rites were conducted that go back to
the first century and connects them to the traditions of John the Baptist.
Stephen Pfann, president of the University
of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, said the find was intriguing, but that
more work needed to be done. 16
More complete data may not be available for years, until after the cave is
fully excavated. Based on current
information published in the media:
Ancient Hebrews seem to have carved out the cave between 800 and 500
It was intended to be used as a pool for immersion one's body. This was
a Jewish ritual which was later abandoned in favor of a ritual bath.
The individual would descend the staircase, place their right foot in a
impression carved in a rock and have their foot anointed with oil.
The cave may well have been used by the followers of Jesus to perform
baptisms in the early first century CE.
It is conceivable that John the Baptist, or his followers, might have
used the cave to perform baptisms. However, the Bible mentions only one
location where John carried out baptisms; it is located some considerable
distance from this cave.
The Christians who lived a few centuries after John's and Jesus' executions may have believed that
the cave was used by John, because of its close proximity to his birthplace.
This might have motivated them to carve the images of John.
Two-thirds of the cave has yet to be excavated. When the archaeological work
is completed, there should be more information published. Of principle interest
will be any artifacts from the first and second century CE.