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Baptism in Christianity

John the Baptist's cave?

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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 baptised."  Helena, 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 Sea..." 10 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. 11

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The cave:

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:

bullet28 steps leading to an underground pool of water.
bulletA niche "carved into the wall ó typical of those used in Jewish ritual baths for discarding the clothes before immersion."
bulletWhitewash on the cave walls has been dated to approximately the 7th century BCE. 17
bulletAn 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 smaller.
bulletJust 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
bulletCarvings 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.
bulletAbout 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:

bulletShimon 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 excavation.  13 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." 14 [He is presumably using the term "cult" as a neutral term in its theological sense to refer to a system of worship.]
bulletJames 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. " 15
bulletStephen 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

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Conclusions:

More complete data may not be available for years, until after the cave is fully excavated. Based on current information published in the media:

bulletAncient Hebrews seem to have carved out the cave between 800 and 500 BCE.
bulletIt 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.
bulletThe individual would descend the staircase, place their right foot in a impression carved in a rock and have their foot anointed with oil.
bulletThe cave may well have been used by the followers of Jesus to perform baptisms in the early first century CE.
bulletIt 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.
bulletThe 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.

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References:

  1. Matthew 3:1, King James Version

  2. Matthew 3:2.

  3. Mark 1:7

  4. "St. John the Baptist," New Advent encyclopedia, at: http://www.newadvent.org/

  5. John 1:28

  6. John 10:40

  7. "Holy Sites," Jordan Tourism Board, at: http://www.see-jordan.com/

  8. Dr. Mohammed Waheeb, "Bethany" at: http://www.elmaghtas.com/

  9. Raad Aghabi, "Jordan the Land & The River of Baptism," MiddleEastUK.com, at: http://www.middleeastuk.com/

  10. "Middle East: Jordan challenges Israel as the site of baptism of Jesus," Associated Press, http://archive.tri-cityherald.com/

  11. Jirair Tashjian, "John the Baptist: The man and his influence," Christian Resource Institute, at: http://www.cresourcei.org/

  12. Karin Lab, "Cave linked to John the Baptist. Underground pool excavated near Jerusalem," Associated Press, 2004-AUG-16, at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/

  13. Shimon Gibson, "The Cave of John the Baptist: The Stunning Archaeological Discovery that has Redefined Christian History," Doubleday, (2004) Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store,"

  14. "John the Baptist's cave 'found' in Jerusalem," Independent Online, 2004-AUG-16, at: http://www.iol.co.za/

  15. "Is it John the Baptist's cave?," Focus on the Family, Citizen Link, 2004-AUG-16.

  16. "John the Baptist's cave 'found'," BBC News, 2004-AUG-16, at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/

  17. Amiram Barkat, "Cave possibly used by John the Baptist found," Haaretz.com, 2004-AUG-17, at: http://www.haaretz.com/

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Site navigation:

Home >  World religions > Christianity > Bible & the world > archaeology > here

 Home > Christianity > History, beliefs, practices > Practices > Baptism > here

Home > Religious Info. > Basic religious info. > Practices > Baptism > here

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Copyright © 2004 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2004-AUG-19
Latest update: 2008-MAR-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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