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Archaeologist skeptical of ‘John the Baptist cave’

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–The announcement that a cave used by John the Baptist has been discovered has not convinced all archaeologists that he ever used the site.

Steven Ortiz, director of the Center for Archaeological Research at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said he believes that Byzantine Christians began associating the site with John the Baptist due to its proximity to his hometown. John was born in Ein Kerem only two and a half miles away.

“It is extremely improbable that this site is where John baptized many of his followers,” Ortiz said. “All the Gospel accounts place his ministry in the Jordan Valley.

“The more likely site is somewhere in the Judean wilderness alongside the Jordan River. The recently discovered site is probably a later Byzantine pilgrimage site commemorating his family birthplace,” Ortiz said.

According to Associated Press reports, Shimon Gibson, supervising archaeologist for the dig, quietly excavated and researched the site over a five-year period. Gibson is set to release his finding in a book, “The Cave of John the Baptist.”

Located just southwest of Jerusalem in Kibbutz Tzuba, the hand-carved cave includes a baptismal pool and a stone used for foot washing. There are no inscriptions tying the site to the New Testament preacher who announced the coming of the Messiah.

The cave includes Byzantine-era wall carvings depicting a man resembling the biblical description of John the Baptist; a cross; and what appears to be a severed head. The Bible tells of John’s beheading at the hands of Herod Antipas.

It is clear that the site was used for ritual baptism as early as 800 B.C. The Associated Press noted the discovery of 250,000 pottery shards that Gibson believes to be the remains of jugs used in baptism rituals.

The biblical accounts of John the Baptist’s ministry, meanwhile, point toward a location on the Jordan River.

Each of the four Gospels record Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and each points to the Jordan River as the site of John’s baptismal ministry. The Gospel of John mentions “Bethany on the other side of the Jordan [or Bethany on the east side of the Jordan]” as John’s location (John 1:19-28). Rather than naming a specific site, Matthew, Mark and Luke mention only than he baptized in the Jordan River. The fourth Gospel also mentions that John baptized in the Jordan in Aenon (John 3:30).