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FIRST-PERSON: John the Baptist’s cave: speculation & sensation

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–In recent days, a “new” archaeological discovery has been reported by most major news services. The good news is that the media feels that information regarding early Christianity and persons recorded in the New Testament are newsworthy. The bad news is that sometimes this information contradicts the accounts in the Bible.

I do not have a problem with this per se. Archaeological data can be interpreted in many ways. Archaeologists are detectives working with fragmentary data to uncover the past, and it is no different when it comes to biblical history.

As an archaeologist, I am wary of the recent reports concerning John the Baptist’s cave. Particularly when you dig beneath the story and find that it is not a recent discovery — the only thing recent is the publication of the book recounting the discovery and excavation of the cave.

British archaeologist Shimon Gibson is coming out with a new book titled, “The Cave of John the Baptist: The Stunning Archaeological Discovery That has Redefined Christian History.” Based on comments by the publisher, the book is offering an alternative view of John the Baptist as it is recorded in the New Testament writings.

While I am hesitant to make judgments based on newspaper reporting and publisher’s marketing blurbs, I feel that I must respond to the sensational claims and the implications of these claims on the history of John the Baptist. All biblical references place John’s ministry in the Jordan Valley (Mark 1:5, Matthew 2:6, Luke 3:3, John 1:28). John was born at Ain Karem, a village about five miles west of Jerusalem known as the traditional home of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:57-66). There is a monastery (St. John the Baptist Monastery) in the modern town of Ein Karem (Hebrew spelling) with a cistern that archaeologists postulate is a second temple mikveh (first-century A.D. ritual bath). The site of “John the Baptist’s cave” is about two and a half miles from Ein Karem, according to the published account.

Ironically, the media reports fail to mention any archaeological evidence that dates to the first century A.D. — the time period of John the Baptist. What is probably the most historical reconstruction is a Byzantine pilgrimage site of the fourth to six centuries A.D. These pilgrimage sites are common features of the archaeological landscape in the Holy Land.

Archaeological discoveries in the Holy Land are very important to people of faith. They illustrate the historicity of the biblical accounts. They also lead to sensationalism and fanciful reconstructions of the Gospel accounts. I applaud the attempt to place John the Baptist in his historical context — unfortunately it appears that this new book places him within the 21st-century context of scholars and not the Judaism of the first century.

A more reasonable place to start the search for John the Baptist is within the turbulent political and religious times during the first century when Messianic expectations were high. The best place to study this history is the archaeology of the Judean wilderness and the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

John’s first-century message of repentance, purity and forgiveness as reflected in the Gospel accounts addressed the political and social conditions of his times, and it is probably best for our times to hear the message of this desert preacher than to change his message to better fit the 21st century.
Steven M. Ortiz is assistant professor of archaeology and biblical studies and the director for the Center of Archaeological Research at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

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  • Steven M. Ortiz