Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Cave of John the Baptist (updated)

The big news story, of course, is the discovery of the "cave of John the Baptist". Thanks to several correspondents and bloggers for drawing attention to it (royherzl, Jim West, Bob Webb, Jim Davila, Jennifer Daniel). The story is all over the news and a search of Google News will bring up multiple versions. They are all essentially variations of the one basic Associated Press story. This is it as it appears on BBC News:

John the Baptist's cave 'found'
A British archaeologist says he has found a cave used by the New Testament figure John the Baptist.

Shimon Gibson spent five years excavating the site near Jerusalem, unearthing objects apparently used in ancient purification rituals.

Images carved on the walls include that of a man with wild hair and carrying a staff, said to be reminiscent of John, whom the Bible says baptised Jesus.

Biblical scholars have questioned the find, which they say is inconclusive.
The first question that people are asking is whether this is simply more sensationalist stuff. The answer to this one is that Shimon Gibson, if somewhat given to strident claims, is a reputable scholar and the story at least deserves to be taken seriously. He is perhaps best known in recent times for his discovery of the Jerusalem Shroud, about which CTVC made a television documentary broadcast on ITV in the UK at Easter 2002, The Mystery of the Shroud. Gibson heads the Jerusalem Archaeological Field Unit, a private research group.

Also mentioned in various of the articles is James Tabor, from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, U.S.A., who was involved with the Jerusalem Shroud too. Many will know him from his web site The Jewish Roman World of Jesus.

The next and more difficult question concerns what to make of this find. As yet, the story is too young to have generated much public reaction from Biblical scholars and archaeologists and it will be this reaction that will be interesting to look out for in the coming weeks and months. But in the mean time, have a look at this interesting piece:

"Cave of John the Baptist Found"
- A Response by Todd Bolen

Todd Bolen is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at the Israel Bible Extension of The Master's College and knows Shimon Gibson and this archaeological site. He notes that the announcement has been timed to coincide with the release of Shimon Gibson's book on the subject published by Doubleday yesterday, The Cave of John the Baptist: The Stunning Archaeological Discovery that has Redefined Christian History. Bolen writes:
I believe he makes the same mistakes as previous archaeologists in jumping to a conclusion for which the evidence is slim - particularly a conclusion which associates it with the Bible and therefore makes it headline-worthy. If this was just another Iron Age cistern used by hermits in a later period, no one would care about it. But if it's identified with an important, and little-known, biblical figure as John the Baptist, the potential attention is profound and book sales multiplied . . . . And yesterday's headlines bore this out - every website I visited had a link to the story, and the book's sales rank at Amazon skyrocketed to #335.
Bolen's point seems further to be born out by the fact that as of today, the book has risen still further to #223. Speaking for myself, I'm inclined to congratulate Gibson for being a good self-publicist. Why not be savvy and link-up the release of your latest book with media reports? Clearly Gibson is an expert at this -- the Jerusalem Shroud discovery was announced by a tie-in with the TV documentary previously mentioned. I'd bet Doubleday love Gibson! (Alas, books on the Synoptic Problem are not so easy to tie-in with media stories.) But what does concern me a little, and in this I think Bolen makes a useful point, is the somewhat sensational spin not of the media reports but of the book itself. The subtitle "The Stunning Archaeological Discovery That Has Redefined Christian History" has the ring of overstatement that one would have preferred to be absent. Let us say that this was John the Baptist's cave: in what sense does that fact "redefine Christian history"? It may well corroborate, add, provide background, shed light, but does it "redefine Christian history"? Likewise, consider the first sentence on the inside of the book flap,
The first archaeological evidence of the historical reality of the Gospel story.
I suppose it depends what one means by "archaeological evidence" and "the Gospel story" but things like the Pilate inscription from Caesarea Maritima spring to mind.

One other comment from the book flap:
For here is the largest ritual bathing pool ever found in the Jerusalem area, and found in the village where John the Baptist was born . . . .
Let us here bear in mind that the only Gospel to mention John the Baptist's birth is Luke, in an account thought by many to be highly legendary in its details, and even here we have only the vaguest indication of where John the Baptist's parents lived. When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, she goes "into the hill-country . . . into a city of Juda" (Luke 1.39, ἐπορεύθη εἰς τὴν ὀρεινὴν . . . εἰς πόλιν ἰούδα; cf. 1.65). I find myself a little concerned that our earliest extant text to deal with the question is vague and generalised about a location that is being held to be certain.

One other remark on a detail in the news story. This is taken from the CNN version yesterday, Scholar says he's found John the Baptist's cave:
Crude images had been carved on the walls, near the ceiling, and Gibson said they tell the story of John's life.

One is the figure of the man Gibson had spotted on his first visit to the cave. The man appears to have an unruly head of hair and wears a tunic with dots, apparently meant to suggest an animal hide. He grasps a staff and holds up his other hand in a gesture of proclamation.

James Tabor, a Bible scholar from the University of North Carolina, said there is little doubt this is John himself. The Gospels say John was a member of the Nazarites, a sect whose followers didn't cut their hair, and that he adopted the dress of the ancient prophets, including a garment woven of camel's hair.
No doubt this is a case of media reporting that overstates something more speculative, but it needs to be added that it is not true that "The Gospels say John was a member of the Nazarites". Luke 1.15 has "he will drink no wine or liquor" and Matt 11.18//Luke 7.33 have "John came neither eating nor driking" / "John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine". From these verses we might surmise that John the Baptist took a Nazarite vow since abstinence from alcohol was an essential element in that vow (Numbers 6.1-27), but it's only a surmise. The Gospels show no signs of the other elements in the Nazarite vow (do they?).

Update (17.05): David Meadows notes on Rogue Classicism this article today from News in Science which features comment from Michael White:
Professor of classics and director of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins at the University of Texas at Austin, L Michael White, was cautious of the findings.

"As an archaeologist and biblical historian I would be very cautious of these new 'discoveries' until more evidence is presented," he said.

According to White, the site is most likely a place of veneration created in the period between the 4th and 6th or 7th centuries AD by Christian pilgrims who began to come to the Holy Land to see such legendary places.

"That would also account for the fact that there are ritual implements and baptismal pools installed in the cave. They would have been part of the first tourist trade: get baptised just like Jesus did. The Byzantine style paintings would go along with the veneration," White said.
Note also David's comments which echo mine above -- "Dr. Gibson obviously has a good publicist . . ." David has remembered several more stories about Gibson's finds and claims too -- check out the links in his blog.

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