Thursday, August 19, 2004

More on the John the Baptist cave

Over on Xtalk, Brian Trafford provides a link to a University of North Carolina at Charlotte Press Release dating back to 21 April 2000, over four years ago:

UNC Charlotte Professor, Students Find Pottery, Drawings in Jerusalem-Area Cave
Late last year, local residents of the Ein Kerem/Soba area of Israel’s Judean hills found a cave hidden by centuries of vegetation growth and debris. A British/Israeli archaeologist Shimon Gibson explored the cave and quickly noticed drawings or etchings that appeared to represent a man in primitive dress and several Christian symbols. Gibson called UNC Charlotte Professor James Tabor to inform him of the find and to ask if the university would like to obtain excavation rights. Tabor, a well-known biblical scholar, archaeologist and authority on John the Baptist, jumped at the chance.

Tabor and Gibson are convinced that the drawings are probably of John the Baptist, dating back to about the fifth century. Tradition holds that John was born and raised in the area and that his mother Elizabeth hid with her infant son in a cave to escape the child slaughter commanded by King Herod. There are several churches in the area dedicated to John or claiming to be sites from which he conducted his ministry.

"It makes sense that the drawings are of John," Tabor explained. "The man in the drawings, holding a staff, wearing what appears to be clothing made from hair, not cloth, and with one hand raised, is similar to the Gospels’ description of John.

"If these drawings or etchings do date back to around the fifth century, they will be the earliest known drawings of John and a most significant archaeological find," Tabor added.
I was wondering yesterday if there might be an informed comment from James Tabor on the fresh press stories about the cave that have emerged as the result of the publication of Shimon Gibson's new book yesterday. There's still nothing on his web page but this piece, from CBC News on Monday, discovered courtesy of Christianity Today's Weblog, suggests that Tabor is a great deal less sanguine about the find than is Gibson:

Archeologists dispute discovery of biblical baptismal cave:
KIBBUTZ TZUBA, ISRAEL - Archeologists in Israel claim to have found a cave where John the Baptist anointed his disciples, but an American professor who participated in the excavation remains skeptical . . . .

. . . . American religious studies professor James Tabor, who participated in the excavation with some of his students, is skeptical. He feels there is no proof that John himself actually used the cave, located more than five kilometres from the New Testament preacher's hometown of Ein Kerem, now part of Jerusalem.

However, both Tabor and Gibson agreed that the wall carvings – which depict a man wearing animal skins and holding a staff – tell the story of John the Baptist. The carvings are believed to have been made by monks in the fourth or fifth century.
Back to Brian Trafford's Xtalk message, there's another useful link on the Foundation for Biblical Archaeology site:

Suba Excavation

This project page includes some useful pictures, different from those appearing in the press reports.

For further sceptical comment on the find, see Ted Olsen's Christianity Today Weblog:

Bring Me the Stead of John the Baptist?

Here Olsen has several more interesting links, and he makes the following comments which echo those of David Meadows on RogueClassicism yesterday:
Well, if you're Shimon Gibson, you get enough amazing discoveries for multiple lifetimes. He discovered a first-century leper—a huge find, given that many scholars had argued that leprosy didn't really exist in Jesus' day and that his healings were of other skin ailments. And then there was his discovery of a shrouded corpse, which Gibson said "could be that of a witness to Christ's crucifixion" and proof that the Shroud of Turin is a fake. And then there was his highly publicized warning that the Temple Mount was in danger of imminent collapse. And his findings on the "real" Via Dolorosa. And all that is just in the last few years.

Weblog isn't suggesting that Gibson is making stuff up. He's a noted archaeologist, not some hack. But given the controversy about the last time someone claimed to have "the first archaeological evidence of the historical reality of the Gospel story," a bit more skepticism is in order these days.
Olsen also features a link to a Charlotte Observer article which does have Tabor offering some muted enthusiasm.

Update (22.18): in a comment that I have accidentally deleted, Jacob Knee notes that there is some discussion of the discovery on the ANE list including one from James Tabor himself from which this is an excerpt:
In the four seasons we worked at the Suba cave I think every Israeli archaeologist in the country came out to the site and visited, offered his or her input, and whether all agree with Gibson's conclusions at least there seems to be a consensus that this site is unique, important, and definitely related to the earliest followers of John the Baptist, if not John himself, and witness to various kinds of water purification rituals dating to the 1st century and previously unknown (foot washing, anointing, incense burning, etc.). Beyond that, the art appears to be among the oldest Christian art so far found in the Holy Land, which alone would make it highly significant. A scientific publication with the IEJ is forthcoming and involves the scientific/historical input of over 20 experts.


Anonymous said...

There were several {Christian}volunteer groups that were on this and 7 other kibbutzim throughout the Land via "Project Kibbutz" from 1978--81: is it possible that kibbutzniks would communicate information more freely with volunteers who might still be in good standing w/them??

jerry said...

I was with project kibbutz at tzuba in 1978, and would be very interested if any of my fellow volunteers were still in touch with the kibbutz.