Sun Dec 5, 2:10 PM ET
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KIBBUTZ TSUBA, Israel (AFP) - A British archaeologist has uncovered a cave in the mountains near Jerusalem which he believes conclusively proves that the Biblical figure of John the Baptist existed.
"The first concrete evidence of the existence of John the Baptist has been found on site," 46-year-old Shimon Gibson told AFP.
Gibson, who holds a degree from University College London and has written several works on Biblical archaeology, believes the discovery to be "the first archaeological proof of the historical veracity of the Gospels".
Other archaeologists, however, believe Gibson's conclusions go too far, and that the discovery of an ancient place of worship linked to John the Baptist does not prove that he actually existed.
According to the New Testament, John the Baptist was a prophet and fiery preacher who lived in the mountains between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. A contemporary of Jesus, John called on people to repent of their sins, after which he would baptize them in the Jordan River.
The cave, which is located on the grounds of Kibbutz Tsuba just outside Jerusalem, is "about an hour's donkey ride from Ein Kerem, the village where Christian tradition says John was born," Gibson says.
It is also on the edge of the Judean desert, where John was known to hold spiritual retreats.
The cave is located on the side of a mountain in an area covered in pine forests, close to a riverbed in a steepsided valley where the kibbutz maintains an olive grove.
It was the kibbutzniks themselves who in 1999 first alerted Gibson to the existence of the cave, which had been hidden behind a mass of vegetation for years.
A field archaeologist with an air of Indiana Jones about him, Gibson crawled through a hole into the cave, which was filled with rocks and earth.
He decided to start excavating after discovering a crudely-drawn picture of John the Baptist carved into the limestone walls "dressed in camel hair robes" as described in the Gospel of Matthew.
Several crosses and a rough drawing of a severed head were also carved into the walls, illustrating John's death by beheading at the hands of Herod Antipas, ruler of the northern Galilee region at the time.
Underneath the picture of John is a small niche "designed for a relic", Gibson explains.
"These drawings are the work of Byzantine monks who used to gather in the cave to tell the history of John the Baptist," he said, pointing out an area around the eyes where vandals, or iconoclasts, had tried to destroy the pictures.
Excavations, which took place between 2000 and 2003 in conjunction with a team from the University of North Carolina, revealed a space some 24 metres (yards) long, 4.5 metres wide and four metres high, with 18 huge steps leading down to a large rectangular pool.
"Its use for baptism rituals dates back to the Iron Age, the era of the kings of Judea," he said.
"We discovered tens of thousands of shards from clay pitchers with one handle, each about 30 centimetres tall, which dated back to the era of John the Baptist," he said.
"Unlike the baptism rituals practised in the Jewish religion, which were individual and dealt with the purification of the body, those practised by the disciples of John were collective and dealt with the purification of the heart," he said.
Just outside the entrance, further excavations revealed several huge pools for collecting rainwater which fed the main pool inside -- only water "from heaven" being suitable for the sacred baptism ritual.
"Once the disciple came out of the ritual bath, he would place his right foot in a notch cut out of the rock, where they would pour oil on it, a ritual which sanctified his taking a new path," Gibson explains.
John the Baptist's cave, which has been restored by Kibbutz Tsuba, will be opened to the public early next year.