KIBBUTZ TZUBA, Israel
Archaeologists think they have found a cave where John the Baptist baptized many of his followers, basing their theory on thousands of shards from ritual jugs, a stone used for foot cleansing and wall carvings telling the story of the biblical preacher.
Only a few artifacts linked to New Testament figures have been found in the Holy Land, and the cave is potentially a major discovery in biblical archaeology.
Members of an archaeological team enter the cave where the excavation team believes John the Baptist anointed disciples.
(Kevin Frayer -- AP)
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"John the Baptist, who was just a figure from the Gospels, now comes to life," British archaeologist Shimon Gibson said during a recent tour of the cave. But some scholars said Gibson's finds aren't enough to support his theory, and one colleague said that short of an inscription with John's name in the cave, there could never be conclusive proof of his presence there.
John, a distant relative of Jesus, was a fiery preacher with a message of repentance and a considerable following. Tradition says he was born in the village of Ein Kerem, which today is part of modern Jerusalem.
Just 2.5 miles away, on the land of Kibbutz Tzuba, a communal farm, the cave lies hidden in a limestone hill -- 24 yards long, four yards deep and four yards wide. It was carved by the Israelites in the Iron Age, sometime between 800 B.C. and 500 B.C., and apparently was used as a ritual immersion pool, the scientists said. Over the centuries, the cave filled with mud and sediment, leaving only a tiny opening that was hidden by trees and bushes.
Yet in recent years, it had occasional visitors -- including Reuven Kalifon, an immigrant from Cleveland who teaches Hebrew at the kibbutz and began taking his students spelunking there. They would crawl through the narrow slit at the mouth of the cave, all the way to the back wall, though they saw nothing but dirt and walls.
In December 1999, Kalifon asked Gibson, a friend, to take a closer look.
Gibson, who has excavated in the Holy Land for more than 30 years, moved a few boulders near the walls and laid bare a crude carving of a head. Excited, he organized a full-fledged excavation.
Over the next five years, Gibson and his team, including volunteers from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, cleared out layers of soil, picking up about 250,000 shards from small jugs apparently used in purification rituals.
The explorers uncovered 28 steps leading to the bottom of the cave. On the right, a niche is carved into the wall -- typical of those used in Jewish ritual baths for discarding the clothes before immersion.
Near the end of the stairs, the team found an oval stone with a foot-shaped indentation -- about a shoe size 11. Just above, a soap-dish-like niche apparently held ritual oil that would flow through a small channel onto the believer's right foot.
Crude images were 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 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.