The Cave of John the Baptist by Shimon Gibson

The Cave of John the BaptistThe Cave of John the Baptist by Shimon Gibson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This sometimes rambling account of an archaeological dig, along with side-trips and speculations on the life and teachings of John the Baptist, mostly delivers the goods.

I came across this book while researching the history of baptism, and knew right away I wanted to read it. I’m glad that I have, even though not all parts of the book were equally interesting to me. There is a lot of material here on things I found tangential, such as descriptions of churches dedicated to John the Baptist and a long chapter devoted to relics of the saint, which would not be of interest to me even in the unlikely event that any of them was genuine. Also, the author confesses that he talks nonstop during archaeological digs, and that garrulity comes through in his book. This, along with an undisciplined prose style, makes the book longer than it should be.

However, the things that I was seeking from the book are all here, and covered thoroughly. The cave at Suba, a place in the hills west of Jerusalem, is an interesting, provocative, and apparently unique archaeological find. For the cave, which is about 20 meters deep and 5 meters high, was hewn from the rock by hand during the Iron Age, and although it was apparently designed to catch and hold a large quantity of fresh water, it does not appear to have been a cistern in the usual sense. Its water was apparently used only for bathing–ritual immersion.

Since the cave is located in an area long thought to be John the Baptist’s home, and the cave itself contains an etched picture of a man that resembles his traditional image, it’s tempting to suppose that John did teach and baptize here.

Gibson explores this idea in various ways, but is candid about the scantiness of firm historical data on John the Baptist. The collected evidence can only be suggestive, although the author has a number of personal convictions which he shares. For my part I was glad to read these, and felt that as lead excavator of this site, he’s entitled to them. He supplies interesting historical material and lots of good illustrations and plates.

Gibson believes that John was connected with the prophet Elijah and with his expected return to Israel. John dressed like Elijah and practiced baptism on the lower Jordan River near where Elijah was thought to have been transported to heaven. When I reviewed my own notes I discovered that I’d come across this Elijah connection before, in Joseph Campbell’s Occidental Mythology. In passing, Campbell makes this intriguing observation:

[T]he rite of baptism was an ancient rite coming down from the old Sumerian temple city Eridu, of the water god Ea, “God of the House of Water,” whose symbol is the tenth sign of the zodiac, Capricorn, the sign which the sun enters at the winter solstice for rebirth. In the Hellenistic period, Ea was called Oannes, which is in Greek Ioannes, Latin Johannes, Hebrew Yohanan, English John. I shall leave it to the reader to imagine how he came both by the god’s name and by his rite.

How indeed.

It’s not a question that Gibson addresses, and perhaps it is outside the scope of his book.

One curious thing for me was reading this line on page 145 of Gibson’s book:

[A]n appallingly bad book (which I shall not even attempt to identify) . . . proposed Qumran as the place of Jesus’ crucifixion. . . .

I’m assuming that this appallingly bad book is no other than Barbara Thiering’s Jesus the Man: Originally Published in Hardcover As Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which I recently gave 5 stars in a review here. In concealing its title, it appears that Gibson is doing his bit to help suppress scholarly heterodoxy–an action which does him no credit in this reader’s eyes.

This, along with the author’s discursiveness and the inclusion of so much material that is not closely connected with the cave of the book’s title, has lowered my rating. But if you have an interest in John the Baptist or in baptism generally, this book is well worth a look.

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