Monday, August 23, 2004

"IN SEARCH OF THE SACRED" Newsweek has an article on the supposed cave of John the Baptist, with some interesting digressions. Excerpts:
But the issue is more complicated for Jews. Orthodox Jews consider it a sin to disturb Jewish graves, but Dever, the American scholar, suspects the issue of Jewish graves is hiding a more serious agenda: "They don't want scientific investigation," he charges, "because they're afraid it will prove their patriarchal stories aren't historical." And, in fact, current scholarship is not especially congenial to Old Testament literalists. There is, essentially, no evidence for the existence of Abraham and the other patriarchs, and�despite more than a century of intensive study of Pharaonic Egypt�only the barest wisps of support for the Exodus, the central event in Jewish theology. There are accounts of Egyptian raids into Palestine that brought back captives, presumably as slaves, and a dispatch from a border guard in the early 12th century B.C., reporting that two people had escaped from Egypt into the Sinai. On the basis of what has been found so far, "there was no Exodus, at least not of hundreds of thousands of people making a miraculous escape across the desert," Dever says. "And there was no conquest" of the land of Canaan by Joshua. "There are several chapters in Joshua on Jericho," says Carol Meyers, a professor of Biblical studies at Duke, "but Jericho wasn't even inhabited at the time." Some things do check out: an Egyptian artifact, the Merneptah stele, refers to a victory by Pharaoh's Army over the Israelites in about 1200 B.C. That date falls in the period when the minimalists deny that Jews even lived in the Holy Land. This particular question is so politically fraught, according to Claire Pfann, a New Testament scholar in Jerusalem, that minimalists have accused their opponents of forging evidence to bolster the Zionist case.

So the territory on which Gibson has embarked is a treacherous one, both politically and geologically, but for good or ill he has jumped in with both feet. . . .

Few of his colleagues, even the few who have seen the cave, go along with him. "Maybe Gibson and the kibbutz want to attract tourists," says David Amit, a senior archeologist with the antiquities authority who describes himself as a friend of Gibson's. "It's pure fiction. It's not archeology." Even Tabor, who agrees with Gibson that the cave was undoubtedly used for ritual purposes in the first century, concedes that "you can't prove John was there." Among other objections to Gibson's theory, there is nothing in scripture to suggest that John baptized believers anywhere except in the Jordan River. And there is little more than conjecture for a scenario sketched in Gibson's book by which John "might very well have sent Jesus intentionally to visit the scene of his early baptism activities ... and our [Tzuba] was just that place."

See also the related Newsweek article "Unearthing the Bible" and Mark Goodacre's numerous postings on the John the Baptist cave story since it broke. I've linked to the first posting but there are lots more, so you might want to go to the NT Gateway main page and just keep scrolling down until you get to August 18.) Specialists are generally skeptical about the cave's connection to John. Me too. But if it can be established that it actually is a first-century installation involving ritual purification, that alone would be a tremendously important archaeological discovery.

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