Archeologists this week completed eight weeks of digging at a cave close to Kibbutz Tzuba near Jerusalem, revealing a monumental rock-hewn water system dating back to the time of King Hezekiah, from the 8th century BCE.
Last year the site received world-wide attention with the discovery of a cave said to have been used by John the Baptist and his followers for baptism purposes and cultic rituals. Archeologists say that the new discoveries at the site shed light on the reason why a group of baptizers would have chosen this cave, out of the many thousands existing in the hills of Judah west of Jerusalem, as the scene of their activities.
The archeological work at this site is being undertaken by a team led by Dr. Shimon Gibson and Professor James Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in the USA, and with the sponsorship of Kibbutz Tzuba and the Foundation for Biblical Archaeology.
"This is one of the most exciting sites I have excavated during my entire archaeological career," said Gibson this week. "Not only do we have a cave that appears to have been used by a party of baptizers in the 1st century CE, but it would appear that it was chosen for three reasons: for its seclusion, size and antiquity. What baptizers wanted was a place, distant from nearby villages, large enough to contain groups of people coming to be immersed, and ancient enough so that the cultic side of the rituals was put into a context linking them to the time of the Israelite prophets."
The recent excavations have shown that the cave where the baptisms took place was part of a much larger Iron Age water system, rock-cut in places to a depth of some twenty metres (65 feet). It was a monumental enterprise with a vertical shaft, an open horizontal corridor, a flight of stone steps above a tunnel, and three external plastered pools, all of which was on the slope above an underground reservoir. Pottery finds from the site show that the entire water system was built in the 8th century BCE at the time of King Hezekiah, at the same time as the hewing of the famous Siloam Tunnel in Jerusalem. "Similar monumental water systems", Gibson pointed out, "have been found elsewhere, but hitherto only within Israelite cities, such as at Beth Shemesh and Gibeon. Never before has such a massive water system been found isolated in the countryside without any town or city attached to it."
Such a massive enterprise, archeologists deduce, could only have been a project undertaken by the kingdom of Judah, and it must have been used by the inhabitants of the nearby biblical town of Suba. The dig showed that the water system fell into disuse in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE, although the reservoir-cave below was still being used for its water. During the Persian and Hellenistic periods the cave was still partially being used, but was eventually completely abandoned in the 2nd century BCE.
One hundred years after the cave was abandoned, it was reused by a group of people who practiced cultic rituals in the front portion of the cave and who immersed themselves in water at the back of the cave. These rituals were kept up at the cave from the time of John the Baptist himself and until the 2nd century CE. There was also evidence that the baptizers anointed feet with oil in a stone installation. Eventually, the cave was adapted by Byzantine monks to celebrate the memory of John the Baptist, carving an amazing series of large drawings into the walls of the cave, depicting the figure of John the Baptist, his decapitated head, his relic arm, crosses and other symbols. The cave was eventually abandoned with the coming of the Crusaders and the local Christians apparently fled for their lives.