On Feb 16 my son Simon, who was visiting Israel, arranged for us to visit Kibbutz Tzuba in the Jerusalem hills near Hadassah Hospital to meet Reuven Kalifon, biblical scholar, archaeologist and kibbutz member, who had been a scholar-in-residence at his Reform synagogue, Beth Emek in Livermore CA. Reuven gave some excellent lectures and Simon was very interested in meeting him again and to see for himself some of the things Reuven had described. Particularly Reuven had discovered a cave of biblical origin with some carvings on the walls.
After meeting Reuven at the kibbutz on a cold, rainy day, we had a nice hot cup of tea and then drove down the road to a location a few kilometers from the kibbutz itself, but still within its grounds. Then we walked about a kilometer through a muddy field to a location that one could not have found oneself. There we walked down some irregular steep steps into a large cave, which was half-filled with water, which he estimated was 2 meters deep. The cave itself was narrow (about 5 m) but very long (ca. 30 m). The walls were very straight and the ceiling obviously hewn out and this cave was clearly man-made. The walls were smooth and covered in plaster, although broken in places. Reuven told us that the plaster had been carbon-dated (because the limestone was burnt to make it into plaster) that put the age of the cave at 900 bce or about 3,000 years old. There was a hole in the roof about half-way down the cave which let light in and rain. Clearly the cave had been built as a cistern to collect water and it still worked.
Reuven explained that he had discovered the cave about 20 years before and had often taken groups to see it while explaining the biblical significance of the area. But, when he had discovered it, it had a very small entrance and was very shallow with a height of about 1 m, so that one had to crawl into it and could not stand up. One day, he was exploring the cave with a lamp with Dr. S. Gibson, a visiting achaeologist, who noticed what appeared to be a crude carving of a face on the cave wall. Reuven reported this finding to the Israel Antiquities Authority and eventually they sent someone out to verify the finding. At first the man was skeptical and asked Reuven if he had carved it himself. But, then he dug down a little below the surface and found that there was a whole figure of a man carved on the wall. The fact that the figure was carved below the floor of the cave as it then was indicated that the cave had been silted up with earth during the centuries that it had not been in use. Eventually they excavated the cave with Reuven’s help and other volunteers and the cave was emptied down to its plastered floor and proved to be about 5 m deep instead of 1 meter. When it was excavated the carving on the wall was seen to be of a whole man and the fact that it was carved near the top of the cave meant that it had been silted up about two thirds of its height when it was carved, making the age of the carving about 2,000 years old. In fact the figure had evidently been carved by Christians, because it was accompanied by several crosses.
The figure itself consisted of a man with a kind of crown on, holding a staff in his left hand and with a kind of skirt that looked like an animal skin. There were crosses and other objects carved nearby. By comparison with other carvings and drawings and from Christian stories the figure was most likely that of St. John the Baptist. The fact that the figure was carved in a cistern where there was water indicated that this might have been a site of early Christian baptism. There were other crosses and obscure carvings on the other wall of the cave. The excavation is not complete, about a fifth of the silt still needs to be removed at the end of the cave (this work can only be done during the dry season). This cave is obviously of great interest to Christians, particularly Baptists.
Further excavations were carried out nearby, particularly to reveal the position of the hole in the roof of the cave. During these excavations more findings were discovered, including the base of a large stone wall to the right of the cave and the entrance to another cave, in which were standing on the left hand side against the hewn rock surface seven upright stones (or stele), one of which was partly fallen, and an eighth round stone. According to Biblical references, these represent an ancient site of worship, possibly including animal sacrifice. Other cases of standing stele are well-known in Israel, including at Tel Gezer on the road to Jerusalem, that was excavated starting in the 1930s. There is reference in the Bible to the destruction of such local sites of worship and an order that all sacrifices were henceforth to take place at the Temple in Jerusalem during the reign of King Hezekiah (715-868 bce) the 14th King of Judah when Judaism was becoming a centralized religion and during which the oral law was being written down as the canonical Bible that we have today. Altogether a fascinating site where biblical Jewish and Christian artifacts are mingled, and shows once again that Christianity makes no sense without its Jewish origins.