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6. Bethany beyond the Jordan

The messianic activity of Jesus begins only after been baptized by John the Baptist. According to Gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist was preaching in the Judean desert when Jesus came to him, yet John baptized him in the Jordan river (Matt 3:1,6). That means the baptismal site has to be close to the Judean desert. The only possible location is the Jordan River near Jericho, just before it enters the Dead Sea. The Gospel of John actually mentions a location: “These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing” (John 1:28), but later he mentions another site: “And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there” (John 3:23).  Apparently John was baptizing in more then one place.

But where exactly are these sites?.

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“El Maghtas” (“The baptism site”) \ Qasr El-Yahud

East of Jericho is a 3 km stretch of the Jordan River, near where it enters the Dead Sea. This area is known in Arabic as El Maghtas (“The baptising site”). By Christian tradition this is the site of the baptism of Jesus. Accounts of pilgrims during the Byzantine period (4th-7th centuries CE) record their visits to the site, many for the purpose of immersing themselves, or being baptized, in the river. In those days, a stone pillar topped by an iron cross marked the “exact” spot in the water where Jesus was baptized. As a result, there was a well-developed road from Jerusalem to the baptism site. Several monasteries offered pilgrim services, and later Crusader fortresses guarded the route and ensured the safety of pilgrims. Today the baptism site is divided between the western bank, in the modern state of Israel, and the eastern side, in Jordan. For many years the area was closed to the public as it was the border between the two countries, but since the peace treaty in 1994 both sides have been developed for tourism, and in 2011 it was officially opened to the public.

The Greek Orthodox Church has a large monastery next to the baptism site. It is named after John the Baptist, but it also known by its Arabic name Kasr el-Yahud (“Fortress of the Jews”). The Arabic name recalls a tradition that the Israelites under Joshua crossed here the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land.

See here my cover of the 2012 “Epiphany” festival at Qasr el-Yahud

 

“Bethany, beyond the Jordan”

According to the Gospel of John, John the Baptist was preaching and

baptizing in “Bethany, beyond the Jordan” (John 1:28). The site of

Bethany (“Bethabara” in some ancient manuscripts) has been identified on the eastern side of the Jordan River opposite Jericho and extending 3 km (2 miles) east, up a dry river-bed called Wadi el-Kharrar. Father Féderlin of the Francisan order discovered, surveyed and photographed the site in 1890. But it took nearly a hundred years and the peace treaty with Israel, before the Jordanian Antiquities Department began excavations at the site. The excavations, directed by Dr Mohammad Waheeb, exposed a number of ancient buildings and pools. Now the site has been developed for tourism, especially since the visit of Pope John Paul II to the site in 2000. A low hill on the eastern edge of the site is called Jebel Mar Elyas, “Mount of Saint Elijah”. Mentioned by several pilgrims in the Byzantine period, the site was identified in antiquity as the place where Elijah ascended to heaven (2 Kings 2:11). At the foot of Jebel Mar Elyas a spring emerges into a series of pools where baptisms may have taken place in antiquity. Footpaths constructed at the site provide a pleasant walk from the tell to the Jordan River. Hermit monks carved caves in the rocks along the way and lived in them during the Byzantine era. Down near the Jordan River, archaeologists found the ruins of a Byzantine monastery with a church located at the traditional site where Jesus is said to have left his clothes during his baptism.

 

A church and monastery discovered near the Jordan River at "Bethany beyond the Jordan"

A church and monastery discovered near the Jordan River at “Bethany beyond the Jordan”. The smaller chapel is by local tradition the place where Jesus left his cloths before baptized by John.

 

A modern wooden porch not far away shades the cement steps that lead down into the river. Because the flow of the river is strong, especially during the spring floods, the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism constructed a set of pools above the riverbank for the use of modern pilgrims who wish to be baptized.

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“Aenon near Salim”

The Gospel of John mentions another place of baptism. “And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water

there.” (John 3:23). Where is this site? Aetheria, a 4th century CE pilgrim from Spain records visiting in the Jordan valley a village by name Sedima, which she argues is former Salim, and nearby is a spring in “The garden of John the Baptist”. Eusebius, a contemporary Christian geographer locates Salem as 10 km south of Scythopolis(ancient Beth-Shean), in the Jordan valley.

Most scholars identify this site at Khirbet Khisas al-Dayr, south of Beth-Shean where there is a spring and perhaps the remains of a Byzantine monastery.

"Tel Salim" south of Beth-Shean, and a fish pond using water of a spring below it.

“Tel Salim” south of Beth-Shean, and a fish pond using water of a spring below it.

The location accords in general with the Byzantine period descriptions, yet to this day the site has not been excavated. Being so, there are some who suggest to locate “Aenon near Salim” at other locations, such as Tel Abu-sus, a mound near Khisas al-dayr, or at several springs near Schechem, arguing Schehem is “Salim”.

Only an excavation could possibly solve the riddle of the location of ancient Aenon.

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The mosaic map of Madaba

To solve these riddles an ancient map could be much use. Such a map was actually found, but it only made things more complicated!

In 1884 monks repairing a church in Madaba, a small town 30 km SW of Amman (Capital of modern Jordan), were amazed to discover a large mosaic floor depicting a map of the Holy Land, and emphasizing its holy sites. It also labels all the baptism sites mentioned in the New Testament, but surprisingly confuses them all.

South of Beth-Shean the maps labels a site as “Aenon, near Salim”. No doubt it is referring to “Aenon near Salim” mentioned in john 3:23, and recorded by several contemporary pilgrims.

Yet east of Jericho, the map labels the site of “Bethany across the Jordan” (John 1:28) as “Aenon, where now [is] Sapsaphas”. Such a place name is not known from the New Testament or any other ancient sources.

The map also labels the western bank of the Jordan River at that site, but it names it ““Bethabarah, [place] of Saint John the Baptist”.

“Bethabarah” is a name given by some old versions instead of “Bethany” (e.g. Codex Sinaitcus), yet if so, it should have been on the EASTERN bank of the Jordan river, not the western one.

Apparently the locations of the baptismal sites were mixed up during the Byzantine period. The artist of the Madaba map placed “Aenon” at two locations, and “Bethany” on the western bank of the river, but labaled it the alternative name “Bethabarah”.

In my opinion the baptism of Jesus took place somewhere near Jericho, and later John was also active at a spring called “Aenon” which should be somewhere in the northern Jordan valley.

Madaba Map, a 6th century map of the Holy Land, presenting different places related to the baptism of John the Baptist, and some what confuses between them.

Madaba Map, a 6th century map of the Holy Land, presenting different places related to the baptism of John the Baptist, and some what confuses between them.


 

Yardenit 

Because the traditional baptismal site near Jericho was on the border between Israel and Jordan since 1967, it was off-limits for tourists and pilgrims, and in fact minefields were planted in that area.

For this reason, in the 1970s Israel developed an alternative site at the northern end of the Jordan River, near the Sea of Galilee. Called “Yardenit”, the facility enables pilgrims to comfortably change into white robes and then be baptized, even in wheel chairs if needed.

A group of Hungarian Christian pilgrims baptizing at Yardenit.

A group of Hungarian Christian pilgrims baptizing at Yardenit. Behind them a damm controls the water flow from the Sea of Galilee into the Jordan river.