This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2015.—Ed.
“John answered them, ‘I baptize with water; but among you stands one whom you do not know, even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.’ This took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”
—John 1:26–28 In 2015, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee added the archaeological complex at Al-Maghtas, Jordan—dubbed the Biblical “Bethany beyond the Jordan”—to its World Heritage List. The site has been venerated as the place where John the Baptist baptized Jesus since the late Roman–early Byzantine periods, when early Christians began making pilgrimages to the area.
Archaeological work conducted from 1996 to 2002 in modern Jordan about 7 miles north of the Dead Sea on the eastern shore of the Jordan River uncovered a number of Byzantine-period buildings. Near the bank of the river, archaeologists excavated a series of churches celebrating the site of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. About two miles east of this church complex lies a small hill called Tell el-Kharrar or Tel Mar Elyas (“Elijah’s Hill”—early Christian tradition also associated this site with the place where the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in the Hebrew Bible). At Tell el-Kharrar, archaeologists excavated a Byzantine monastery. Chapels, monks’ hermitages, caves and large plastered pools were also discovered in this area.
On UNESCO’s website, Al-Maghtas is referred to as “Baptism Site ‘Bethany beyond the Jordan,’” and the archaeological evidence discovered there “[testifies] to the religious character of the place.”
UNESCO’s addition of Al-Maghtas to its World Heritage List is not without controversy, however. Another tradition places the baptismal site on the west bank of the Jordan River—in Israel.
Other than Israel, no country has as many Biblical sites and associations as Jordan: Mount Nebo, from where Moses gazed at the Promised Land; Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John baptized Jesus; Lot’s Cave, where Lot and his daughters sought refuge after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and many more. Travel with us on our journey into the past in our free eBook Exploring Jordan.
In the Biblical Archaeology Review article “Where John Baptized: Bethany beyond the Jordan,” journalist Rami Khouri explains the reason why we do not have a clear idea of the specific location of “Bethany beyond the Jordan” from the ancient sources:
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) mention Jesus’ baptism, but none of them indicates whether it occurred on the western or eastern shore of the Jordan. However, it seems likely that it would have been on the eastern shore. Jesus was coming from Galilee (again, explicit in Matthew and Mark). The normal route through the Decapolis (a group of ten Roman cities in the region) from Galilee would bypass a hostile Samaria by crossing the Jordan and proceeding south on the eastern side of the river.
[However,] the famous Madaba map, a partially destroyed sixth-century mosaic map in a church in Madaba, Jordan, seems to locate it west of the Jordan River. I say “seems,” not because there is any doubt as to the location west of the river, but because it is not called by the appellation “Bethany beyond the Jordan.” It is called Beth Abara, instead of Bethany. In the third century, the church father Origen, unable to locate the Bethany referred to in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, somewhat arbitrarily suggested emending the text to read “Beth Abara across the Jordan.” Beth Abara means “House of the Crossing,” possibly identifying a ford in the Jordan. A site of that name does appear in the Talmud. Following Origen, Eusebius in his Onomasticon (early fourth century) also refers only to this name, spelling it Bethaabara. In Jerome’s Liber Locorum (late fourth century) he calls the site Bethabara. Most of the ancient manuscripts, such as the major codices known as Vaticanus and Sinaiticus (fourth–fifth centuries), read Bethany in John 1:28. Nevertheless, Beth Abara apparently caught on and it is used in the Syriac version of the Gospels. And Beth Abara, not Bethany, appears on the Madaba map—on the west side of the Jordan. Beneath the name Beth Abara is a three-line legend telling us that this is the site of “The Baptism of St. John.”
Perhaps the Madaba map mosaicist, who lived east of the Jordan, understood “beyond” the river to mean west of the river—though for the original writer of the Gospel of John, “beyond” the Jordan clearly meant east of the Jordan River.
It is important to remember that veneration of the baptismal site of John the Baptist on the east side of the Jordan River—as attested by evidence of churches and the monastery complex at Al-Maghtas—began no earlier than the Byzantine period.
The identification of “Bethany beyond the Jordan”—whether on the west or east side of the Jordan River—“has nothing to do with archaeological reality,” University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill archaeologist Jodi Magness told the Associated Press. “We don’t have any sites with evidence or archaeological remains that were continuously venerated from the first century on.”
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on July 14, 2015.