Scholars continue to debate two related points: where did John the Baptist baptise and where was Jesus baptised?
The exact place of Jesus’ baptism is not known. The Jordan river was often not easily accessible, due to flooding and its setting with a deep gorge. The course of the river has changed over time, which is why ancient exts give slightly different accounts.
The combined evidence of the Biblical text, Byzantine and medieval writer’s accounts and the latest archaeological work all firmly locate the tradition of John the Baptist’s mission in the area directly east of the Jordan river. John 1:28 specifies “Bethany beyond Jordan” as the place where John was baptising; the expression “beyond Jordan” refers to the east bank of the river. In a later reference to the same place on the east bank, John 10:40 says that Jesus travelled “across the Jordan to the palce where John at first baptised.”
These references to Jesus’ movement from Galilee to the Jordan and then to John, conform with the normal route through Decapolis and Perea, bypassing Samaria, that Jesus would have taken between Galilee and Bethany beyond the Jordan in the lower reaches of the Jordan river.
John the Baptist and Jesus baptised people in different places, according to the Biblical texts, including “in the Jordan,” (Matthew 3:5; Mark 1:5) at “Aenon near Salem” (John 3:22, 23) and at other unspecified places.
Considerable new archaeological evidence indicates that Bethany-beyond-Jordan may refer to a region as well as to a specific settlement, almost certainly the settlement located at Tel el-Kharrar that would become a Byzantine monastery in the 5th century and ater.
There are twenty sites identified from the Jordan river to Wadi Kharrar and eastwards to WAdi Gharabah, which formed stations along the pilgrims’ route from Jersualem to the Jordan and finally to Mount Nebo. That itinerary commemorated places associated with the lives of some of the greatest prophets, including Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. When the French priest and scholar Denis Buzy visited the area in 1930 he reported seeing white mosaic cubes along most of the route from the river to the start of Wadi Kharrar at Bethany-beyond-Jordan.
One of the most exciting recent discoveries in this respect is a large church complex located adjacent to the east bank of the Jordan, dating from the 5th/6th centuries AD. The complex has at least two and perhaps three churches, including rmains of foundations and walls, mosaic floors, fine coloured stone pavements, Corinthian capitals and column drums and bases, all from the late Byzantine period. This church is almost certainly the one described by Byzantine texts as having been built by the Emperor Anastasius (491-518 AD) to commemorate the baptism of Jesus. This site also has Islamc period pottery and architecture from the 8th-9th centuries Ad, reflecting the continued use of the pilgrims’ route and river crossing in early Islamic centuries.
In between the settlement of Bethany-beyond-Jordan and the river itself, at the point wher the vally plain (the ghor) plunges down into the depression surround the Jordan River (the zor), the Jordanian archaeologists have discovered and excavated a large, stone-built plastered pool measuring some 81 x 65 feet. Cut water channels bring water into the eastern end of the pool from Wadi Kharrar and carry water out of the pool’s western end towards the Jordan. Pottery at this site included sherds fromt he Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic periods.
Dr Waheeb and his colleagues are exploring possible uses for this ancient structure. They tend to see it as a multi-purpose pool that served pilgrims on their way from the river towards Bethany and Mount Nebo. It could be used for baptism, ritual cleansing, refreshing baths or other purposes. The badly damaged remains of a Byzantine chapel have been excavated on a small promontory directly above the pool, with a magnificent panoramic view of the entire valley floor, Jericho and the Palestinian hills leading to Jerusalem.
Dr Waheeb believes that pilgrims stopped at this place to wash and refresh themselves and prary in the chapel before continuing their journey to Bethany and Mount Nebo. One theory being explore is that this pool and channel were built after the church of John the Baptist adjacent to the river went out ofuse in the 7th century AD.
The anonymous Pilgrim o Bordeaux in 333 AD located the site of the Jesus’ baptism at five Roman miles (4.5 modern miles) north of the Dead Sea shore, which is the area near where Wadi Kharrar enters the Jordan river. Several church writers and pilgrims in the 5th-7th centuries AD mentioned churches commemorating the baptism of Christ located in the lower Jordan valley and Bethany region. The pilgrim Theodosius around 530 AD was the first to mention the church at the Jordan built by the Emperor Anastasius a few decades earlier. Built on arcades and square in shape, the church had a marble column with an iron cross marking the spot where people thought Jesus was baptised.
Textual evidence from the 4th to 12th centuries AD shows a consistent tradition locating John the Baptist’s settlement of Bethany-beyond-Jordan at Wadi Kharrar, a mile and a quarter east of the Jordan river, in an area dotted with caves. Early Chrstian tradition acknowledged the sacred associations of the territory east of the river with the baptism of Jesus. This is why Christian monks, hermits and monasteries have been attested east of the river since the earliest Christian centuries. In fact, the entire Bethany area from the Jordan river to Elijah’s Hill is in the custody of the Greek Orthodox Church, which has always recognised the sacred nature of this terrain.
Rami G. Khouri
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