Uncertainty has surrounded the exact location of “Bethany beyond the Jordan.” Recent archaeological investigations on the east side of the Jordan River have revealed that Wadi el-Kharrar could be the site. Wadi el-Kharrar is located near the Jordan River about six miles (10 km) east of modern Jericho. Archaeologists have ascertained this area was revered as the place of Jesus’ baptism from shortly after His crucifixion and resurrection. Christian pilgrims mention the site in their writings until the time of Joannes Phocas in AD 1185. It is also clearly identified on the famous Madaba Map, a sixth-century mosaic found in St. George Greek Orthodox Church, once a Byzantine Church, in Madaba, Jordan.
In Wadi el-Kharrar, numerous springs, one of which is even named “John the Baptist,” join together and flow into the Jordan River. Remains of Christian churches from the Roman and Byzantine periods have been identified. Greek Orthodox monks who occupied portions of the area between the 12th and 18th centuries revered it as the location of Jesus’ baptism.
The Bible explains that John was teaching at “Bethany beyond the Jordan” before Jesus came to him to be baptized. John’s teaching resulted in a large following, but John had collected his share of critics as well. The Bible states people came from as far away as the Galilee to watch, hear, be taught and baptized. We read that among the crowd who came to see and hear John were Sadducees and Pharisees, undoubtedly from Jerusalem (Mt 3:5), who debated and tested John’s message.
When asked if he was the Messiah, John made it clear he was not. He then explained he was baptizing “with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Mt 3:11)*
At this point, we twenty-first century folks might ask, “Why would Jesus need to be baptized?” If you are Christian, you know Jesus was not a sinner and did not need to be baptized as a “remission of sin” as is done in the modern Church. But, ritual water immersion during the period of the Gospels was used for different reasons, purification being only one of several. For example, a person could undergo baptism as a way of identifying with a particular doctrinal perspective, such as John’s. The Apostle Paul tells when individuals came to John for baptism, he “told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus” (Acts 19:4). Jim Martin provides the following explanation:
John’s doctrine was clear and imminent: turn back to God because the judgment against all wickedness is at hand. Anti-Roman sentiments were high. John’s message struck the hearts of those who were seeking the coming of the Messiah. The common people of the land believed that John the Baptist was God’s messenger (Mt 12:25; Mk 1:4). Therefore, they submitted themselves to his baptism in order to show faithfulness towards God and contempt for Roman idolatry. Such dedication to John undoubtedly aroused jealously in the hearts of Jerusalem’s religious leadership and greatly threatened the pro-Roman Herodian power (Martin et al, 2005: 61).
Another purpose for baptism was for consecration of the baptized person to be a political and religious authority. John, who was from a priestly family (Lk 1:5), could inaugurate Jesus into His public Messianic mission. Although this is a difficult concept for us to understand, as a Jew of the day I might have recognized this setting apart by baptism as a normal way of acknowledging great responsibilities. For example, early in the Old Testament, Levites were set apart for their religious tasks by baptism (Nm 8: 5–7). Solomon was anointed by a priest to be a political king by baptism at the Gihon Spring in Jerusalem (1 Kg 1: 38–40).
For whatever reason, I wonder if I would have made the difficult journey to see John and hear his message. In the first century, travel to that wilderness area was not easy. Bethany beyond the Jordan is deep in the Jordan Valley, hundreds of feet below sea level and only a few miles north of the Dead Sea. It is¬ very hot and sultry. Were I living where most Jews lived, west of the Jordan, traveling to this wilderness meant a long and hard walk of at least a day. Those who came down to Bethany beyond the Jordan from Jerusalem had to travel more than 25 miles (33 km) to get there. Others came from further away. John and Andrew, who were present at the baptism, were from Bethsaida in the Galilee (Jn 1:44), over 68 miles (110 km) from the scene.
Thus, my presence there would have indicated I had more than a passing curiosity in John’s message. Motives of those who were there the day Jesus was baptized were undoubtedly mixed. Some may have been Jewish religious followers, others trained and educated scholars who were out to put an end to John’s simple message they considered heresy. A few may have been secret Jewish revolutionaries looking for a nationalistic leader who might lead an army to end the hated Roman occupation.
The revolutionaries may have assumed they had found a collaborator in John the Baptist because John appeared to be anticipating God’s judgment upon the Roman Empire. Later, when Jesus began His ministry and did not provide visual signs of personal or political deliverance from the pro-Roman captors, John sent word to Jesus asking; “Are you the one who was to come, or shall we expect someone else?” (Mt 11:3).
Many of those present may have been ordinary Jews who were disenchanted and confused with the harsh and difficult to understand Jewish oral laws and traditions. It might have seemed that such man-contrived interpretations of Scripture contradicted what they read. In the Torah (the Law), God is described as loving and wanting reconciliation with mankind. Men raised and educated in the Jewish tradition of the day, and hungry for clarification, would have known that Malachi had promised the Lord, who would set things right, would send His messenger first (Mal 3:1, 4:5). Like all Jews, they believed that Elijah was the messenger and Jews, who do not believe Jesus was the Messiah, still long for Elijah to appear.
Why did some believe John might have been Elijah? John who, like Elijah, taught not in cities but in the wilderness on the east side of the Jordan, wore distinctive clothing similar to Elijah. John, like Elijah in his day, was confronting powerful leaders with a message of God’s judgment. Was John the Elijah of Malachi? Was he the one who was preparing the way? All these thoughts, and more, were undoubtedly racing through the minds of those who gathered at Bethany beyond the Jordan where John was teaching.*
Those men and women on the banks of the small fresh water stream, just a few meters from the place where it enters the Jordan River, would have watched with interest as Jesus approached. They would have been astounded as Jesus calmly insisted this was the way it was to be when the volatile John humbly protested he was not worthy of baptizing Jesus (Mt 3:14–17). As Jesus was baptized, they would have witnessed the same phenomenon John saw: the Spirit coming down from heaven as a dove and remaining on Him (Jn 1:32–34) while a voice from heaven said “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
I wonder if everyone there would have seen Jesus’ baptism in light of another biblical event. Bethany beyond the Jordan, directly across the river from Jericho, is the traditional place where Elijah commissioned his disciple, Elisha, to carry on his work. Here, a chariot of fire, drawn by fiery horses, separated Elijah and Elisha. Then Elijah, in a whirlwind, was taken to heaven (2 Kg 2:11).
A small hill in Wadi el-Kharrar still carries the name of Elijah and commemorates the place where he was taken to heaven. Elijah, it seems, is one of few people mentioned in the Bible who apparently did not die a human death but was taken directly to God. Thus, Jews have always believed that Elijah will return as God’s messenger to announce the time of Messiah. Even today, Jews place a chair for Elijah at circumcision ceremonies, set a place for him at the Seder table, consider him as the central sign of the resurrection of the dead, and make him the subject of songs sung at the close of the Sabbath.
Christians believe Elijah did come and announce Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus told men that John was Elijah (Mt 11:13, 14). God confirmed He had come to all men and women when the Spirit descended from heaven to alight on Jesus. No need to wait: He has come and saved us all!
But, how about me? After all the events had transpired on the day of Jesus’ baptism, I wonder if they would have confirmed to me that Jesus was Messiah. Many who did witness God’s Spirit descend from heaven believed, and ran to spread the word throughout the land (Mt 3:16). For example, Andrew found his brother, Simon, and announced, “...we have found the Messiah” (Jn 1:41). Philip, after hearing Jesus speak, told Nathanael and Nathanael, when meeting Jesus, exclaimed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel” (Jn 1:49). Thus, John’s act of baptizing Jesus confirmed Jesus as the Messiah.
So, what would have been my thoughts if I had been on the bank of that little stream over 2,000 years ago and witnessed the baptism of Jesus? Would I have recognized Jesus as Messiah, the Son of God, King of Israel, and run to tell others the wonderful news? I wonder. Would you? Do you?
*When Jesus was asked if John was Elijah, He stated that John, indeed, was Elijah (Mt 11:13–14; 17:10–13) although the Fourth Gospel does not acknowledge this fact (Jn 1:21).
Martin, James C.; Hansen, Carolyn R; and Hansen, David G.
2005 Exploring Bible Times: The Gospels in Context. Amarillo, TX: Bible World Seminars (P.O. Box 2687).
2001 Archaeological Excavations at the Baptism Site “Bethany Beyond the Jordan.” Bible and Spade 14.2 (Spring): 43–53.