Where was Jesus baptized?
There is no clear archaeological proof that Jesus existed, let alone where he might have been baptized, if he was. The only fact we know in this context is that Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist appears in no less than three of the four New Testament gospels: Matthew, Luke and John. According to these accounts, he was baptized in the Jordan River.
The question is where along the River Jordan this happened. The synoptic gospels are vague on that point. The synoptic gospels are vague on that point, to the frustration of Christian pilgrims throughout the ages.
Today two sites compete for the title of “where John baptized Jesus”: One is Yardenit, which lies a hair south of where the Jordan exits the Sea of Galilee. The other is al-Maghtas, 100 kilometers south of Yardenit as the dove flies, a site which straddles the river with one bit in Israeli territory and one bit in Jordan. Al-Maghtas is situated just a short drive north from the Dead Sea. Al-Maghtas was also known in ancient times as Bethabara (“place of crossing”) or Bethany Beyond the Jordan.
There is not a shred of solid evidence for anybody's baptism activities at either Yardenit or Al-Maghtas, let alone that of Jesus. That said, while Yardenit has no associated ruins, al-Maghtas certainly does. On the Jordanian side of the river, it has a church from the late 5th or early 6th century and the Israeli side has a monastery dubbed Qasr al-Yahud (“Fort of the Jews”).
For what it’s worth, the Madaba Map, made by mosaicists in the 6th century and the earliest known representative of the Holy Land’s geography, depicts a site called “Bethabara, the place of St. John’s baptizing” on the Jordan River. It’s shown on the western, Israeli side of the river, this is true, but historians don’t believe the Madaba Map achieved such resolution and think Bethabara refers to the general vicinity. The name Bethany may be a mere section of Bethabara.
But maps and churches appearing centuries after the event cannot be taken as gospel, as it were. Traditions can be like the game of Chinese whispers or telefon shavur, a long and twisty road from the original.
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Now, based on geo-historical and archaeological considerations, Prof. Shimon Gibson, renowned biblical scholar at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has a new argument: likely al-Mahgtas (Bethabara), certainly not Yardenit, but possibly neither.
The mission of Jesus
For the sake of this article, let us accept the historical existence of Jesus, John the Baptist and also of Jesus’ baptism, whether by full immersion or otherwise. Prof. Gibson’s opinion on the possible site of Jesus’ baptism is described in Chapter 15 of the book “Fountains of Wisdom in Conversation with James H. Charlesworth” by Gerbern S. Oegama, Henry W. Morisada Rietz and Loren T. Stuckenbruck, which was published in April.
But when wondering where, as in the place, one wonders also why Jesus needed baptizing at all? By definition, he would have been sinless, so the ritual could not have cleansed him of evil nor would he have needed salvation.
Gibson explains that today, Christians mostly see Jesus’ baptism as him symbolically taking on everybody else’s sins. “Being baptized for repentance is seen as an act of humility and of generosity from Jesus towards his fellow human beings,” he suggests.
But the redactors of the New Testament, between 50 to 100 C.E., must have asked much the same question – why would a sinless Jesus have allowed himself to be baptized by his "forerunner" John the Baptist? The answer was likely that the historical Jesus was still unclear about his ‘mission’ at that point, which would have been around 28 C.E., Gibson surmises.
Today’s pilgrims may thrill at dipping into the shrunken (and somewhat polluted) stream that was the Jordan River in emulation of their Savior and feel they are undergoing a religious experience. But 2,000 years ago the rationale would have been otherwise.
“Those belonging to the ‘Jesus group’ – since Christians only called themselves such from the fourth century – had two problems,” Gibson explains. One was how to distinguish themselves from other Jewish groups, of which there were many and which were distinct from one another, including in ritual. The second was how to subjugate the ‘John the Baptist’ story and render him into the forerunner of Jesus the Messiah.
Note, Gibson stresses, that an independent “Baptist” Jewish group probably existed independent of the “Jesus” group until as late as the mid-second century. In any case we are left with the question: if Jesus was baptized, then where?
The Jordan River starts in northern Israel, and flows into the Sea of Galilee. The river exiting the lake on the other side is called the River Jordan too, though technically it isn’t. Anyway, this southern segment of the Jordan reaches the Dead Sea. There the river ends. Being the lowest place on Earth, there is no outflow whatsoever from the Dead Sea.
Somewhere along this river, according to scripture, Jesus was baptized. But there is no historical or archaeological basis whatsoever supporting the case of Yardenit, Gibson contends. Conversely, al-Maghtas has been the traditional site of Jesus‘ baptism since antiquity, and it (aka Bethabara or Bethany) is assumed to be the site referred to in the Gospel of John:
“These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing” (John 1:28).
The fact that Christian pilgrims flock to al-Maghtas today is not relevant; nor are pilgrims’ choices in late antiquity. Nor do Byzantine ruins from roughly the sixth-century at al-Maghtas mean much. They were probably erected there based on local lore; but when locals point out to tourists a site where tradition says something happened, that identification isn’t necessarily reliable. Nor has it ever been. Sometimes people tell you what they think you want to hear. Sometimes they want to sell you “relics” or souvenirs of the past.
Take Queen Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, who visited Jerusalem in 326 C.E. or thereabouts and based on consulting locals, supposedly found the “true cross” which had the power of not merely healing the sick but resurrecting the stone-cold-dead. As the Golden Legend roughly compiled between 1259 and 1266 explains: a man named Judas (not that one) found three crosses at a site in Jerusalem; two evinced no magical capacities but when Judas laid a corpse on the third, “anon the body that was dead came again to life.” On the other hand, Eusebius of Caesarea, who was an official historian for Constantine, does not mention Helena finding a cross, and in fact does not mention Helena at all in this context.
Then there is Mount Sinai, one in Saudi Arabia and one in the Egypt. Both have the same quality of attestation and neither is thought by most experts to be anything other than, well, mounts. Craggy ones. Meanwhile, in recent years, archaeologists have found what they believe to be the Church of the Apostles, supposedly built on the house of Peter and Andrew – around five centuries after the two had died, and likely based on hazy local legends of where they had lived.
More relevant in Gibson’s mind are practical considerations, such as, where John the Baptist might have immersed large groups of people. While Yardenit’s identification as That Site is nonsense, purely a modern designation for tourists, the case of al-Maghtas is yet to be proven but is plausible and stronger, being the traditional site and thus technically possible. Also, all pilgrims as of the year 333 cite that Jesus was baptized near the Dead Sea and none cite the Sea of Galilee. Is this proof? No, but it is suggestive.
Apropos, why would John or anybody baptize people, let alone lots of them, in the relatively inaccessible and unreliable Jordan River as opposed to, say, the highly accessible and convenient freshwater Sea of Galilee, or at a nice spring of water in the highlands? Possibly to foment religious ecstasy in isolation, far from the madding fishermen; but more likely, because al-Maghtas was actually on the map.
Its other name, Bethabara, which means crossing point, is where Joshua Ben Nun is said to have crossed into the Promised Land with the Israelites, Gibson explains. The Prophet Elijah is also supposed to have crossed into Heaven around Bethabara. “John’s baptism was intended as a rite of passage,” the professor explains – and where better to perform it than Bethabara, which is specifically cited in John 1:28 and 3:26.
As said, the sixth century Byzantine architectural remains at Bethabara, found on both sides of the river, don’t mean much. It would have been nice to find ruins there from the early Roman period, the first century, but none have been (yet).
That need not destroy the case of Bethabara as The Site. As Gibson points out, temporary camps erected to perform baptisms, as opposed to permanent settlements, wouldn’t have survived the ages.
There is also the possibility that modern minefields may have inhibited more discoveries from being made by roaming archaeologists. And they may never be, Gibson postulates, given that the materials used were for setting up flimsy camps and because John’s baptism activity at the Jordan may have lasted no longer than one year. And then, in 28 C.E., he was arrested. This is not the stuff from which archaeological dreams are made of.
Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, according to Mark: “And just as he was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart, and the Spirit descending like a dove on him”.
Gibson believes that at the dawn of what would later become Christianity, there were a string of baptismal sites up and down the Jordan River, from Aenon/Salem in the north to al-Maghtas in the south. These sites were run by John the Baptist’s flock in the first century and possibly into the second as well. They were connected to the Jesus group, but they were also distinct. The best candidate for the place of Jesus’ baptism, based on what indications there are, is al-Maghtas, in Gibson’s opinion.
But he qualifies: al-Maghtas was not the only place where John performed his transitional ritual. For instance he also went to Aenon, just south of the city of Scythopolis, aka Beit She’an.
So where did John baptize Jesus? We don’t know where, and barring a miracle, it is likely we never will.