Baptism in the River Jordan

Ancient tradition meets modern ecology: Cleansing the soul, cleaning the water.

Mike Rogoff
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Pilgrims undergoing baptism at Qasr el-Yahud, the site where John baptized Jesus, according to the New Testament.
Pilgrims undergoing baptism at Qasr el-Yahud, the site where John baptized Jesus, according to the New Testament.Credit: Oliver Fitoussi
Mike Rogoff

“The river was swollen nearly to the top of its banks, and swept along with a powerful, turbid current,” wrote Stephen Olin, a New England educator and Methodist minister, in 1843. It’s hard to believe that he was describing the southernmost stretch of the Jordan River, in the desert near Jericho, which is now little more than a sluggish, polluted stream.

For Christian pilgrims down the ages, the modest river has assumed mythical proportions. It was in this area, says the New Testament, that “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1). People flocked to him “and were baptized by him in the river Jordan…”

And it was here, it continues, that Jesus came to be baptized by John, a moment that marks the beginning of his ministry.

A Jewish mitzvah

Immersion in a natural water source – like a river – was and still is a primary Jewish mitzvah, a widely observed religious commandment. But its purpose was always ritual purification. Immersion with the aim of repentance seems to have been an innovation, though apparently not of John himself, since it appears in the famous Dead Sea Scrolls written by the esoteric Jewish sect of nearby Qumran.

The redemptive power with which Christian believers imbued the act has made it a fundamental rite (in one form or another) of their faith. Olin bears witness: Camping in primitive conditions in the Jericho Plain, he rose long before dawn to walk to the river with thousands of excited pilgrims, most from the Eastern branches of Christendom.

For them, Olin writes, the pilgrimage was “the grand event of their lives, upon which … their eternal destinies might be dependent.” After the ceremonies, they returned to their overnight encampment, mission accomplished, in a mood (his words) of “bliss” and even “ecstasy.”

Baptism moves north

The site where John is believed to have baptized Jesus is known today as Qasr el-Yahud, the “Castle of the Jews," in the West Bank.

Qasr el-Yahud is still in use, after a hiatus following the Six-Day War, but there is a better-developed and more popular site to its north, called Yardenit.

The Jordan River rises in the far north of Israel, in the Upper Galilee, and spills into the freshwater Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret in Hebrew). The Christian narrative is specifically tied to the river’s lower course, long after it leaves the other end of the lake and begins meandering toward the Dead Sea.

Just south of the lake, the river becomes Israel’s frontier with the Kingdom of Jordan. Another 30 minutes' drive further south and the highway crosses the Green Line into Samaria. Jordan controlled that area from 1948 to 1967, but lost it to Israel in the Six-Day War. Qasr el-Yahud fell within an Israeli military zone along a hostile frontier, and for years was inaccessible to civilians. Pilgrims went to the only alternative access to the river: where it left the Sea of Galilee, some 100 kilometers north of the traditional site.

The new location was a slippery mud embankment, designed for pleasure-craft owners to back their boats into the water. It was hazardous, and offered no facilities at all.

In the early 1980s, a new riverbank site was developed a few hundred meters downstream from the makeshift location, near the entrance to Kibbutz Kinneret. Dubbed Yardenit (from ‘Yarden,’ the Hebrew name of the river), the site has developed into an important stop on many Christian itineraries, offering changing facilities and safe, controlled access to the water for the more than half a million visitors it welcomes every year. And, yes, say the experts, the water quality is very good.

The same cannot be said for Qasr el-Yahud downstream. Its location is undoubtedly more authentic, and certainly less commercialized, but the quality of its water is another matter. The site has been refurbished and those seeking an authentic, uncomplicated scriptural moment may prefer to stop here; but the bulk of pilgrims, especially those intent on immersion, still go to Yardenit.

Saving the Jordan

The lower reaches of the Jordan River face two life-threatening issues, according to Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME). The first is river flow.

Some 96 percent of the precious freshwater upstream, from the upper Jordan River, its tributaries and the Kinneret, is diverted for domestic and agricultural use by Israel and Jordan. This has reduced the river south of the lake to a trickle, devastating wetlands and ecosystems downstream.

A decade of FoEME advocacy has been credited for the recent Israeli government decision to release regular quantities of fresh water from Lake Kinneret, through the small dam just above Yardenit. It’s a commendable first step toward reviving the river, say the environmentalists, but far short of the quantities needed.

The second issue is pollution caused by dumping untreated sewage and saline springwater into the river south of the lake. The prospects of reversing that process are looking better since a treatment plant was built at the southern tip of the Kinneret to process the effluence of the villages around it; of another in Jordan, across the river from Beit She’an; and, hopefully, of a third planned by the Palestinian Authority near Jericho, far to the south.

Meanwhile, Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy – Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians – have come together under the FoEME umbrella for an interfaith advocacy initiative to “Save the Jordan.”

Whose baptism site is it, anyway?

Pope Francis visited the Holy Land in May this year. Apart from the obvious sacred sites on his itinerary, he desired to pray at the traditional site of the baptism. But, like John Paul II and Benedict XVI before him, the Pope’s intention was not Qasr el-Yahud, but the Jordanian candidate for the scriptural site, on the east bank of the grungy stream, just a stone’s throw away.

There could have been some diplomatic motivation in the choice, but it does have scriptural roots. The Gospel of John identifies the baptism site at “Bethany beyond the Jordan,” and Jordanian archaeologists have unearthed remains of Byzantine churches and water facilities that, they claim, support their view that this was where the event took place.

The east bank, already studded with bright-domed chapels, is about to become a Christian pilgrim center, with several denominations planning to build churches, hostels and monasteries on land donated by the Jordanian government. The Vatican has given its stamp of approval to the Jordanian site, it seems: the Roman Catholic Church is planning a 30,000-square-foot, or almost 2,800-square-meter, complex there.

The water may be clean by the time it’s finished.

A pilgrim undergoing baptism at Qasr el-Yahud, the Jordan River site where John is believed to have baptized Jesus.Credit: Oliver Fitoussi

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