Jesus’ Baptismal Site to open to the public

According to this Jerusalem Post report, the site where Jesus was baptised will be opened to the public in 10 days’ time, on January 18, 2011. See also Todd Bolen’s report here.

When we tried to visit the site last year, following the signs for Qasr el-Yahud, we found that the road was blocked by a military fence and gate.

Leen at the road sign for the Baptismal Site

Military fence on the road to Bethabara

There was a sign which we ignored because we didn’t understand what “photgraphy” was!

View of Bethabara from the fence

It will be wonderful to visit this site, which has been off-limits for 42 years. The site where Jesus was baptised is called Bethabara in John 1.28. The Hebrew name Bethabara means the “Place of Crossing”. Not only was it a suitable place where travellers crossed the River Jordan opposite Jericho, but the name also indicates that it was the place where the Israelites crossed over into the Promised Land after the death of Moses.

This drawing from our Image Library shows the location of the Camp of Israel in the Plains of Moab opposite Jericho (Numbers 33.48,49). Here, the scene is set for the crossing of the Israelites into the Promised Land. The place where they crossed the River Jordan is called Bethabara, where later Jesus was baptised (John 1.28).

The crossing of the Jordan is described in Joshua 3.15,16 (quotes from ESV):

“as soon as those bearing the ark had come as far as the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water (now the Jordan overflows all its banks othroughout the time of harvest), the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. And the people passed over opposite Jericho.”

The Ark Passes over the Jordan, by J. James Tissot (1836-1902)

Bethabara played an important role in the life of Jesus, as he returned there many times after his baptism. He went there, for example, after his rejection in Jerusalem during Hanukkah, the Feast of Dedication, “He went away again beyond Jordan into the place where John at first baptized; and there he abode.” (John 10.40). ”Beyond Jordan” is, of course, also the place where the Camp of Israel was located just before they entered the Promised Land! Undoubtedly this site had a strong impact on the mind of Jesus as he would have been very familiar with the Biblical events that took place there.

After Jesus was baptised, he was tempted in the wilderness nearby. He used the words of Deuteronomy to counter the temptations of the devil. Moses wrote the Book of Deuteronomy while Israel was encamped “beyond Jordan” (Deut. 31.9).

According to the Madaba map, Bethabara is on the west side of the Jordan (see white arrow)

After the crossing, Joshua commanded to take out 12 stones and place them in the next camping place, Gilgal: ”these stones shall be for a memorial unto the children of Israel for ever” (Joshua 4.7). As John was baptising here, he probably referred to these 12 stones when he said: ”God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (Matthew 3.9).

Bethabara features again in the book of Judges. To complete his victory over the Midianites, Gideon:

“sent messengers throughout all the hill country of Ephraim, saying, “Come down against the Midianites and capture the waters against them, as far as Beth-barah, and also the Jordan.” So all the men of Ephraim were called out, and they captured the waters as far as Beth-barah, and also the Jordan. And they captured the two princes of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb.” (Judges 7.24,25).

This victory is reflected in a psalm when David longed for the victory over Israel’s future enemies “Make their nobles like Oreb and Zeeb”, looking forward to a time when their adversaries would be confounded forever (Psalm 83.11,18).

And there are still further references in Scripture to Bethabara: During the rebellion of Absalom, King David crossed here and returned later via the same crossing place:

“So the king came back to the Jordan, and Judah came to Gilgal to meet the king and to bring the king over the Jordan. ” (2 Samuel 19.15).

Bethabara is also the place where Elijah and Elisha went after leaving Jericho. There “Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2.11).

Giovanni Battista's (1683-1754) painting of Elijah ascending in a whirlwind

A visit to this site will be a valuable addition to any tour of the Land. Needless to say, such a visit would be greatly enriched if it is with “Bible in hand”, in order to reflect on all the significant events that took place here. Hopefully I will be able to see the place from the other side, when I visit Tall el-Hammam in Jordan.

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7 Responses to Jesus’ Baptismal Site to open to the public

  1. It’s been possible to visit Qasr el Yahud (entrance is from highway ) for some time but I just checked and it has become even easier. The site is now open more hours, Saturday to Thursday from 9:30am to 3:00pm. All that is required is to call them at 02 650-4844 a day in advance and tell them how many people are coming.

  2. Shmuel,
    Thanks for that information!

  3. John Ronning says:

    We visited this site on 10 January. It is evident there how much water is taken from the Jordan upstream for irrigation, for the level is way down from ancient times. More could be said about the theological significance of this place. When Jesus returns to the Jordan in John 1, he sets about doing something like Joshua did after crossing the Jordan – the 12 stones you mentioned were set up as a memorial and witness to the great deeds of the Lord. They were to be set up “at the place you lodge” (i.e. Gilgal). Similarly Jesus at this place gathers disciples to himself as witnesses to the Lord’s mighty deeds, and names the chief witness “rock.” John mentions the question “Rabbi, where are you staying [tonight]” which draws attention to the parallel from Joshua: the stones being set up at the place Joshua would spend the night. So Jesus is following in the footsteps of Joshua. More importantly, he is following his own path of 1400 years earlier, as the ark also crossed the Jordan, with, in Targumic thought, the divine Word between the cherubim. That Word has now become flesh. This is in chapter 5 of my book, The Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology (Hendrickson/Baker 2010).

  4. John,
    Because of the irrigation, the Jordan doesn’t overflow its banks anymore and the level is rather low. Many notable events took place in Bethabara, such as the ones you mention. Elijah also was taken up to heaven in this place.

  5. Troy Lyons says:

    What about the Bethabara/Bethany issue where all modern translations render the site as Bethany? The commentaries mention that it was Origen who changed it to Bethabara based not on the text, but on the claims of the area to be the site where Jesus was baptized. Textually, it seems to be Bethany.

  6. Robert K. says:

    Clarification needed:

    According to the Madaba map, Bethabara is on the WEST (emphasis added) side of the Jordan, as your white arrow indicates.

    However, the phrase “across the Jordan” or “the other side of the Jordan” (John 1:28; 3:26; 10:40) indicates that Bethabara (KJV) is one the EAST side of Jordan, correct?

    Please also see e.g. Map 6 in “The Holy Land” book by George W. Knight (Barbour Publishing, Inc. 2011.

    Also, see Map 2 in this internet link: http://www.ccel.org/bible/phillips/CP051GOSPELMAPS.htm

    In above maps, Bethabara is shown to be located on the EAST side of the Jordan, albeit the precise location may not be known as yet.

    Appreciate your early reply to: robertkhaw@hotmail.com

    Thank you.

  7. Robert,
    The name Bethabara means the “Place of Crossing”, so it depends from which side you approach this point. One can either be east or west of the crossing. No remains of the First or Second Temple period have been found and there are Byzantine monasteries on both sides of the Jordan, so I stick with the crossing place itself.

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