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Archaeology uncovers likely site of Jesusí baptism in Jordancomment (0)

October 12, 2006

By Bob Terry

Since the beginning of Christendom, followers of Jesus have desired to be baptized at the site where Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. But where Jesus was actually baptized has been a point of disagreement until recently.

Christians who visit Israel are shown a scenic setting just south of the Sea of Galilee and told this is the place where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. Today the site resembles an amphitheater with seats and ramps where candidates can line up for the baptismal experience. Sometimes several people baptize at the same time. For many, the baptismal experience in the Jordan River is deeply spiritual.

But Jesus was not baptized just south of the Sea of Galilee. Matthew’s Gospel says John was preaching in the Judean wilderness and there he baptized. The Judean wilderness lies east of Jerusalem. It does not extend north to the Galilee. Mark’s Gospel describes John preaching in the wilderness close enough for the people of Jerusalem to come and hear him. That statement questions the northern baptismal site.

John’s Gospel is the clearest. John 1:28 says John the Baptist baptized at Bethany beyond the Jordan. Chapter 10 describes Jesus as leaving Jerusalem and going “beyond Jordan to the place where John was first baptizing” (v. 40).

This reference rules out the northern site. It says John baptized on the eastern side of the Jordan River in the area now known as the nation of Jordan.

For almost 10 years, the Royal Archaeological Society of Jordan has been excavating a site on the eastern shore of the Jordan River. The result is a growing consensus that the actual place where John first baptized and the place where Jesus was baptized has been found.

Evidence rests on what Ruston Mkhjian, assistant director of the Baptism Site Commission, called “four pillars” — the testimony of the Gospels, the record of Christian pilgrims through the centuries, archaeological discovery and a mosaic map of the area found in a church at Madaba dating from the 500s.

“Beyond the Jordan” clearly points to the east side of the river, Mkhjian said. The name “Bethany” can have more than one meaning, but one meaning is “a place of springs.” At the center of the excavation site is John the Baptist Spring, a natural flowing spring that produces water year-round and flows into the Jordan River except near the end of the dry season.

Archaeologists have uncovered a number of churches in this area. Five churches have been discovered at the site where John reportedly lived. Two churches have been found at the place where Jesus was likely baptized.
Archaeological findings are consistent with descriptions of churches at the traditional sites for Jesus’ baptism and where John lived. These descriptions go back to the first century, in some cases.

The mosaic map also indicates churches at the baptismal site of Jesus. Recent findings are consistent with the 1,500-year-old mosaic, the oldest map of Christian sites in the Holy Land yet discovered.

One of the churches incorporated a cave in which, it is reported, John lived during his wilderness days. The two churches that stood at the site where Jesus was baptized were open behind the altar. Where a wall would normally stand, marble stairs descended into the Jordan River to the exact spot where our Lord was reportedly baptized. At that exact spot are the ruins of a shelter built with four pillars and a roof that formed a cross. The marble steps are visible today.

The Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Coptic Church and others have all recognized the Bethany beyond Jordan site as the place where Jesus was baptized. The Greek Orthodox Church has already built a church in the area. Five other churches and two monasteries will soon be added, Mkhjian said.

Initially archaeologists reacted with skepticism to the claims for Bethany beyond Jordan, but now even some Israeli archaeologists have congratulated him and his colleagues for their finding, he said.

Archaeologists have unearthed churches, a monastery, baptismal pools where early Christian pilgrims were baptized by immersion — together with a water system, a prayer hall and a place where Christian pilgrims stayed dating back to the fifth century. There is still much work to do, Mkhjian said. Last year, the site hosted 100,000 visitors. It is expected that number will grow to 1 million visitors by 2012.

Listening to Mkhjian weave together evidence from the “four pillars” made a convincing case for the Jordanian site.
He was even able to make a case for the actual place along the Jordan where Jesus was baptized, at a point where the John the Baptist Spring flows into the Jordan River just as the writings of early Christian pilgrims testify.

A spokesman for Jordan’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said the site will be maintained in a natural setting.
That may be difficult. Supporting 1 million visitors takes a lot of infrastructure.

But the day we were there, the site had much of its natural quality. It provided time to reflect on what Mkhjian called “the sunrise of Christianity,” the time when Jesus was baptized, the time when God declared for John and others to hear that Jesus was God’s beloved Son, the time that Jesus began His earthly ministry.

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