Bethany Beyond the Jordan

A site revered for centuries as a place where John baptized and Jesus ministered once again welcomes pilgrims.

by Charles Miller, S.M.

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Muhammad thumbs through his well-worn New Testament and reads aloud two passages from the Gospel of St. John.

“This happened in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing,” Muhammad declares. “[Jesus] went back across the Jordan to the place where John first baptized, and there he remained.” “Here,” he adds, “was where John proclaimed Jesus the ‘Lamb of God,’ and where Jesus returned to find an enthusiastic reception after the hostility of Jerusalem.”

Muhammad also talks with ease about the Trinity, and points out that its only self-revelation, as such, took place at the baptism of Jesus, when the Father’s voice from heaven proclaimed the beloved Son, upon whom the Spirit descended in the form of a dove.

Archeologist Dr. Muhammad Waheeb is the excavator of the most recently investigated major site associated with the life of Jesus. The two Gospel passages state that John the Baptist was baptizing at Bethany beyond the Jordan River, i.e., on the east side of the river, as seen from Jerusalem. This Bethany should not be confused with the home village of Mary, Martha and Lazarus on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem.

For many centuries pilgrims have identified the location of the baptism of Jesus with a spot on the western bank of the Jordan River near Jericho. But over the past five years Dr. Waheeb has shown that for most Christians of the Byzantine period – the fourth through the seventh centuries – the activity of the Baptist was located at a site on the eastern bank known today in Arabic as Wadi el-Kharrar, about four and a half miles northeast of where the river empties into the Dead Sea.

The evidence of some pottery shards and other remains from the time of Jesus himself – what historians and archeologists call the Roman period in this region – is not yet sufficient to make an absolute identification of the site with the Gospel’s Bethany. And indeed it is difficult to “prove” archeologically the exact location of many, if not most, events of both the Old and New Testaments.

The earliest shrine-building efforts of newly free Christians, however, following the Romans’ issuing of an edict of religious tolerance in 311, as well as monastic settlements, bear witness to the attraction of particular sites to the faithful by at least the second quarter of the fourth century.

Dr. Waheeb, in his own words a “committed Muslim,” is Director of Cultural Resources Management for the Jordanian Department of Antiquities. As a believer in the one God, Muhammad sees his mission in life as bringing his science of archeology to bear on the sacred texts; to locate, excavate and above all to preserve sacred places as the heritage of all believers in the God of Abraham. With his conservation engineer, Rustom Mkhjian, an Armenian Apostolic Christian, Waheeb designed and developed the 25-acre Baptism Archeological Park to commemorate not only the baptism of Jesus, but also the ascent of Elijah in the fiery chariot, just as did the ancient Byzantine monastery at the site.

In Byzantine times, as at so many other sites then associated with biblical events, an active monastic and devotional life thrived in the Wadi el-Kharrar. Fresh waters, perfect for baptizing, flow for about a mile down into the much dirtier Jordan River, almost at the end of its long course from the Sea of Galilee.

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