Jordan amasses evidence for claiming Jesus baptism site
(Photo: Bethany baptismal pool with ruins of ancient basilicas in rear, a staircase to the water and, at right, two of the four massive pillars that used to hold a church above the baptism site, 6 May 2009/Tom Heneghan)
In John’s Gospel, verse 1:28, it says that John the Baptist used to baptise people in “Bethany beyond the Jordan” and Jesus went there for his own baptism. Seen from the perspective of Jerusalem, “beyond the Jordan” means on the river’s east bank, in present-day Jordan. Those words were added to distinguish that Bethany from the village near Jerusalem where Jesus was said to have raised Lazarus from the dead. Despite that, pilgrims have long visited a spot on the river’s west bank, now in an Israeli military zone in the Palestinian territories, and considered it the true site where Jesus was baptised.
For about a decade or so, Jordan has been contesting that claim with excavations at a site on the river’s east bank that it argues must be the real place. Following John’s Gospel (the others only speak of the river itself) and descriptions from pilgrims dating back to the fourth to twelfth centuries, Jordanian archeologists have uncovered ruins of five ancient churches and a wide array of other remains and artifacts pointing to the area’s use as a pilgrimage site.
(Photo: Israeli flag on west bank across Jordan River and Greek Orthodox church on the east bank Bethany site, 6 May 2009//Jamal Saidi)
Pope John Paul’s visit to Bethany in 2000 was a coup for Jordan, which is keen to establish its site as a major centre for Christian pilgrims. But he also slipped in a quick visit to Qasr al Yahud, the west bank site across the river, to avoid any impression of partiality. Pope Benedict doesn’t seem to have the same concern — he’s coming to Bethany only and not planning any stop at the rival site. See our news story on this here.
If you ever visit the site and have a stroke of luck, as a group of English pilgrims did when I toured the area on Wednesday, you’ll come across a bundle of energy named Rustom Mkhjian who explains the site’s claim to authenticity with nothing short of missionary zeal. Mkhjian, a Jordanian engineer and Armenian Orthodox Christian, is assistant director of the Baptism Site Commission. For the past 12 years, he has been working at the site unearthing the foundations of ancient churches and matching passages from the Bible to facts on the ground. He was showing me around when the English group came up to the baptismal pool and their Jordanian guide introduced him as the real expert to tell the story.
With that, Mkhjian, a wiry man of 49 who studied civil engineering in Britain and monument restoration in Rome, launched into a short presentation quoting the gospels of John and Luke and the main testimonies from pilgrims down the ages. This historical background is well explained on the informative Baptism Site website. The site also shows plans for the new churches being built a short walk from the baptismal site and a gallery of photos of VIP visitors to date.
For the issue of the rivalry with Qasr al Yahud, the pages under “authentication” are the most interesting. Over the past few years, several Christian denominations have written letters backing Bethany’s claim (and thanking Jordan for permission to build churches there). The latest was star U.S. evangelical pastor Rick Warren, who praised “the opening of this authentic site where Jesus (Peace be upon him) was baptized.” Editorial comment: that PBUH — a regular addition in Muslim countries for the Prophet Mohammad — seems like a translation from the Arabic. Warren must have written something positive, but I didn’t use this quote in my news story because it didn’t sound right.
(Photo: Tourists visit Bethany baptism site, 6 May 2009/Jamal Saidi)
Qasr al Yahud, which is still in an Israeli military zone and open only occasionally to Christian pilgrims, enjoys none of this promotion and apparently little or no similar evidence amassed to support its claim. In the original draft of my story, I wrote that Israel seemed to have lost interest in promoting it. But our Jerusalem bureau intervened to say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had just announced some economic aid programs for the Palestinian territories that included Qasr al Yahud. We inserted that into the story but still don’t have many details of what he plans.
The English pilgrimage group that borrowed Mkhjian from me for 10 minutes included some who had been here three years ago, when the pool was but a small puddle because the water table was lower at that part of the year. Wondering why it was now much bigger, one joked that it might have been filled up for the pope’s visit on Sunday. “You can’t bring a pope all this way just to see a puddle,” he quipped. As soon as I identified myself as a reporter and asked if I could quote him, the man seemed to think he’d said something sacrilegious and nervoslsy asked not to be named!
My photo on the right shows the not-very-impressive Jordan River near the baptism site. Todays’s Jordan River is only about 10 metres (yards) wide and lies low in a riverbed lined by tamarinds and reeds. The baptism site is off to the right, on a flood plain about seven metres (yards) higher than the river. The Jordan used to be wider, but dams upstream have diverted much of its former flow for agricultural or industrial use.