(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.