BETHANY BEYOND THE JORDAN, Jordan — Where was Jesus baptized?
Biblical scholars and the Bible state that Jesus was baptized by the apostle John at a site on the Jordan River in approximately 30 AD.
But exactly where he was immersed has been debatable. Jordan claims Jesus was baptized here on the river’s east side, which lies in Jordan, while Israel says he underwent baptism on the west side, which is in the Israeli-occupied West Bank just 30 feet across the river from Jordan. Representatives of yet a third site near here named Yardenheit, which comes from the Hebrew word Yarden meaning “garden,” allege Christ was baptized there.
All three sites are located on the bank of the Jordan two or three miles north of the Dead Sea. Historians agree that no matter which site is the correct one, Jesus was baptized by John approximately 1,998 years ago and the site of the ceremony is one of the three holiest in Christendom, the others being the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, where Christ was crucified and resurrected, and the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, where he was born.
I am writing this from Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where visitors are greeted by fading yellow signs bearing the warning “DANGER MINES!” and rusting, sagging barbed wire fences. They are the legacy of approximately 3,000 underground land mines and booby traps planted in the area by the Israeli Defense Forces, the Jordanian Army and Palestinian terrorists during past Middle East conflicts, the most recent being the 1967 Arab-Israeli War or “Six Day War” of which Israel was the victor. Most of the signs have been cleared and deactivated, but pilgrims and tourists are admonished not to wander off the beaten path into the bleak, surrounding desert.
The Bethany site is the “true” location of Jesus’ baptism, state Jordanian government representatives, UNESCO, which has declared it a World Heritage Site, most biblical historians and Pope Francis, who traveled here four years ago and authorized it to be named the place of Jesus’ baptism.
The site is called Al-Maghitas in Arabic, and it was astonishing for me to behold, upon my arrival, the smiles and handshakes I was given by at least two dozen zealous Christians in the throes of baptism in the Jordan River. Russians and other Eastern Europeans, Americans, Western Europeans, Taiwanese, Japanese, Indians from India, Australians, Britons and black Africans, the latter clad in their traditional, multi-colored gowns, appeared to be the most prevalent when I spoke with them as they prepared for the ceremony.
All those baptized here must wear long white gowns for the ceremony, and they either bring them or rent or purchase them at a local shop. The purchase price is about $30 and rentals cost approximately $15. Bathing suits must be worn under the gowns. The immersions may be partial or full. Those being baptized also must pay for dressing rooms and hot showers. Some of the larger groups bring along their own ministers and small groups and individuals make prior arrangements for religious personnel to be present. Two Scottish couples I befriended brought with them from Jerusalem a minister of the Church of Scotland.
As some of the Americans and Western Europeans entered the river for the ceremony, many were crying, speaking in tongues or reciting biblical passages. A group of about 20 Russian men and women cried out their devotion to Jesus as they were fully immersed. They had politely asked me not to take photographs of them which would reveal their faces, and I obliged. When the river ceremony for them ended and they emerged from the water, one of the women ran up to me and kissed me on both cheeks!
When the clearing of the land mines and booby traps began at this place last year, Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of the Holy Land, traveled here and said, “We are glad that after many years, pilgrims from around the world will be ably to fully experience and venerate this holy site.” Other religious leaders, who also believe Bethany Beyond the Jordan was the site of Jesus’ baptism, are coming here to deliver similar messages. But those endorsing the two competing sites in Israel as the real locations of the baptism are adamant in their beliefs as well. Anger and strife have plagued the Holy Land for centuries, and, sadly, it may continue forever.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.