This is the first of my posts on Holy Land sites. Over the months there will be more. We cannot be sure where most things in the Bible actually happened because, at the time, people didn’t put down GPS markers. For instance, there are two competing sites of the crucifixion in Jerusalem. The Via Dolorosa has changed routes several times. The upper room touted as the site of the Last Supper is in a building erected in the 11th Century – AD. This is one of three sites claiming to be the place Jesus was baptized. If you’re looking for faith in a place you may be disappointed. Better to look into your heart. I wrote this in 2007.
“Bethany Beyond the Jordan” is one of at least three sites claimed as the place where Jesus was baptized.
“The river Jordan is chilly and wide, Milk and honey on the other side”
But the river Jordan is hot, shallow and narrow. On the other side of the Jordan there was no milk and honey, just a military installation with a big, huge Israeli flag. (As of 2007: for an update see below.)
The actual site where Jesus was supposed to have been baptized is no longer on the Jordan River. The river has changed course in the past 2000 years and the “actual” baptism site is a dry ditch with the ruins of three Byzantine churches marking the site.
Much of the baptism tour commentary consists of the guide justifying the selection of this place as the baptism site rather than two sites touted by the Israelis across or up the river apiece. (One, Yardenit, is on a kibbutz that specializes in catering to evangelical Christian tourists.) If you believe the Bible (written a century after the event) John the Baptist set up shop across the river from Jericho. If that was the case, this might be the place. A mosaic map from the 6th century on a church floor in Madaba also marks this as the spot. The late Pope John Paul II agreed that this is “the” spot when he visited Jordan. (So I wonder if the big, huge Israeli flag on the other side was set up for spite.) At the river itself there’s a new baptismal church with a gold dome donated, personally, by a Russian Senator, and a baptismal font “down by the riverside.” But here they still “Study War.” For security reasons you have to travel in a group on a bus. This is a military border zone but, unlike the Israelis across the river, the Jordanian military tries not to be too obvious.
To get to the baptismal site you pass by “Baptism Groceries,” a shop set up at a bus stop. (After the Pope’s blessing Jordanians are gearing up for its own surge in religious tourism to compete with the Israeli Kibbutz at Yardenit.) All along this pilgrim road from the Dead Sea via Mt. Nebo to the Baptism site, you are given every chance to buy “Holy Water for anointing from sacred river Jordan. FOR EXTERNAL USE ONLY.” Having merely touched the water I felt compelled to use my hand sanitizer. At Baptism Groceries you can buy a “holy set” with Jordan River water, olive oil, also for anointing, and a small cross made of Holy Land olive wood.
I wrote this is 2007. Since then the Israeli’s have opened up the site across the river, where the military post sat, as a third publically accessible baptism site. They have built steps down to the Jordan. They claim to test the water daily to see if it is safe for actual immersion and provide showers for after baptism hygiene. It looks like this place is trying to become a serious contender in the Holy Land tourism sweepstakes. But where does this leave Yardenit, the enterprising Kibbutz further up the Jordan near the Sea of Galilee? Well, if you Google “Baptism Site, Jordan River” (or River Jordan) the Yardenit Kibbutz still pops up first. But if you Google “Jesus Baptism Site” you get the Jordanian site on top. Jordan has nominated its site to UNESCO as a World Heritage Site but the UN has not yet officially weighed in but it is sponsoring excavations in the area.