Bethany on the other side of the Jordan (John 10)

After a particularly difficult exchange with the Jews, Jesus escaped to the area on the eastern side of the Jordan River “to the place where John had been baptizing” (John 10:40). The name of this location is given in John 1:28 in the NIV as “Bethany on the other side of the Jordan“. Early pilgrims claimed that a place called Sapsaphas, north of the Dead Sea and east of the Jordan River, was the site at which Jesus was baptized and that a church there was dedicated to John the Baptist. Interestingly, the pilgrims also identified a hill in this vicinity as the point from which Elijah had been taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:1-14), perhaps mistakenly associating the first Elijah with John the Baptist, who was commonly called the second Elijah (Matthew 11:14, 17:11-13, Luke 1:17). A place called Beth-abara (a possible variant name for Bethany) is shown on the sixth century mosaic Madaba map, where it is labeled “Ainon (spring) where now is Sapsaphas”.

Ancient Sapsaphas has been identified as Wadi el-Kharrar, a small riverbed slightly over 1,6 km long, 8 km north of the Dead Sea. Investigations there have located “Elijah’s hill” at Tell el-Kharrar at the beginning of the wadi, about 1,6 km from the Jordan River. Excavations at the hill have revealed three churches, three caves and three baptismal pools from the Roman and Byzantine periods. Approximately 302 m from the Jorda River there is indeed a church, identified by the excavators as the Church of Saint John the Baptist that was mentioned by the early pilgrims – the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism (John 1:29-34).

Other scholars have suggested that the term “Bethany” is rather to be identified with the region of Batanea in the northern Transjordan. This suggests that Bethany (“Bethany beyond the Jordan” on the map above) was a region, not a town. Some Jewish writings attest to possible linguistic links between the names Bethany and Batanea. In the generations immediately preceding Jesus’ birth, pious Jewish sects moved into this area, many of whom were anticipating the coming of God’s Anointed One from the north. That John the Baptist could have begun his ministry among or have been associated with one or more of these groups is not unreasonable.

Illustration: The traditional site of Christ’s baptism

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