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AtlasToursJordanBiblical Jordan

New Testament Events

More than eight centuries after the time of Elijah and Elisha, John the Baptist would be the next major biblical figure to appear in the land of Jordan. He first appears in the Bible in the wilderness around the lower Jordan Valley, where he lived an ascetic life, preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and told people to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.

The Bible reports that John preached and baptized in a place called Bethany beyond the Jordan, which Byzantine and Medieval texts as well as modern archaeology identify as the site called Tell Kharrar and Elijah's Hill (Tell Mar Elias in Arabic).

Jordan River and Church at Bethany

This site has long been identified as the same place from which traditions says Elijah ascended to heaven. It was appropriate for John the Baptist to appear and begin his mission at the same place from where Elijah ended his own, for both of these leading biblical prophets played similar theological and spiritual roles: they confronted the religious laxity of their times, challenged political authority, announced the imminent arrival of the Messiah, and urged people to repent and live a righteous life.

The area around the large loop in the Jordan River opposite Jericho has been identified for nearly two millennia as the area where Jesus Christ was baptized by John the Baptist (pbut). Stunning archaeological discoveries since 1996 between the Jordan River and Tell Kharrar have identified this area as Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was living when he baptized Jesus (John 7:28).

John 10:40 refers to this same place when it says that, fleeing for his safety after being threatened with stoning in Jerusalem, "Jesus went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days".

Pottery, coin, stone objects and architectural remains confirm the site was used in the early 1st century AD, during the time of Jesus and John the Baptist. The extensive architectural remains visible on the main site are from a 5th-6th century Byzantine monastery, with churches, baptism and water storage pools, water systems and chapels. A 3rd century (Roman era) building with fine mosaics has been called an early Christian "prayer hall".

Baptism Pool, Bethany

If this identification is correct, this may be one of the earliest Christian prayer facilities identified anywhere in the world. Also identified here is the cave where, according to numerous Byzantine pilgrims' texts, John the Baptist lived and baptized.

The pilgrims noted that fresh water flowed out of the cave, and John drank the water and used it for baptism. The cave was turned into a church in the Byzantine period (early 4th to early 7th centuries AD). The church built around the cave, and a water channel emerging from the cave, have been recently excavated and can be visited today.

Closer to the Jordan River are four other Byzantine churches and large pools with an extensive water system, archaeologically dated to the 5th-6th centuries AD. These facilities were mentioned in texts by Byzantine writers, who linked them with the tradition of Jesus' baptism on eastern bank of the river.

This area and its settlements was known in the period from Jesus' time to the 6th century AD by several different names in different languages, including Bethabara, Bethania, Ainon and Saphsaphas. The site is depicted and named on the 6th century AD mosaic map of the Holy Land located in Madaba.

Today the area is called in Arabic Al-Maghtas (the place of baptism). New roads and visitor facilities now make the site easily accessible from Amman, the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea.

The Ruins at Machaerus

John the Baptist, who started and ended his mission in Jordan, is the patron saint of Jordan for Roman Catholic Christians. Herod Antipas imprisoned John (Luke 3:20). We know from the writings of the 1st century AD Roman-Jewish historian Josephus that the Herodian palace/fort where John was imprisoned and beheaded was the awe-inspiring site of Machaerus (modern Mukawir), a hilltop fortified palace overlooking the central Dead Sea region and the hills of Palestine and Israel.

The site is easily reached by car in 25 minutes from Madaba. Here John the Baptist was beheaded after Salome's fateful dance (Matthew 14:3-11). Like its sister site of Masada on the opposite side of the Dead Sea, Machaerus was also the scene of a Roman siege of local troops during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome.

Continue to: John and Jesus
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