John’s Baptism Site: Finds Beneath the Surface

Photo of the Baptism Site of Al Maghtas at low water.

Summary: Al Maghtas on the banks of the Jordan River has long been the traditional site for John the Baptist’s activity. There is more evidence pointing to the validity of this link than many realize.  

John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. – John 1:26-28 (ESV)

Is this site where John the Baptist Baptized?

117 degree heat overwhelmed our tour group as we stepped from our air-conditioned passenger van at Al Maghtas, Jordan. Now we would walk a short path in that heat toward a small inlet of the Jordan River, to the site recognized by many as Bethany Beyond the Jordan, also called Bethabara. Scrub trees provided little shade. I reminded my tour group that thousands once walked here from 25, 50, and 100 miles away to stand in heat like this for hours, and listen to John the son of Zechariah, John the Baptist. What a testimony to the gravitas of his preaching!

But John did more than preach. The Gospels, Acts, and Josephus (Antiquities 18:5:2) all refer to his baptizing. Baptism itself was nothing new. John’s listeners surely included people who had received proselyte baptism to become members of the Jewish nation, as well as Jews by birth who had frequently dipped themselves in baptisteries called mikvaot for reasons of ritual purity under the Law of Moses.

John’s baptism, though, was unique. It was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). It signified that the person baptized had truly repented of sin. It was the public guarantee of a reformed life with the hope of God’s forgiveness of past sins. John did not claim that his baptism forgave sins, but his work riled the temple authorities whose job it was to deal with sin according to the Mosaic Law. The baptism of the Christian Church in days soon to come would be different from John’s, but a further development of it.

John himself did the baptizing; people did not self-baptize as was common. John was the agent to ensure that each person who had come to the Jordan was sincere; this baptism was not for show. No one could receive John’s baptism unless John was convinced their repentance was sincere. This fiery prophet turned some away, and he welcomed others.

Al Maghtas is the widely-acknowledged place where Jesus’ public ministry began with his baptism by John. Matthew’s Gospel alone deals with the theological problem of Jesus being baptized by John when he needed no repentance. “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness,” was Jesus’ answer to John’s own objection (Matthew 3:13-15). Jesus’ words meant: showing solidarity with John’s movement was the right thing to do.

Three gospels report that Jesus was baptized, a dove appeared as the embodiment of the Holy Spirit resting upon him, and a voice from heaven said Jesus was God’s Son with whom God was well pleased (Matthew 3:16-17//Mark 1:9-11//Luke 3:21-22).

The Gospel of the Kingdom

Painting: Brood of Vipers by James J. Tissot 1836-1902
“Brood of Vipers” by James J. Tissot 1836-1902. (public domain)

Jesus would go next to the wilderness of Judea where he was tempted, and then to all the villages and towns announcing that the Kingdom of God was near. John had been preaching that same message at the river. This was a hope-filled, dynamic message, rooted in a vision in Daniel 7. Both Jesus and John would declare this good news. Jesus would heal to illustrate it, and use parables to open the minds and hearts of his hearers to the wonder of what was just ahead. All must be ready!  But this Gospel of the Kingdom was not pre-approved by governing authorities, Jewish or Roman. John was arrested. He lost his life at the fortress called Machaerus, beheaded to appease Herodias, wife of the Tetrarch Herod Antipas. (Mark 6:19-28) (See the evidence for Herod’s dance floor that spelled doom for John the Baptist found at Machaerus.)

What is the Evidence for Al Maghtas?

We would not expect archaeologists to find a buried inscription from John’s time saying: John baptized here. John worked in the country, at the river bank, in the absence of the kinds of things archaeologists look for. Nothing at Al Maghtas comes from John’s and Jesus’ day. So why should we attach any certainty to Al Maghtas as the site of John’s baptism?

The Al Maghtas Baptism site, on the banks of the Jordan River, at high water.
Al Maghtas Baptism site at high water. Those to be baptized presumably walked down the steps to the pool. Excavations only began here in 1996, following Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel in 1994, but have already uncovered more than 20 churches, caves and baptismal pools dating from the Roman and Byzantine periods. (I, Producer, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Words of early pilgrims tell of a place at the Jordan, just north of the Dead Sea, where John baptized. Christians traveled there because of the great significance of that place. Origen (3d Century) believed the baptism site was the same place known in his time as Bethabara, which means: place of crossing.

With the passing of the centuries the deserted area became a war zone. With the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan in 1994, a meeting between a Jordanian prince and an Italian archaeologist brought attention to Al Maghtas, and archaeological explorations began. Soon mosaics, marble, Byzantine church foundations, a large baptistery, and monastic caves were found. The 6th Century Madaba Map also indicated that this was the baptism site. There was excellent reason to conclude that Al Maghtas was where John had baptized. 

A mosaic depiction of how Al Maghtas once looked based on  archaeological finds.
From the site, a depiction of how Al Maghtas once looked based on the archaeological findings. (credit: Cindy Baltz)

Reasons Less Apparent?

This identification is compelling for two additional reasons. First, it is beneath a hill known at least from early Christian times as Elijah Hill. This was thought to be the place where Elijah was taken up into Heaven. By reading 2 Kings 2:4-12 one can see that this general area across the river from Jericho is the setting for that event. So whether Elijah Hill is exactly the right spot or not, this area was the last place Elijah was seen in this world according to the Bible.

The Book of Malachi ends with these words that have been in the memory of Jewish people since even before John’s day:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” – Malachi 4:5 (ESV)

Elijah was to return, and what more likely place for that to happen than the place from which he left? John denied to his interrogators from Jerusalem that he was Elijah (John 1:21). He was not the flesh-and-blood Elijah from centuries before, with Elijah’s DNA, fingerprints and blood type. But there’s more to it than that.

Working Clothes

2 Kings 1:1-8 reports that eight centuries before John, Israel’s king Ahaziah fell through a lattice in the upper palace and was severely injured. Being the unfaithful despot that he was, Ahaziah sent messengers to the Philistines to inquire of their god Baal-zebub whether he would recover. Those servants left the king’s presence and found a man standing in their path. The stranger said to go back and say to the king: ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?  Now therefore thus says the Lord, You shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die.’

When the king heard this he asked who that man was, and the servants had no answer. The king asked for a description? They answered: he wore camels’ hair with a leather belt around his waist. The king knew: “It is Elijah the Tishbite.” The Gospels say John appeared in the wilderness wearing camels’ hair and a leather belt. (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6)

John the Baptist preached and baptized wearing the distinctive Elijah attire. It makes sense that he should do this where the Bible and Christian tradition both say Elijah was last seen. Jesus would say to his disciples about John the Baptist: “…if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” (Matthew 11:14). John was to be understood as the fulfillment of the Malachi prophecy, because he had come in the spirit and power of Elijah. (Luke 1:17) (Did they dig up a ceramic head depicting Elijah’s arch enemy King Ahab?)

A 6th Century Madaba mosaic map
From the 6th Century Madaba mosaic map. Bethabara appears in gray letters beneath the fish in the center. (Disdero, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons) [ ]

Point of Entry

There is yet another reason John might choose this place to baptize. It’s connected with the nation’s biblical past. Al Maghtas is on the eastern side of the Jordan River. In the days of Joshua when Israel invaded Canaan to take back their promised land, they crossed the Jordan right there from east to west. Straight ahead was the imposing city of Jericho, the first to fall when its walls collapsed. (Is this footprint evidence of the Israelites in the Jordan River valley?)

John said to some Pharisees and Sadducees: “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” (Luke 3:8; Matthew 3:9) That meant there were true and false Israelites; it was not a matter of birth, but faithfulness.

Just as those Israelites of old came into the land through the river here, the true Israelites now would enter by way of the river through John’s baptism. Only then did they really belong among God’s people in God’s land of promise.

These two powerful, symbolic-undercurrent messages attach to this location, Al Maghtas. So, even if archaeology can provide no material record from John’s time, the association with John the Baptist attested by the later structures is affirmed by the symbolism of both Elijah Hill and by the entry point of the Conquest. It is very likely to be the place where John baptized and Jesus’ ministry began.

In 2015 Al Maghtas was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is a lot to contemplate. So keep thinking!

TOP PHOTO: The Baptism Site of Al Maghtas at low water. (credit: Dr. Fred Baltz) 

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