Have we found the site of Jesus’ baptism?

“John answered them, ‘I baptize with water; but among you stands one whom you do not know, even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.’ This took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”
—John 1:26–28

Modern travelers to Israel who, like Jesus, wish to get baptized in the Jordan, flock to a place called Yardenit, a few kilometers south of the Sea of Galilee. Here a somewhat garish tourist trap awaits them, along with easy access to the Jordan from the Israeli side of the border. However, this is most certainly not the location of Jesus’ baptism. That location is described briefly in John’s Gospel as “Bethany beyond the Jordan”. So where is this “Bethany beyond the Jordan”? This is an archaelogical and historical question we will discuss in our travels in Israel and Jordan, but most likely it is the site just north of the Dead Sea, now known as Al-Maghtas (on the Jordanian side and Qasr el Yahud, on the western, Israel side). Recently this location has been added to the Unesco World Heritage List. So is this the “Bethany beyond the Jordan” where Jesus was baptized?  How can we know and  why is it important?

One way to solve the problem of the location may lie in the exegetical principle of typology – where Jesus is the type to which the original nation of Israel was the anti-type. According to a number of scholars, John’s baptismal movement was a deliberate attempt at ‘creating’ a new Israel. If that is the case, where better to stage that than at the point where the Israelite wanderers under Joshua finally crossed the Jordan into the “promised land” to become a nation . The current Bethany Beyond the Jordan is the closest point that we know to where Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan and into the land of Canaan. Thus Jesus, the ‘Israel-in-one-man’ is being baptized at the place where the original people of God left their desert wanderings behind and entered into nationhood. Jesus’ baptism, therefore, becomes the point at which he takes on the role and destiny of Israel. The moment Jesus came out of the waters of baptism, there was a new Israel walking the land. This ‘Israel-within-Israel’ would finally be and accomplish the task the original Israel was given but failed to carry out. Jesus’ baptism, at the location where the desert wanderers finally entered into nationhood, is thus fraught with typological potential. For that reason, locating the place where Jesus was baptized, and then noting its connection to the location where the people crossed into  Promised Land is, in my view, significant.

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