Peraea and the Dead Sea
18. Bethabara, the place of baptism of St. John - (Makhadat al-Hajla)
For pilgrims coming from Jerusalem the visit started at the river Jordan, after a stop in the oasis of Jericho. At the ford, where the road crossed the river, five miles from the Dead Sea according to the Pilgrim of Bordeaux, seven miles for Theodosius, and six for the Pilgrim from Piacenza, certainly south of the modern Al-Hussein Bridge, they commemorated several biblical episodes: the miraculous crossing of the children of Israel narrated in Joshua 2, the crossing by the Prophets Elijah and Elisha (2 Kings 2:5-14), and the hill from where Elijah was taken up to heaven. The pilgrim Egeria was also shown a hill on which stood the altar built by the Tribes of Reuben, Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh, as narrated in Joshua 22.
At the same spot, they started commemorating the Baptism of Jesus, as narrated in the Gospel (Mt :1-17; Mk 1:2-8; Lk 3:1-14): "In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near". People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River...Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John" (Mt 3:1-17).
To this sanctuary refers the Madaba Map with the legend written on the west bank of the river accompanied by a church: Bethabara etc.
The Pilgrim Theodosius is the first to mention the church built by Emperor Anastasius at the end of the Vth century in honour of Saint John the Baptist. The church was built on arches so as to keep the flooding (rising) water from it. A marble column surmounted by an iron cross rose from the water to indicate the place where Jesus was baptised. The pilgrim writes: "At the place where my Lord was baptized is a marble column, and on top of it has been set an iron cross. There also is the Church of Saint John Baptist, which was constructed by the Emperor Anastasius. It stands on great vaults which are high enough for when the Jordan is in flood. The monks who reside at this Church each receive six shillings a year from the Treasury for their livelihood" (Theodosius, De Situ T.S., 20).
The Pilgrim from Piacenza had the opportunity, during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to celebrate the feast of the Epiphany at the river together with the Christians of the region. He relates: "I celebrated Epiphany at the Jordan At the spot where the Lord was baptized, there is an obelisk surrounded by a screen, and in the water, where the river turned back on its bed, stands a wooden cross. On both banks there are marble steps leading down to the water".
In the VIIth century pilgrim Arculf saw on the same spot a wooden cross in the river, the ruins of the church on the east bank, and steps leading into the water on the west bank of the river: "The holy, venerable spot at which the Lord was baptized by John is permanently covered by the water of the River Jordan. Arculf, who reached the place, and swam across the river both ways, says that a tall wooden cross has been set up on the holy place...The position of this cross where, as we have said, the Lord was baptized, is on the near side of the river bed. A strong man using a sling can throw a stone from there to the far bank on the Arabian side. From this cross a stone causeway supported on arches stretches to the bank, and people approaching the cross go down a ramp and return up by it to reach the bank. Right at the river's edge stands a small rectangular church which was built, so it is said, at the place where the Lord's clothes were placed when he was baptized. The fact that it is supported on four stone vaults, makes it usable, since the water, which comes in from all sides, is underneath it. It has a tiled roof. This remarkable church is supported, as we have said, by arches and vaults, and stands in the lower part of the valley through which the Jordan flows. But in the upper part there is a great monastery for monks, which has been built on the brow of a small hill nearby, overlooking the church. There is also a church built there in honour of Saint John Baptist which, together with the monastery, is enclosed in a single masonry wall".
Michele Piccirillo, "Aenon Sapsaphas and Bethabara", in The Madaba Map Centenary 1897-1997, Jerusalem 1999, 219-220 (extract: see also the complete article)
P. O'Callaghan (Supplément au Dictionnaire de la Bible, ad v. "Madaba", col. 647)
Bethabara in red letters... Here, on the right side of the river Jordan, the mosaicist localizes BETHABARA that had substituted BETHANIA of John 1:28 in some texts and in the armenian version; the lecture of Betharba, that is a late variant, is due to the corrector of the Codex Sinaiticus and occurs in the marginal notes of the harclenean version... The lecture of Bethabara is a correction accepted by Origenes with Bethara: "We ought not read Bethany, but Bethabara", he says. "Near the Jordan river there is no site of the same name of Bethany; it seems, however, that near the river of Jordan they show Bethara, where Jesus is said to have baptized." Eusebius and Jerome follow Origenes... Probably Origenes has been influenced by Baithera of Judge 7:24 that he - misunderstanding verse 25 - wrongly localizes on the oriental side of the river Jordan. On the other hand, Bethania, that Jerome maintains in the Vulgata, is really better attested for John 1:28 and it is not impossible that east of the Jordan there had been a site called Bethany. Its identification with Khirbet el-Medesh on the northern side of Wadi Nimrin, proposed by P.Féderlin, remains however most uncertain.
It is surprising that the mosaicist localizes BETHABARA on the other side of the Jordan river: doing so, he follows Eusebius. The word BAPTIMATOS reveals that he does not only think of John the Baptist, but also of the baptism of Jesus that the Gospels do not fix at Bethany, but rather on the Jordan river.
In the same way the pilgrim of Bourdeaux, Arculfe, Beda the Venerable and the report of the armenian voyage of 660, try to localize the site of the baptism on the right side of the river. The word Bethabara suggests without any doubt the banks of the Jordan river, and the parallel between the baptism of Jesus and the pass-over of the Hebrews under Josua is therefore to find in the convent of Prodromos easy recognizable in the house with three lateral windows represented on the map where the mosaicist localizes the scene of Marc 1:9ff. After the earthquake of 1927, only some ruins are left of those constructions called today Qasr el-Yehud. We shall not forget that Bethabara has been localized on the right side of the river Jordan by Theodosius and Jean Moschus; and even in the surroundings of Beisan by Conder - but with less probability. (trans. from the French)
Map of the Jericho region
showing the location of Byzantine Bethabara (Qasr el-Yehud)
Michael Avi-Yonah (The Madaba Mosaic Map, Jerusalem 1954, 38-39)
In the Synoptic Gospels (Math 3: 13-17; Mark 1: 9-12; Luk 3: 21-23) the place where John baptized Jesus is not indicated. In the first two Jesus is said to have 'come from Galilee'. The normal way of a Galilean going to the Lower Jordan would be to pass from Lake Genezareth to Perea, the Jewish province beyond the Jordan, and thus avoid Samaritan territory. This identification agrees of the version of St. John where the place of the baptism is located (1:28) ´beyond the Jordan´. There however (at least in the majority of the MSS), the site is called ´Bethany´. Origenes, who knew of a Bethany near Jerusalem and of a Bethabara near the Jordan, was struck by the absurdity of the textus receptus and suggested an emendation. Eusebius (On. 58,18) copied the words ´beyond the Jordan´ without adding anything of his own. The Bordeaux traveller (24,19) apparently placed the site the baptism east of the river, because he mentions it together with the site of the Ascension of Elijah. Theodosius (c. 20) seems to be the first writer to located Bethabara west of the river, but the tradition must have been earlier, for already in the time of the emperor Anastasius (491-518) a church and a monastery were erected on the west bank of the Jordan. (The fact that Theodosius connects the place of baptism with Elisha´s Fountain proves that he meant the western shore.)
Leah Di Segni, "The Onomastikon of Eusebius and the Madaba Map", in The Madaba Map Centenary, 118
I have already cited cases in which Eusebius' location of a site is not followed by the Madaba map. This is hard to prove, because as we have seen, the map lacks coordinates and scale, and exactness in location leaves much to be desired. In some instances, however, the displacement seems intentional. This is obvious in the case of Bethabara, the place where St. John baptized, which Eusebius put on the east bank of the Jordan, according to the Gospel of John - although the name Bethabara is a correction suggested by Origen of the reading Bethania found in most MSS. The Pilgrim of Bordeaux also located the place somewhere east of the river, for he mentioned it together with the site of the ascension of Elijah. Egeria passed the Jordan without even mentioning the place of the baptism; apparently she had no clear idea where it was; and Paula remembered Jesus' baptism while looking upon the Jordan stream, but she too had no fixed spot to commemorate the event. By the sixth century, however, a place on the western bank was identified as the place of baptism and a church and monastery dedicated to St. John were built there by Anastasius, as we are told by Theodosius. The pilgrim of Piacenza had the tradition already split into two: the place of the baptism on the west bank, near St. John's church, where the Theophania was celebrated on January 6, and the spring of St. John, two miles from the eastern bank of the Jordan, a centre of hermits. This is Sapsas, where a monastery dedicated to St. John was founded under the Patriarch Elias, and which is pictured on the Madaba map under the name of Safsafa. Like Theodosius, the pilgrim of Piacenza and many other sources, the map put Bethabara on the west bank, disregarding Eusebius' tradition which was no longer accepted. (See also the complete article)
E. Alliata, "The Pilgrimage Route During Byzantine Period in Transjordan", in The Madaba Map Centenary, 122
In the case of the place of the Baptism of Christ in Bethabara "across the Jordan River" (58,18) the word "deiknutai, it is shown" goes back to Origen's (died in 254 AD) "They say that the place of Bethabara where they relate John was baptizing is shown on the banks of the Jordan River ." Eusebius adds to this information that in this place "many brethren like to receive the bath (speaking of the baptism)". Elsewhere (Vita Constantini, IV 62,2) he says that the emperor Constantine himself had wanted to be baptized in the Jordan River. Gestual tradition is less referred to, but certainly not weaker, than oral or written tradition.
Nevertheless, the construction of a new church on the more accessible west bank of the river succeeded in attracting the toponym as it appears also in the Madaba map. The new church of the "Prodromos" was built by the Emperor Anastasius (AD 491-518) as the pilgrim and archdeacon Theodosius reports (n. 22). Starting from the sixth century a major festival took place there on the feast of Epiphany (January 6). It is well described by the pilgrim of Piacenza (n. 11) and, without a doubt, many people also from the eastern side of the Jordan took part in this annual event. (See also the complete article)
For more sources and bibliography see:
Tabula Imperii Romani. Iudaea - Palaestina (Jerusalem 1994) s.v. "Bethabara", 78-79.
Map Section 3 Place Sources