Tag Archives: John the Baptist

Jordan River baptism site reported to be open

Several media outlets have reported the permanent opening of the Qasr el-Yahud Baptismal site. Our group made arrangements to visit the site May 3, but we had to wait for military personnel to open the gate. Some construction work was going on, and the road to the site needed repair. See here. See earlier reports here, and here.

Some reports have warned about the impurity of the water. I advised my group not to touch it. A group of Ethiopians were dipping themselves, dipping others, and pouring water on themselves while we were there. A hand full of water looked like mud as it left the hand.

Ethiopians in the Jordan River at Qasr el-Jahud. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Ethiopians in the Jordan River at Qasr el-Yahud. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Personally I understand baptism to be a one-time act “for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:28; 8:12; Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16; Romans 6:3-4; et al.).

Bible students like to visit the Jordan River at this site for several reasons.

  • Ancient Israel crossed the Jordan to enter the promised land (Joshua 3).
  • Elijah and Elisha crossed the river (2 Kings 2).
  • John baptized in the Jordan (Matthew 3:6ff.; Mark 1:5-9; John 1:28; 10:40).
  • Jesus was baptized in the Jordan (Matthew 3:13).
  • Naaman dipped in the Jordan at a site further north (2 Kings 5).

The view was made from the West Bank site looking northeast. A group of western pilgrims are visible on the (Hashemite Kingdom of) Jordan side of the river.

Jordan River Baptismal Site. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Jordan River Baptismal Site. View to the NE. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

HT: Bible Places Blog.

Absalom, John the Baptist, and Zechariah

The Kidron Valley in Jerusalem has several ancient tombs in it. The Bible records that Absalom, son of King David, built a monument for himself in the King’s Valley.

Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and set up for himself the pillar that is in the King’s Valley, for he said, “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance.” He called the pillar after his own name, and it is called Absalom’s monument to this day. (2 Samuel 18:18 ESV)

The so-called Absalmon's Monument in the Kidron Valley

In AD 1170 Benjamin of Tudela associated one of the monuments in the Kidron Valley with the monument of Absalom. The monument actually belongs to the early first century B.C. It is a funerary monument in front of an eight-chambered tomb.

Joe Zias, of Hebrew University, was able to locate an inscription on the right side of the monument in 2002. The inscription is written in Byzantine Greek of the fourth century AD and reads,

This is the tomb of Zacharias, martyr, very pious priest, father of John.

Could this be the priest Zacharias (also spelled Zechariah in English versions) who was the father of John the Baptist? I think the best we can do is agree with Murphy-O’Connor,

Such Byzantine identifications reflect the piety of the period and have no historical value.

John the Baptist at Machaerus

All four of the Gospels make some reference to the imprisonment of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:3,10; Mark 6:17; Luke 3:20; John 3:24). This must have been a significant and traumatic event for both the disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus.

Mark, the shortest gospel,  gives the most complete account of why Herod Antipas arrested and executed John. See Mark 6:17-32.

Josephus, the late first century Jewish historian, includes a long section about John in Antiquities 18:116-119. Perhaps another time we will take a closer look at all of it. For now, I am concerned with the place of execution.

Accordingly he was sent as prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Machaerus [or spell it Macherus], the citadel I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him. (Antiquities 18:119)

Josephus also records that Herod’s wife, the daughter of Aretas IV, king of Petra (the Nabateans), learned of his plan to divorce her and marry Herodias. Without telling Antipas that she knew, she asked for permission to be sent to Machaerus.I suspect that Herod was glad to get her out of town. She was no dummy. She had made arrangements for her father’s army to bring her safely [from Machaerus] to Arabia [perhaps Petra]. This event led to a war between the armies of Aretas and Herod Antipas. Herod’s army was destroyed. See Antiquities 18:109-115 for the full story.

Here is a brief summary about Machaerus.

  • Built by Alexander Jannaeus (102-75 B.C.).
  • Rebuilt by Herod the Great. This fortress is the eastern parallel to Masada.
  • Assigned to Herod Antipas at the death of Herod the Great (4 B.C.).
  • Destroyed by the Romans (A.D. 57).
  • Occupied by Jewish rebels (A.D. 66).
  • Captured by the Romans (A.D. 71).

Machaerus has an impressive location overlooking the Dead Sea from the east. There was so much haze (eastern sand) in the air the day we visited last April that it was not possible to see the Dead Sea below. This photo gives some idea of the terrain. The citadel is located about 2300 feet above sea level. This would make it about 3600 feet above the Dead Sea. The hill to the east, where I stood, is about 60 feet higher than the citadel.

Here is a view of some of the reconstructed ruins at the top.

Where was John buried? Mark tells us that his disciples “came and took away his body and laid it in a tomb” (6:29). Did they bury him at Machaerus? At Samaria? Neither the Bible nor Josephus inform us.

If you could use some nice photos of Machaerus to illustrate Bible lessons, I suggest you check out those by David Padfield here.

John the Baptist and Samaria

I am in the process of preparing some material on John the Baptist in Biblical and Church History. There is a tradition that John was buried at Samaria. This is one of those late traditions that reflect the understanding of believers in the centuries following the time of John.

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor makes some comments on this in the fifth edition of The Holy Land. See our earlier reference to the book here.

Christian tradition very quickly (before 361) identified Samaria as the site of the infamous birthday party at which Herod Antipas had John the Baptist executed (Mark 6:17-29). With greater probability Josephus locates the murder at Machaerus in Jordan (Antiquities 18:119). This information, however, was not available to all Christians, and the much more accessible Samaria was associated with the name of Herod, who had held a wedding party there and much later executed two of his sons there. The fact that the two Herod’s were father and son would not have bothered the popular credulous mind. Two churches were built in John’s honour, one near Herod’s temple and the other in the modern village. (The Holy Land, 5th edition, 461)

Samaria is in the West Bank of Israel, under the Palestinian Authority. It has been impossible to visit Samaria on a regular basis for many years. My last visit was in 2000, but I was trying to use the “latest” in digital technology. The photos are not very good. Another thing to remember about important sites like this is that they are not well maintained. Here is a photo of the Church of St. John that I have scanned from a 1984 slide.

At the Biblical Studies Info Page I keep a list of good sources for photos (check Scholarly, then Photos). None of these have a photo of this site. On May 19, 2005, some scholars associated with the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem made a visit to Sebaste (Samaria). There are several good photos of approximately 800 x 600 pixels, with commentary. These are stashed away in the archives of the web site. Perhaps you can access them here. These photos include the Iron Age site belonging to the time of the Divided Kingdom, and the Herodian and Roman site from the time of the New Testament (Acts 8).

Here is a comment from the Franciscan site about the two churches at Sebaste identified with John.

The Alleged Discovery of the Baptist’s Head. It is not known what happened to the head consigned to Herodias; but as early as the fourth century, stories begin to appear about the finding of the supposed relic. One such inventio took place in Sebaste in the place regarded as the Baptist’s prison. A church associated with this discovery was erected near the acropolis, while the large church containing the tomb was below to the east, in the cemetery area.

The cathedral from the mid-12th century, now a mosque, is said to enshrine the tomb of John the Baptist. The church is in the village of Sebaste. I am taking the liberty of showing you the photo of the exterior of the church from the SBF web site.

The Jordan River

The distance from the principal source of the Jordan at the foot of Mt. Hermon to the northern end of the Dead Sea is about 135 miles, but the serpent-like Jordan flows over 200 miles. At the source, the elevation is about 1150 feet above sea level. By the time the river reaches the Sea of Galilee it is about 700 feet below sea level, and when it reaches the Dead Sea it is more than 1300 feet below sea level. These and other unusual physical characteristics make the Jordan a significant river. To the Bible student the importance of the river is found in the events which transpired in it.

Israel crosses the Jordan. The children of Israel crossed the Jordan when the water was out of all its banks during the time of harvest (Josh. 3:15). An American reader might think of this as the fall of the year, but actually it was in the spring, at the time of the latter rain (Joel 2:23). As spring approached in Bible times the Jordan would overflow its banks due to the heavy latter rains (about early April) and the melting snows of Mount Hermon. Conditions are different in modern times. Water that once flowed south from the Sea of Galilee and from tributaries such as the Yarmuk River is now used for irrigation. This makes the Jordan much smaller than in earlier times. The crossing of the Jordan by the Israelites provided the imagery for our hymn, “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand.”

Elijah and Elisha. Both of these oral prophets crossed the Jordan on dry ground prior to Elijah=s being taken up by a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha later used the mantle of Elijah which had fallen upon him to smite the Jordan so that he was able to return (2 Kings 2:8-14).

Naaman the leper. Naaman, captain of the army of the king of Aram, was told by the prophet Elisha to wash seven times in the Jordan to be cleansed of his leprosy. For a reason not explicitly given, Naaman complained that the Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, were better than all the waters of Israel. When he eventually obeyed the Lord, he was made clean (2 Kings 5:1-14). We understand that it was not in the properties of the water but by the power of the Lord that Naaman was made clean through his obedience.

John and Jesus. John immersed in the Jordan River (Mt. 3:1-6). The last important biblical event and the crowning glory of the Jordan was the baptism of Jesus (Mt. 3:13-17).

Photographs of the Jordan south of the Sea of Galilee have been difficult to make since 1967 because the river has served, more or less, as the boundary between Israel (or the occupied West Bank) and Jordan. This photograph was made at the site across from Jericho that may be identified as “Bethany beyond the Jordan” (John 1:28), where John the Baptist baptized at first (John 10:40).