Archaeological evidence shifting
views on site of Jesus' baptism
___By Elaine Ruth Fletcher
___Religion News Service
___BETHANY BEYOND THE JORDAN, Jordan (RNS)--Archaeologist and devout Muslim Mohammed Al Waheeb carries three volumes of the New Testament in the back of his car, two in Arabic and one in English, and spends hours pondering the ancient texts in his quest to better understand the story of Jesus' baptism.
___Here, just east of the Jordan River, Waheeb and his team of archaeologists believe they
have identified the site where John the Baptist lived and preached and where Jesus' baptism probably took place--along a little-more-than-a-mile stretch of a spring-fed stream running to the River Jordan.
|RUSTON MIKHIJIAN, supervisor of archaeological preservation and restoration at an excavation in Jordan, points to a site growing numbers of experts believe is the true place where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. (RNS photo)
___So important is this site becoming in the Christian world that Pope John Paul II plans to visit it at the outset of his Holy Land trip this month.
___Standing atop a hilltop where late Roman-era baptismal pools recently have been found, the pope is expected to bless thousands of pilgrims with water drawn from the nearby spring, known today as Wadi el-Kharrar.
___Archaeological evidence is mounting that John baptized Jesus on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Until now, modern-day pilgrims have commonly visited sites on the river's western shore within Israel or the Israeli-occupied West Bank to mark the baptismal event.
___"The evidence, I think, is compelling when you put together the archaeological findings, the biblical text and early Byzantine records. I'm personally convinced that Jesus was baptized while John was on the east bank of the Jordan River," says Rami Khoury, a prominent Jordanian writer who is completing a book on Jordan and Bible history. He is a member of a Jordanian royal commission overseeing the new baptismal site's development.
___"It was here in Jordan that Christianity was born," declares Jordan's minister of tourism, Akel Biltaji, who has made the promotion of the proposed baptismal site one of the key aims of his office. "It was in this place, at Jesus' baptism, that the heavens opened up to the presence of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
___On the other side of the river, Israel's Yizhar Hirschfeld, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an expert in Byzantine archaeology who visited the site a year ago, is almost as enthusiastic as the Jordanians about the new finds that have been unearthed.
___"The excavations at Wadi el-Kharrar are a wonderful discovery," Hirschfeld says. "It is a moving site that integrates the historical literature of the pilgrims' accounts with the geographical evidence and archaeological finds. I, too, would prefer to locate the site where John himself lived and baptized on the eastern part of the Jordan River."
___The extensive excavations along the stream bed have uncovered a string of ancient churches and baptismal pools with some remains dating back 1,800 to 2,000 years to the Roman era during or just after Jesus' lifetime. The churches date back to the Byzantine period, beginning in the fourth century when Christianity first took hold in the region.
___Khoury and Waheed tie the earliest settlement remains to John 1:28, which describes an ancient settlement known as "Bethany Beyond the Jordan" as the home of John the Baptist.
___More than half a dozen pilgrims' accounts from later periods, as well as a famous sixth century mosaic map of the Holy Land uncovered a century ago in the nearby Jordanian town of Madaba, point to the same area as the focus of John's activities.
___In 570, for example, the Christian traveler Antonin de Plaisance described a site two miles east of the Jordan River as "the place where the Lord was baptized ... and the spring where St. John used to baptize."
___A seventh century pilgrim to the area, John Moschus, noted Jesus' baptism on the Jordan's east bank took place near a site called Saphsapha, meaning "Willow." The same Saphsapha site is noted on the ancient Madaba map in the area of today's Wadi el-Kharrar excavations.
___The pilgrim records, together with the archaeological evidence of immersion pools and water systems, also suggest John, like the early Christians, generally preferred to baptize in Wadi el-Kharrar spring or nearby pools and not the actual Jordan River.
___"John baptized, according to the gospels, in several places, including in the Jordan River," notes Waheed. "But we are against the theory that Jesus would have been baptized in the tract of the river, especially if he was baptized in the winter when the tract of the river is muddy."
___Despite their historic link to the New Testament story, the East Bank baptismal sites gradually fell into oblivion. Western pilgrims who made the difficult journey to Jerusalem in antiquity probably preferred the easier access to the Jordan River the West Bank offered, said Hirschfeld, and thus came to celebrate the baptism at a newer site across the river.
___That baptismal site on the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the river is surrounded by minefields and military outposts and is typically visited by Christian Orthodox pilgrims who are permitted entry by military authorities to re-enact the baptism ritual on annual church holidays.
___The site is marked by a sizable medieval-era monastery built on Byzantine ruins and clearly visible from the Jordanian excavation site.
___For most of the past century, the political conflict between Israel and the Arab world kept the east Jordan side of the river shrouded in obscurity at a time when most of the Holy Land was being thoroughly explored by biblical archaeologists.
___But the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty opened the way for the sites to be explored, as Jordanian troops deployed away from the edge of the river, which had long marked the de facto border.
___Eventually, Jordan hopes to make a name for itself on the Holy Land tourism map with a site rivaling those of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth in importance to the Christian world.
___But Jordanians say they are not in competition with anyone. The eastern shore of the Jordan River, they say, was the wilderness refuge of the Bible's prophets and patriarchs, the hinterland of antiquity where humans communed with the divine in monastic silence and stunning beauty. Here at Bethany Beyond the Jordan is where tradition holds Elijah ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot; nearby, on Mount Nebo, Moses looked over the Promised Land before his death.
___"Generally speaking, people think of the Holy Land as being west of the River Jordan. But that's not true; this is also the Holy Land," said Ruston Mikhijian, supervisor of the archaeological preservation and restoration work at the Jordan site and a devout Armenian Christian.
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