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Where did John baptise: Bethany or Bethabara? (Jn 1:28)

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  • Yuri Kuchinsky
    Greetings, friends, In the opening chapter of John s Gospel, we see the multitudes of people coming to John the Baptist to be baptised by him. But where was
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 19, 2006
      Greetings, friends,

      In the opening chapter of John's Gospel, we see the multitudes of
      people coming to John the Baptist to be baptised by him. But where was
      this exact location where John was baptising?

      According to Jn 1:28, of course, it was in "Bethany beyond the

      (John 1:28 RSV) This took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where
      John was baptizing.

      And the same location is indicated in all modern translations of John
      (all based on Nestle/Aland Greek text).

      So where exactly was this "Bethany beyond the Jordan"? Quite
      obviously, its location would have been different from that of the
      other Bethany, which is located close to Jerusalem, and is mentioned
      far more often in the canonical gospels.

      Well, until recently, the exact location of this "Bethany beyond the
      Jordan" has been unknown.

      Nevertheless, this is what we find here in the KJV and Textus

      (John 1:28 KJV) These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan,
      where John was baptizing.

      So, according to KJV, it was Bethabara, rather than Bethany, where
      John baptised...

      Modern textual scholars have rejected "Bethabara" as a late
      emendation, and have instead replaced it with "Bethany".

      But was this decision really justified? I really wonder about it...

      However it may be, the exact location of either Bethany or Bethabara
      has been disputed until recently. But there's now some new
      archaeological evidence in this area that has been emerging.

      Because, starting in 1997, archaeologists have been very busy
      excavating the site at Wadi Kharrar, on the Jordanian side of the
      river Jordan, and there's been a plethora of recent findings there.

      Baptism Site - Excavation

      Excavations have uncovered the remains of a Byzantine monastery, as
      well as the evidence of at least 10 early churches -- some with mosaic
      floors bearing Greek inscriptions. The whole complex dates to the
      early Byzantine era (at least), and it was clearly a major pilgrimage
      site for many centuries.

      Archaeologists have also uncovered there a major system of water pipes
      and ducts to carry water to four plaster-lined baptismal pools -- one
      of which is 400 square metres in size.

      So, most likely, this site has been traditionally associated with John
      the Baptist and, by the early Byzantine times, it became a major
      pilgrimage centre... There are even some reports that this place
      became prominent after Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great,
      herself, took some special notice of it, and perhaps ordered some
      construction there.

      But was this site known as Bethany or Bethabara? Well, it seems to me
      that, all in all, the name "Bethabara" may be somewhat preferable to
      "Bethany"... We will examine this question in some detail further on.

      This textual problem is also quite relevant to the analysis of Morton
      Smith's Longer Gospel of Mark (LGM) because, in this text, the
      resuscitation of the young man, and his subsequent nocturnal
      initiation by Jesus -- that most scholars connect with baptism -- also
      takes place in Bethany.

      As Scott G. Brown argues in his new book, this Bethany is actually
      none other than the "Bethany beyond the Jordan"!

      CONTROVERSIAL DISCOVERY, Waterloo, ON.: Wilfred Laurier University
      Press, 2005.

      He comes to this conclusion after a detailed analysis of Jesus' travel
      itinerary, as given in the canonical Mark, after the Longer Mark has
      been inserted in its proper location, as indicated by Clement.

      And so, Brown points to the apparent connection between LGM and Jn
      1:28, the connection that is indeed quite intriguing.

      His findings have already appeared in the Revue Biblique, as well as
      in Biblical Archaeology Review (31:1, 2005).

      Here's the Abstract of his article in the Revue Biblique,


      Scott G. Brown, _Bethany beyond the Jordan : John 1:28 and the Longer
      Gospel of Mark_, Revue Biblique 110 (2003): 497-516.

      The Gospel of John is not the only gospel to refer to a place called
      Bethany east of the Jordan river [Jn 1:28]. The longer Gospel of Mark
      (better known as "Secret Mark") depicts Jesus raising a young man in
      "Bethany" while Jesus is travelling through Peraea. A study of the
      relevant topographical references in this expanded version of Mark
      supports the recent claim by Jordanian archaeologists to have
      rediscovered Bethany beyond the Jordan at Wadi Kharrar in Jordan.


      Nevertheless, it is too bad that, in his book, Brown doesn't even
      mention the alternative reading "Bethabara" in Jn 1:28, and what it
      may indicate for us...

      Unfortunately, it is all too typical for modern biblical scholars to
      completely disregard textual criticism. In general, I liked Brown's
      MARK'S OTHER GOSPEL -- it's a great book overall, and he obviously
      spent many years of hard work researching this whole subject area in
      depth. So his disregard of this particular textual problem in his book
      is unfortunate. (Actually, he does mention the Bethabara reading
      briefly in his Revue Biblique article.)

      So let us begin by outlining the textual evidence for this verse. Very
      helpfully, it is available at the following webpage,



      John 1:28

      TEXT: "These things happened in Bethany on
      the other side"

      EVIDENCE: p59vid p66 p75 S* A B C* L
      W(supp) X Delta Theta Psi* 28 565 700 892*
      1010 1241 some Byz Lect lat vg syr(p,h) most
      syr(pal) cop(north)


      RANK: C

      NOTES: "These things happened in Bethabarah
      on the other side"

      EVIDENCE: C2 K Pi Psic 083 0113 f1 f13 33
      some Byz syr(c,s) one syr(pal) cop(south)


      NOTES: "These things happened in Betharabah
      on the other side"

      EVIDENCE: Sb 892variant


      COMMENTS: The location of "Bethany on the
      other side of the Jordan" is unknown; therefore
      commentators such as Origen and John
      Chrysostom favored "Bethabarah" to avoid
      confusion with the Bethany near Jerusalem. The
      location of Bethabarah is also unknown.
      "Betharabah" is a misspelling of "Bethabarah."


      As we can see, according to Dr. Bruce Terry, the author of this
      website, the location of Bethany/Bethabara on the other side of the
      Jordan is "unknown". (Well, now it looks like it was found, after

      He also says that commentators such as Origen and John Chrysostom
      favored "Bethabara" in order "to avoid confusion with the Bethany near

      Well, this is actually not so, with apologies to Dr. Terry... What
      Origen actually said was that he simply couldn't find any place named
      "Bethany" anywhere close to Jordan -- and yet he _did_ find a place
      called Bethabara, that was associated with John the Baptist.

      From my point of view, this testimony of Origen is very important.
      Here was a reputable Christian scholar, ca 230 CE, who made an effort
      to ascertain these things for himself, while travelling in the area.

      If we don't trust him, who can we trust then?

      So here's the relevant quote from Origen in the CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA,



      Origen, in his commentary on this place of St. John's Gospel, declares
      as follows: "We are not ignorant that _in nearly all codices Bethany
      is the reading._ But we were persuaded that not Bethany, but Bethabara
      should be read, when we came to the places that we might observe the
      footprints of the Lord, of His disciples, and of the prophets. For, as
      the Evangelist relates, Bethany the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha,
      is distant from Jerusalem fifteen furlongs, while the Jordan is
      distant one hundred and eighty furlongs. Neither is there a place
      along the Jordan which has anything in common with the name Bethany.
      But some say that among the mounds by the Jordan _Bethabara is pointed
      out, where history relates that John baptized"._


      So why are the modern textual scholars so eager to dismiss this
      testimony of Origen, I wonder?

      Are not the gospels supposed to be based on some physical reality,
      after all? And if there wasn't any place named "Bethany" beyond the
      Jordan at the time of Origen, how could there have been such a place
      at the time of the writing of John? (And, by the same logic, in Jesus'
      own time?)

      Of course, our modern textual critics based their decision to dismiss
      this KJV reading because the manuscripts that _they favour_ have
      "Bethany" in this verse...

      And it's true, as we can see above, a lot of old manuscripts do
      feature Bethany in this verse -- and, by his own account, obviously
      did so at the time of Origen! Yet, some other old manuscripts (such as
      the Old Syriac Aramaic MSS) still feature Bethabara...

      Well, IMHO it's rather difficult, in this case, to make a firm
      determination as to the correct reading based on the textual evidence
      alone... Even the editors of Nestle/Aland are not so sure, and they
      only rate their degree of certainty here as "C", which is not very

      But what about the physical evidence, based on Origen's specific
      statement that no such place was found ca 230 CE? Shouldn't this also
      count for something?

      Now, frankly, speaking for myself, I'm actually quite prepared to
      accept that "Bethany" reading indeed may have preceded the "Bethabara"
      reading in this case. Yes, that much might be true...

      But was this really the earliest reading in John? Somehow I doubt it.

      In my view, it is rather likely that, originally, this whole Johannine
      passage lacked _any_ place name... Because both Bethany and Bethabara
      seem to me like late redactional intrusions.

      Thus, the place name "Bethany" was probably added to this passage ca
      150-170 CE, during a later expansion of John. And whoever added this
      name wasn't really concerned all that much, it seems, with the matters
      of geography. It's the symbolic/mythical geography that they primarily
      cared about, most likely.

      (Also, it's possible that these late Johannine editors were working in
      a place far away from Israel, such as in Asia Minor, for example --
      so, in such a case, they probably didn't even understand Israel's
      geography all that well.)

      But only two or three generations later, Origen and his contemporaries
      already did care about the geography of the Holy Land quite a lot...
      They had to! The number of Christian pilgrims must have kept
      increasing by leaps and bounds and, quite naturally, the pilgrims
      would have flocked to the Holy River Jordan, and would have kept
      inquiring about the location of Lord's own Baptism.

      So it sure seems to me that there was something of real significance
      behind this tradition about Bethabara that Origen reports for us...
      And it's quite likely that the pilgrims were already flocking to
      Bethabara at the time when this location first entered the Johannine
      textual tradition.

      Some modern scholars believe that the reading "Bethabara" became very
      prominent in the Johannine textual tradition primarily on the
      authority of Origen, and they are thus inclined to disregard it... And
      yet, it doesn't seem like Origen was the father of this reading,
      since, as his own words seem to indicate, at least some codices
      already had this reading in his time?

      It is a widely held opinion in the academe that John the Baptist was
      quite a famous man in his own time, perhaps even more famous than
      Jesus -- seeing that, by all accounts, Jesus' own ministry didn't last
      all that long...

      So if John's ministry was really based near the river Jordan, it would
      be rather surprising if the town where he based it would have vanished
      from local memory so quickly... Is it possible that, already by the
      time of Origen, nobody would have any longer remembered that place? I
      doubt it somehow...

      Thus, in effect, what Origen reports for us is really the only hard
      evidence we have of any oral tradition still preserving the memory of
      John's ministry near Jordan. So then how can one disregard this
      testimony in such a cavalier fashion, as so many of our modern
      scholars seem to be doing?

      It is entirely reasonable that the memory of John's ministry would
      persist for some generations in the villages around Jordan river...
      And since the local tradition indeed placed John's ministry near
      Bethabara, personally, I'll certainly not be so willing to dismiss
      such evidence so easily.

      Thus, I conclude, it was probably Bethabara, rather than Bethany, that
      was the original name of this location where the Jordanian
      archaeologists are now excavating.

      And what tradition do we have for any Bethany near Jordan, other that
      the lonely mention of this place in Jn 1:28?

      Whoever included this name into John's gospel, the rationale for this
      inclusion may forever remain unknown (although it's tempting to
      speculate, seeing that there _is_ a bit of a connection there with
      LGM)... We really have no way of knowing why Bethany was included into
      Jn 1:28, but I suspect that the person responsible for this inclusion
      was not motivated by any serious concern for real physical geography,
      or for the oral tradition as preserved by the villagers around the
      Jordan river.

      Still, in my view, it's not impossible that a late editor of John's
      gospel may have inserted "Bethany" into Jn 1:28 because he saw the
      mention of it in LGM in connection with baptism. Nevertheless, such an
      idea will remain speculative at this point.

      All the best,


      Baqqesh shalom verodpehu -- Seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34:15)

      Yuri Kuchinsky -- http://www.trends.ca/~yuku/bbl/bbl.htm -- Toronto
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