Where did John baptise: Bethany or Bethabara? (Jn 1:28)
- 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
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
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"!
Scott G. Brown, MARK'S OTHER GOSPEL: RETHINKING MORTON SMITH'S
CONTROVERSIAL DISCOVERY, Waterloo, ON.: Wilfred Laurier University
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,
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
TRANSLATIONS: ASV RSV NASV NIV NEB
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)
TRANSLATIONS: KJV ASVn
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'
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
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
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