One of the most significant biblical sites in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is known as “al-Maghtas,” which, in Arabic, means “baptism,” or “immersion.” It sits on the eastern shore of the River Jordan, directly opposite an Israeli equivalent — only a few feet distant across the stream — that is known as “Qasr al-Yahud” (“the castle of the Jews”).
Traditionally, this is the point on the Jordan where the Israelites under Joshua are said to have miraculously crossed on dry ground into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:14-17), the prophet Elijah was taken into heaven, and John the Baptist baptized Jesus.
The area was heavily mined on both sides of the Jordan after the Six-Day War in 1967, and it’s only relatively recently that the Jordanian al-Maghtas and the Israeli Qasr al-Yahud have been reopened to tourists and pilgrims. (In the meanwhile, the Israelis established a northern baptismal site called “Yardenit,” just south of the Sea of Galilee, that has little if any merit, historically speaking.)
While the authenticity of al-Maghtas as the site of Jesus Christ’s baptism cannot be established beyond doubt, there are some reasons to take it seriously.
It is certainly true that ancient Christians were venerating the site by at least the A.D. 400s. For instance, a church dedicated to John the Baptist was built at al-Maghtas late in the fifth century, under the Byzantine emperor Anastasios. Significantly too, a Byzantine monastery commemorating the assumption of Elijah into heaven was built, not far away, at roughly the same time. Moreover, accounts from ancient pilgrims describe these sites and the buildings that once stood there.
According to the New Testament, John the Baptist preached and baptized in “the wilderness of Judea,” and people came to him “from Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan” (Matthew 3:1, 5-6; compare Mark 1:5). That seems to put John’s activity at the southern end of the River Jordan, near Jericho, a very ancient town located on the river’s west side just north of the Dead Sea.
Moreover, both John 1:28 and John 10:40 identify the place where he was baptizing as located “beyond the Jordan” — which, assuming that the vantage point of the gospel author was in Palestine, would put it on the eastern side of the river.
The leaders of the Jews at Jerusalem sent priests and Levites down into the Jordan River Valley (which is far below sea level) to ask John who he was. Curiously, one of the questions they asked was whether he was “Elias” or “Elijah.” (He replied that he was not.)
Why would they pose that particular question to him? His style of dress undoubtedly had something to do with it. John was clothed in garments of camel hair and skin (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6), which recalls the very similar dress of the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8).
Another reason, however, may be connected with the location itself:
Elijah came originally from an area known as Gilead that lies east of the Jordan River. Today, it is known as Jal‘ad, and it sits squarely within the territory of northern Jordan.
2 Kings 2:1-18 tells the famous story of his ascent into heaven in a chariot of fire. According to the account, Elijah and his successor Elisha traveled from Jericho eastward to the river’s bank. The Jordan miraculously parted before them, and they crossed over to the other side — manifestly, to the east side — on dry ground, reminiscent of the original crossing of the children of Israel (traditionally at the same location). After Elijah’s ascension, the miracle was repeated: Elisha crossed the Jordan again on dry ground, traveling back westward and staying for a time in Jericho.
Thus, John seems to have appeared at the very same place — on the eastern side of the Jordan River, not far from Jericho — where the similarly dressed Elijah had rather mysteriously disappeared roughly nine centuries before. (2 Kings 2:16-18 records the futile search undertaken for Elijah by some of his contemporaries after he had been assumed into heaven.) In a sense, the first-century priests and Levites who asked to know whether John was Elijah were not asking an altogether unreasonable question.1 comment on this story
Furthermore, it does not seem unreasonable to think that al-Maghtas, the baptismal site on the eastern or Jordanian side of the River Jordan, may actually be the place where Jesus accepted baptism at the hand of his cousin John in order “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.