Jordan welcomes throngs of tourists at site where believers say Jesus was baptized

A dozen churches are being built near the site where believers claim Jesus was baptized, on land donated by the Jordanian government. Religion News Service photo by Dale Hanson Bourke

AMMAN, Jordan (RNS) For most Americans, Epiphany (Jan. 6) passes with little celebration.

Traditionally, the 12th day of Christmas is marked by Eastern Orthodox, Catholics and some mainline Protestants as the day the three kings visited the baby Jesus. For Eastern Rite Christians, Epiphany (also called Theophany) emphasizes the revelation of Jesus as the son of God through his baptism and the beginning of his public ministry. Thousands of believers make pilgrimage on that day to the Jordan River where John baptized Jesus.

And that’s where the controversy begins.

While Israel has long claimed that Jesus was baptized on the Israeli side of the river, increasingly scholars are lining up to support archaeological research showing the baptism site is actually in Jordan. When Pope Francis visited the Holy Land last spring, he made a point of holding Mass at the Jordanian baptism site, lending additional credibility to the claim.

A dozen churches are being built near the site where believers claim Jesus was baptized, on land donated by the Jordanian government. Religion News Service photo by Dale Hanson Bourke

A dozen churches are being built near the site where believers claim Jesus was baptized, on land donated by the Jordanian government. Religion News Service photo by Dale Hanson Bourke

Called “Bethany beyond the Jordan” in the Bible, scholars point to both textual and archaeological evidence that the site is on the east bank of the river. For many Christians, the baptism site is the third holiest site of Christianity, joining Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where he is believed to be buried.

The baptism site itself combines a carefully controlled archaeological dig surrounded by the construction of a dozen new churches and guesthouses. Cleared of mines after the 1994 peace treaty with Israel, the area is carefully protected by the Jordanian government to preserve numerous archaeological treasures being unearthed daily.

One excavation revealed remnants of a third-century church with a cruciform baptismal structure where early pilgrims came to be baptized. Carved into the stone are thousands of small crosses, signs early Christians would leave after being baptized. Another dig has unearthed what is believed to be the cave where John the Baptist lived.

The Roman Catholic Church is now constructing a 32,000-square-foot church and center on the grounds to welcome throngs of tourists. Last year on Epiphany, thousands of pilgrims from dozens of countries gathered for Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican worship services at various churches in the area. This year, the Jordanian tourism board believes even more pilgrims will flock to the site, bolstered by the blessing of Pope Francis and the growing list of endorsements from the archbishop of Canterbury to American evangelical pastor Rick Warren, among others.

Workers carefully excavate ancient ruins on the Jordanian baptism site. Religion News Service photo by Dale Hanson Bourke

Workers carefully excavate ancient ruins on the Jordanian baptism site. Religion News Service photo by Dale Hanson Bourke


Jordan, a country that relies heavily on tourism, uses the slogan: “Jordan, the birthplace of Christianity,” hoping to draw more Christian visitors to the Muslim-majority country. In addition to the baptism site, biblical tours include Mount Nebo, Madaba, Petra, and other sites mentioned in the Bible.

On the Jordanian bank, visitors have a clear view of pilgrims being baptized on the Israeli site, just a few yards across the muddy river. Israeli and Jordanian soldiers stand guard on either side, while tourists sing hymns and step into the river.

The main Jordanian baptism site is a few yards down the river, where it widens and there is better access for those who want to be immersed in the waters. An ancient baptismal font has been restored for those who prefer sprinkled or poured baptisms.

Although Christians are a small minority in Jordan, they worship openly and many hold high positions in the government and business. Christian tourism is an increasingly important source of revenue to this country that is providing shelter to refugees from Syria, Iraq and other war-torn countries in the region.

(Dale Hanson Bourke is author of “The Skeptic’s Guide to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” and can be followed @DaleHBourke or at


About the author

Dale Hanson Bourke

Dale Hanson Bourke is the author of 11 books, including "The Skeptic’s Guide" series with IVPress on topics such as HIV/AIDS, global poverty, immigration and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Formerly publisher of RNS and SVP at World Relief, she has also served as editor and publisher of several magazines.


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  • Another factor, which I noted in a letter in the May/June 2005 issue of Biblical Archaeological Review, is that both the New Testament and the Jewish historian Josephus state that Herod Antipas arrested and executed John the Baptist. He would hardly have arrested John if he had been on the west bank of the Jordan, The west bank, in the Roman province of Judea, was under Pilate’s control, not Herod’s. The fact that Herod Antipas seized and executed John indicates that John was baptizing on the east bank, in Herod’s own jurisdiction.

  • There is an egregious error in your article. You write of Jerusalem “where is is believed to be buried”.

    To be Biblically accurate, you should use the past tense and include the claim of his resurrection. They way it is written suggests Jesus remains in the tomb

  • I resolutely disagree. The resurrection is the fulcrum of the Christian faith. If Jesus is still in the tomb, those of who who believe him are wasting our lives. Beyond this it is a matter of respect for a great faith. Even if one disagrees with it, it is appropriate to say something to the effect of ‘Christian believe. ..’. A comparison is the role of Mohammed in Islam. While I don’t accept his status as a prophet, it is appropriate to show respect by referring to him as “the Prophet of Islam” or similar

  • No. Ideas don’t automatically get respect, not matter how upset people might get. Saying “Mohammad” without saying PBUH is not a crime. Saying “believed to be” or other accurate statements is not a crime, regardless of whether or not someone is “offended”. Individual people do deserve respect, but ideas are not people any more than corporations are people, and a society is free only when ideas can be openly spoken of and discussed.

  • Any claim that the baptism took place on the Israel side simply ignores what John was doing.

    John went out into the ‘desert’— that is, where Israel was poised *before* it entered the Promised Land, and ‘all Jerusalem and Judea went out to him’.

    He was proclaiming a baptism of repentance— that is, of recommitment, of covenant renewal, a new beginning— ‘in view of’ (that is the meaning of ‘unto’ in the gospel texts) ‘the remission of sins’ that would be granted when the messiah came and God’s regime was established at last.

    As a sign of this, people confessed their sins and then re-enacted the original crossing of the Jordan by Joshua and the Israelites by crossing the Jordan, again entering the Promised Land from the desert, just as in ancient times.

    John was leading an ‘Israel-renewal movement’. The symbolism simply wouldn’t have worked if people had just gone down to the river, gotten wet, and come out where they went in.

    And besides, everyone knows that you enter a mikvah (Jewish ritual bath) on one side and exit on the other.

    Sorry, Israeli State. Not *all* tourist dollars are yours!

  • Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel. More likely than not, both countries will probably work out details on how to organize cross-national tours to work pilgrims on both sides of the Jordan.

    Maybe if one is lucky, the Palestinian Authority could get a sensible notion in their head and find a way to work in the Church of the Nativity in there. Assuming their leadership actually bothers to consider the economic well-being of their people.