Where was Jesus Baptized? Unearthing the Evidence
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman
Where was Jesus baptized, and did John the Baptist baptize Jesus? This is a significant topic in Christian history and scriptural studies.
The Gospels say he did, but unfortunately, the Gospels weren’t always concerned with historical accuracy.
In this post, I first explore the evidence that the baptism of Jesus occurred and then investigate where the baptism might have happened.
If you are interested in exploring the Gospels further, you should check out a free 50-minute webinar with Bart Ehrman. He provides an engaging and informative explanation of the Gospels’ authors.
Was Jesus Baptized by John the Baptist?
If the baptism of Jesus never happened, there’s no point in looking for its location. Let’s begin by looking at the evidence.
First, the bad news: there is no archeological evidence for the location of John’s baptism. The good news? We do have textual sources of information from which we can reasonably speculate about this event.
The Criterion of Embarrassment
Here, I must introduce a historical research principle called the embarrassment criterion. This states that a historical story is probably true if its events might embarrass the author or subject of the story.
Here’s an example: Let’s say I’m telling a heroic story about myself. But everyone knows I also tripped and fell during the story’s events. Including my embarrassing fall in the story makes it likely that the fall really happened.
Why? While I would love to omit the fall, I must include it because people already know about it.
Omitting the story of Jesus’s baptism was not an option in telling his life story. It was a fact that Jesus’s followers passed down. Therefore, most scholars agree that John baptized Jesus because of the criterion of embarrassment.
Why embarrassment? Well, including his baptism in the story created some potential problems.
First, Joel Marcus notes that John’s baptism was supposed to be for “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). But the early church believed that Jesus never sinned. How could they explain that?
Second, Jesus was supposed to be superior to John. All four Gospels say that John’s only real purpose was to prepare the way for Jesus’s arrival. Since the superior usually baptizes the inferior – a priest baptizes a layperson, for example – why would John baptize Jesus?
How the Gospels Deal with Jesus’s Baptism
Mark, our oldest Gospel, starts by having John announce that someone far superior to him is coming. We assume, of course, that he is referring to Jesus. However, Jesus’s baptism in Mark is mentioned without comment.
According to Joel Marcus, the author of Matthew portrays a dialogue between John and Jesus. John protests that Jesus should baptize him. Jesus, however, humbly insists that he must be baptized to “fulfill all righteousness” (3:15). Although Jesus is without sin, he still sees it necessary to behave appropriately by submitting to baptism.
In Luke, Jesus’s baptism is more of a collective rite, an “act of solidarity with his nation,” according to Marcus, rather than a personal act. The Gospel of John, by the way, deals with this problem by never explicitly mentioning Jesus’s baptism.
So, since the synoptic Gospels include the disconcerting fact of Jesus’s baptism by John, scholars know it probably occurred. But can we know why it might have happened outside of Matthew’s and Luke’s explanations?
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The Relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus
In my other post on John the Baptist, I mentioned a theory held by many scholars: Jesus may have initially been a disciple of John the Baptist. This would certainly explain why John baptized Jesus. If baptism were as central to John’s program as it appears, Jesus, as his follower, would undoubtedly have experienced it. Although it was necessary for the Gospels to include this well-known fact, they would not have mentioned Jesus following anyone.
In fact, the Gospels say Jesus just went to the Jordan River once to be baptized and then left. However, other information shows that Jesus had more of a relationship with John than that.
Matthew 11, for example, Jesus says John was a prophet and the greatest man who ever lived.
In addition, Acts 19 mentions followers of John the Baptist continuing his legacy long after John’s death.
In another early Christian document, the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions, followers of John claim that John was the Messiah centuries after his death. This brings up a question: would John’s followers have continued his legacy if John himself had indicated that everyone should follow Jesus?
What River Was Jesus Baptized In? Jesus was Baptized in the Jordan River
Since we established that John the Baptist likely did baptize Jesus, where did it happen?
We already know what river Jesus was baptized in. All four Gospels agree that John had a practice of baptizing people in the Jordan River. Before going further, we must understand the great significance of the Jordan River for John’s mission.
In Joshua 3 and 4, Joshua leads the Israelites across the Jordan River to take the Promised Land. John Dominic Crossan points out that several self-proclaimed prophets appeared in the Judean desert in the 1st century CE. They led great multitudes to recross the Jordan into Israel, the Promised Land, as a gesture of protest against Roman control. The act of crossing the Jordan River holds significant importance in Jewish identity.
Crossan, therefore, argues that this is why John baptized in the Jordan River. When people came to John, he sent them “through the Jordan… purified and ready, into the Promised Land, there to await… the redeeming and avenging God.” This would ensure that when God triumphed, the wicked Romans would be punished. Meanwhile, the Jews, made righteous through John’s baptism, would be saved.
Where Was Jesus Baptized in the Bible?
So, we established that John baptized in the Jordan River and why. But the Jordan River is many miles long. Can we get any more specific about where he baptized Jesus?
According to Matthew 3:1, John baptized “in the wilderness of Judea.” Not exactly precise. However, we can speculate on possible sites for John’s baptizing practice using what evidence we do have.
Scholar Shimon Gibson says there are two traditional candidates for the place where Jesus was baptized. The first, Yardenit, is where the Jordan empties into the Sea of Galilee. This is a possibility since Jesus originally came from the Galilee.
However, Gibson says the most likely place for Jesus’s baptism is al-Maghtas, where the Jordan ends at the Dead Sea. The Gospels tell us large crowds visited John to be baptized and to hear him preach. The proximity of this site to Jerusalem and other cities makes this location Gibson’s best guess.
Conclusion: Where Was Jesus Baptized?
We can be relatively sure that John the Baptist baptized Jesus. The criterion of embarrassment makes it highly likely. The authors of the Gospels would not have included his baptism if it hadn’t already been known as fact. Moreover, Jesus was probably John the Baptist’s disciple before he began his own ministry.
John certainly baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. The Jordan’s significance for the story of Israel made it key for John’s apocalyptic preaching. By reenacting that crossing through baptism, John the Baptist was preparing Jews to escape the wrath of God. He may have hoped that Rome, as the wicked oppressors, would bear the brunt of that wrath.
Finally, though there is no archeological evidence for John’s place of baptism, it might have been at al-Maghtas. This site is near enough to Jerusalem and other cities that large crowds could have come to John for Baptism.
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