Response to the Skeptics Annotated Bible

by Charles Cherry

I was looking up some information on baptism, and stumbled across the entry titled “Where did John baptize?” in the “Skeptics Annotated Bible” (http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/contra/jordan.html). I do not normally respond to such sites, as it seems a waste of time for the most part. I’ve found that most people who call themselves “skeptics” are not as interested in finding the truth as they are in trying to make themselves look good, or to make themselves feel better about their own lack of faith.

However, since I was already doing research on the subject, I thought I would jot down a quick response, since the author of the site seems willing to post responses to what he lists as contradictions.

The “contradiction” that I stumbled is this. Matthew and Mark record Jesus as being baptized “in Jordan,” while John says that he was baptized “in Bethany, beyond the Jordan.” I’m not sure if the author of the site thinks that Matthew and Mark are referring to the country of Jordan, or to the Jordan river – he doesn’t say. Hopefully it is not the former, since all should know that the country of Jordan (actually the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan) did not come into existence until the year 1946.

Regardless, while some might see a contradiction in these verses, if one does just a little bit of research, the contradiction quickly disappears.

First of all, the passages in question do not give an exact location of the baptism of Jesus, just the general area. There are two ways that people referred to “the Jordan” in first century Palestine. The first way referred to the Jordan river proper. The second way, and perhaps the more common one, was to refer to the area around the Jordan river, what we would call the Jordan valley. Both were referred to as “the Jordan.”

We see other examples of this in the Bible. For example, the large inland sea, or lake, in the north central section of Israel was, and still is, referred to as the sea or lake of Galilee. The region surrounding the lake was also referred to as Galilee, and the people who came from that region were referred to as Galileans.

We still use language in this way. When I refer to “Salt Lake,” am I referring to the actual lake, the city that sits near the lake, or the region around the lake?

When we examine the Greek behind the English translations, this becomes even more evident.

The Greek phrase used in Mark 1:9, when describing the location of Jesus’ baptism, is “eis ton Iordanen.” “Eis,” in this passage, is a spatial preposition that denotes motion to or towards a place, as an indication of a goal (into the house, into the synagogue, into Jerusalem). It is usually translated into English, as “in” or “into” the Jordan. (Some English translations mistakenly insert the word “river,” even though it is not present in the Greek).

In Matthew 3:13, the parallel passage has the phrase, “epi ton Iordanen.” “Epi” is another spatial preposition, indicating “on, over, near or against,” and answers the question “to what place?” The best English translations render this phrase as “to the Jordan,” or “at the Jordan.”

Luke 3:3 says that John was baptizing “perichoros ho Iordanes” “Perichoros” is a combination of two words, the spatial preposition “peri” (around), and the noun “choros” (land or region). It is usually translated as “the region around the Jordan.”

John 1:28 says that these things (the ministry of John the Baptist) took place in Bethany, “peran ho Iordanes.” “Peran” is a spatial preposition that means “across,” “beyond,” or “on the other side of.” So his phrase is translated as “in Bethany beyond,” or “in Bethany, on the other side of,” or “in Bethany, across” the Jordan.

The closest one could get to pinning down the exact location of Jesus’ baptism is that it happened in (or nearby) a village or a sub-region called “Bethany,” which was located somewhere “beyond” or “on the other side of” the Jordan. None of these passages contradict the others, they are all conspicuously vague as to the exact location.

Interestingly, recent archaeological research of first century Israel indicates that John probably did not baptize people according to a form that would be familiar to modern church-goers. It is more likely that he instructed them in a form of ritual immersion that was closer to that of first century Jewish ritual immersion, but which carried a deeper, more spiritual meaning. According to the prescribed fashion of Jewish ritual immersion, the people immersed themselves in mikvaot, or deep pools of water carved out of stone, that had steps leading down into and out of the water.

This page shows a photo of a mikvah at Qumran, the ancient community located near the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

Here is a photo of one located at Herodian, and another one here.

And one more.

Professor Ronny Reich, of Haifa University, has written an excellent article on this subject located at the Jerusalem Perspective website (registration is required to view the full article).

This evidence squares well with an early picture inscribed on a wall in a Roman catacomb depicting Jesus’ baptism. The picture shows John standing above and to the right of Jesus, extending his hand out to help Jesus climb out of the water. I tried to find a link to the picture on the Web, but was unsuccessful. There is a photo of it on page 41 of David Flusser’s book Jesus.

The normal Jewish practice at that time was mainly concerned with removing ritual impurity by washing the outward body. John’s baptism, however, required an inward, or spiritual, cleansing first; thus the call for repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

One might ask why the Gospel writers were so vague about the exact location of an event of such importance. The reason is that the detail of “where” was not important. The writers were emphasizing the fact that this event was the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry – the story is all about him, and what he was about to do. The location was a minor, secondary detail, of little importance to the writers or their intended audiences.

Blessings to All

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