John the Witness

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Al Maghtas has been a place of Christian memory since the Byzantine period. Markers in the earth suggest that the fire-breathing prophet, "Elijah-John," came here to announce news of God's Messianic Movement. He followed that proclamation with a call for action. Many came to him to be dipped (or baptized) in the water of the Jordan River. 

While tradition often refers to this Elijah-John as "John the Baptist," a case could be made for calling him "John the Witness" (fm the Gk martureo or memartureka). The fourth gospel repeatedly connects this act of witnessing to John (see this text as an example). Elijah-John offered testimony that God's Messianic Movement was coming and that Jesus of Nazareth was its key figure.

The modern structure pictured above is a witness to that memory. The Greek Orthodox Church of John the Baptist is a new construction erected at Al Maghtas. It helps us remember how Jesus was baptized by John.


Dr. Mark Ziese, Dean of the School of Bible and Theology at Johnson University, manages the website Bible Land Explorer and teaches regularly in the Biblical heartland. You are invited to join Mark and Vicki for a Mediterranean Cruise aboard the Celebrity Reflection in October, 2018. Onboard lectures will focus on Paul's fourth missionary journey. See the link here for details.

Come and see!

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Explorations at the intersection of the Jordan River and the Wadi Kharrar, Jordan, have revealed a series of Byzantine remains. Water-channels, pools, churches, and what has been described as a pilgrim station, suggest that Al Maghtas has been a site of Christian memory since the 5th century. Written records as well as the Madaba Map corroborate this claim.

The Gospels (see link here) suggest that John the Baptist did his work at a place dubbed "Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan" or "Bethabara" ("house of preparation"?). This is not to be confused with the village of Bethany, near Jerusalem, home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

To my knowledge, no evidence from the time of Christ has surfaced here. Is it possible that the original "Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan" was located elsewhere? Has it simply eluded the archaeologists? Might it have been something other than a village? Has the shifting course of the Jordan River consumed it? Might there be some literary solution?

While the identity of "Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan" continues to be a mystery, the Christian veneration of Al Maghtas is unambiguous.


Dr. Mark Ziese, Dean of the School of Bible and Theology at Johnson University, manages the website Bible Land Explorer and teaches regularly in the Biblical heartland. You are invited to join Mark and Vicki for a Mediterranean Cruise aboard the Celebrity Reflection in October, 2018. Onboard lectures will focus on Paul's fourth missionary journey. See the link here for details.

The Jungle of the Jordan

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The term "jungle" may not be the first word that you think of when contemplating the banks of the Jordan river. And yet it's a fine descriptor.

Consider this image taken near Al Maghtas, Jordan. Through that green tangle runs a river (and in antiquity, snakes, lions, crocodiles, and possibly hippopotamuses!).

Now consider the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

"If you flop like a watermelon on shalom ground, how do you expect to navigate the Jordan jungle?" (Jer 12:5).

In this text, the Jordan jungle is the opposite of a shalom place.

Elsewhere Jeremiah describes the terror of an ambush that is like "a lion pouncing out of the Jordan jungle" (49:19; 50:44).

Finally (wait for it!), consider Zechariah 11:3. Here, great devastation is described using multiple metaphors. Fir trees howl because the cedars are burned by fire. Oaks wail because the thick forest has come down. Shepherds yoller because the grassy mantle is destroyed. And finally, the young lions roar because "the Jordan jungle is ruined."

Some English translations of these biblical passages render the original Hebrew as the "pride" or the "swelling" of the Jordan (the verbal root suggests something that "rises").* A better way to go is to suggest that the rising thing is not floodwaters, but greenery. This is underlined by the Arabic term for the riverbank of the Jordan: it is a zor or "thicket."


*The LXX follows this impulse rendering the phrase as "the snorting of the Jordan." Ha! Would I kid you?


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Dr. Mark Ziese, Dean of the School of Bible and Theology at Johnson University, manages the website Bible Land Explorer and teaches regularly in the Biblical heartland. You are invited to join Mark and Vicki for a Mediterranean Cruise aboard the Celebrity Reflection in October, 2018. Onboard lectures will focus on Paul's fourth missionary journey. See the link here for details.

Elijah's view before takeoff

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Other than a green stripe down the middle of this image, the landscape appears bleak. That green stripe is suggestive of the watercourse of the Jordan River. It snakes along the floor of the Lower Jordan Valley and carries much needed moisture to vegetation that can tolerate the sweltering heat above and the salty soil beneath. This is, after all, the crusty seabed of a more ancient Dead Sea.

The buildings in the center are memory-markers associated with the site known today as Qasr al-Yehud or Al Maghtas (the "Baptism site"). Tradition suggest that it was here, in this otherwise barren place, that John the Baptist did his "forerunning" work. In the distance the Judean hills begin their climb to the Heartland's central ridge. At their base is the oasis of Jericho. At their crown, shrouded somewhere in the haze, rests Jerusalem.

Another tradition linked to this place suggests that it was here that Elijah and Elisha were parted by a chariot of fire (2 Kgs 2:11-12). From "Elijah's Hill," this John the Baptist prototype was carried into the sky. Will somebody please tell the boys: "Go home. There's no point in looking for him" (2 Kgs 2:15-18)?


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Dr. Mark Ziese, Dean of the School of Bible and Theology at Johnson University, manages the website Bible Land Explorer and teaches regularly in the Biblical heartland. You are invited to join Mark and Vicki for a Mediterranean Cruise aboard the Celebrity Reflection in October, 2018. Onboard lectures will focus on Paul's fourth missionary journey. See the link here for details.

A symbol of freedom

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This view to the Jordan River was taken in the vicinity of Al Maghtas or the "Baptism site." It is located about five miles from the termination point of the Jordan as it flows into the Dead Sea. 

Most folks who see the Jordan (Hebrew Yarden, the "down-goer") for the first time are struck by its smallness. Having heard about the Jordan in scripture and song, their expectations for this watercourse are larger than life.

In defense of the river, it is not what it used to be, even a hundred years ago. Water management strategies in the region have arrested the runoff. A dam just south of the Sea of Galilee controls the flow. Deforestation and agricultural efforts in the areas around the Galilee Basin, the backbone mountains of central Israel/Palestine, and above, on the Jordanian highlands have affected rainfall patterns. 

No doubt the river is physically diminished today. But its attraction for the Christian imagination is as real as ever. The Jordan is a symbol of freedom. Passing through its current is a powerful metaphor for rescue. On the near bank is tyranny, sin, and death. On the far bank is freedom, purity, and life.

Consider the words of this old hymn:

"I'll meet you in the morning

when you reach the promised land

on the other side of the Jordan

for I’m bound for the promised land."


Dr. Mark Ziese, Dean of the School of Bible and Theology at Johnson University, manages the website Bible Land Explorer and teaches regularly in the Biblical heartland. You are invited to join Mark and Vicki for a Mediterranean Cruise aboard the Celebrity Reflection in October, 2018. See the link here for details.

On Jordan's Stormy Banks

The Wadi Kharrar intersects the Jordan River about five miles north of the Dead Sea. As pictured, tourists, worshippers, and the curious are permitted down to this famous river that serves as an international border. 

Masada survivors

Tristram's starling or grackle (Onychognathus tristramii) are among the last true residents of the Masada mesa. They are named after Henry Baker Tristram, a naturalist, archaeologist, and missionary to Palestine in the 1860s and 1870s.

Journey up the "Jesus Stairs"

Excavations in the archaeological park adjacent to the Haram esh-Sharif in Jerusalem have revealed features from many different periods. Among the most interesting is the monumental stairway pictured here. The use phase of this construction corresponds with the time when the limestone platform above contained the (Second) Temple of YHWH. These stairs were used by worshippers approaching the temple complex from the south.

Sepphoris, softly

Adrienne Griffin captured this soft-focus image of Johnson University's recent tour of the site of Sepphoris, Israel. The welcome center is a great place to begin. Bathrooms, a gift shop, and a 3-D model give Bible Land Explorers a moment to prepare and orient themselves to a site dubbed by Josephus "the ornament of all Galilee."

Tomb with a rolling stone door

Tell Abu Shusha (or Tel Shush) is located at the intersection of highways 66 and 6953 to the north of  Tell al-Mutesellim (Megiddo), Israel. A spectacular "rolling stone tomb" with a rare "stone disk door" is visible in the road cut at its base.