The Gospel of Matthew gives us the most detailed account of Christ’s baptism, beginning with the fact that “Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John” (Matthew 3:13, NLT). Mark’s gospel also states that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan River: “One day Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River” (Mark 1:9, NLT). The Gospel of Luke gives the briefest account of Jesus’ baptism and does not indicate where it took place. It is in John’s gospel that we receive our best clue to the exact location on the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized.
In John 1:19–28, we are introduced to John the Baptist, the rough and rugged prophet who was spreading the news that Israel’s promised Messiah was coming. The religious leaders had begun to question John, “Who are you?” Since John was baptizing people, the Pharisees demanded to know by what authority he performed the baptisms. John answered that he was merely the one sent by God to prepare the way for the Lord. Soon Jesus would take the stage and begin His earthly ministry by being baptized. The gospel writer explains, “This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing” (John 1:28).
This town of Bethany has come to be known as “Bethany beyond the Jordan” as it appears in some Bible translations. It should not be confused with the hometown of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (John 11:1), which is just to the east of Jerusalem. The Bethany where Jesus was baptized is on the other side of the Jordan, on the east bank of the river. John wanted his readers to know where the ministry of Jesus had all begun. According to John 1:29–34, Jesus came to John the Baptist on the east side of the Jordan and was baptized by him.
Later, in John 10:40–41, during a time of intense opposition and conflict in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus returned to this same Bethany, which may have been a place of safety. Scripture says many people came to Jesus there.
The precise location of Bethany beyond the Jordan has been widely debated. However, based on geographical details in Scripture, we can be reasonably confident it was on the eastern banks of the Jordan River. Many scholars pinpoint the site at five miles north of the Dead Sea at the mouth of Wadi el-Kharrar, which is just across from Jericho. This location agrees with references to the site being accessible from the wilderness of Judea, the Judean hill country, and Jerusalem (Matthew 3:1–6, 13, 4:1; Luke 3:3, 4:1; Mark 1:4–5, 9–12).
The setting would have been well-traveled in John the Baptist’s day, with the road from Jerusalem to Jericho routing a constant flow of religious leaders, soldiers, tax-collectors, and other travelers through the region (Matthew 3:7; Luke 3:7, 10–14). The area had an earlier historical significance, too. It was in this area that the Israelites in Joshua’s day took their first steps toward entering the Promised Land (Joshua 1:1–6; Joshua 3:14–17); it was here that Elijah and Elisha passed through the waters of the Jordan on dry ground and Elijah was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:1–12); and it was here that Israel anticipated God to return in glory following the exile (Ezekiel 43:2–4). It’s likely that John the Baptist chose this site not only for its ease of access but also for its rich historical heritage and eschatological significance. The place where Jesus was baptized would indelibly link the Lord’s mission and message with the Jewish people and their hopes for a coming Savior.