It can often be hard to separate the man from the movement. Especially when the movement has been largely built around the man.
But for any realistic discussion about Jesus and history, we need to put faith to one side for a moment and look around at the broader picture.
Almost all of what Christians believe about Jesus comes from the Bible – that he is the son of God, that he preached particular messages, that he performed miracles, and that he was resurrected.
But none of that is provable. And, in fact, much of it is clearly not true unless you are willing to accept the supernatural.
There are even some scholars who believe that Jesus did not exist at all and was a fictional character created simply as a figurehead for a new religion. But, after centuries of research and investigation, most experts now accept that there was a man named Jesus.
They just don’t agree on exactly who he was and what he did.
Historians have a range of theories about Jesus. Some believe he was a charismatic healer, while others say he was a political rebel. Some think he was an apocalyptic prophet, while others would argue he was a social philosopher.
With so little actual firsthand evidence about him from the period of his life, there’s probably no way to ever know for sure. It will probably always just remain a matter of conjecture.
But there is enough evidence for most historians to agree on two things about the life of Jesus being factually accurate. His baptism and his crucifixion.
Baptism site Jordan
Not only do most people agree that Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist, there is now general consensus of where it happened. And it’s right here in Jordan.
The location of the Jordan baptism site was, in some ways, quite easy to determine. It was a mixture of scholarly research and archaeological evidence.
In the Bible, there is reference to a place where John the Baptist performed his ceremonies called “Bethabara beyond Jordan” or “Bethany beyond Jordan”.
And in the famous Madaba Map of mosaics that I have talked about before, there is a place by the Jordan River that is marked with the name “Bethabara”. This gave investigators the general area.
From there, archaeologists were able to find the remains of ancient buildings at a site that is known locally as Al-Maghtas.
Many of the structures built here are from the centuries after the baptism of Jesus. The churches, chapels, monasteries, and accommodations were to support pilgrims who would come to the site and then continue on to other significant locations in the area.
But archaeologists have also been able to uncover the exact spot where they think Jesus was baptised.
Visiting the baptism site
I am visiting the Jordan baptism site as an optional extra with my G Adventures tour through Jordan, which is an excellent way to see all the highlights of the country.
When you visit the baptism site in Jordan, the first thing you’ll notice is the collection of churches that have been built by members of different faiths, each creating a space for their followers.
It is interesting to see so many Christian buildings in Jordan, a country with a predominately Muslim population, but you need to remember this was the Holy Land. The main influence of Christianity these days may be in other parts of the world, but this is where it all started.
Most tourists don’t visit these relatively modern churches. Instead, you’ll walk along a path through some light forest until you reach the archaeological remains of much older churches. This is the spot where Jesus was baptised.
At the centre is a ceremonial pool in the shape of a crucifix, with stairs leading down to it. The foundations of a building, long gone, surround it.
On the edges of the pool are the ruins of other small chapels and churches from different periods after the Baptism of Christ.
In some ways, it’s a bit strange to look at this site and think about a baptism. There is very little water here (none, some of the time) and there is little in the way of infrastructure.
This is partly because the Jordan River has moved slightly further west in the past 2000 years. And also because Al-Maghtas has not been continuously used or maintained.
The Jordan River baptism
You need to walk a little bit further to get to where the river is now. Although the exact spot where the water is now is not historical, like the old baptism site, it is still spiritual.
It’s what the Jordan River represents that is so important. It’s where Christians of today can come and perform baptisms in the same river where John the Baptist performed one on Jesus 2000 years ago.
There are guards here and that seems a little strange at first until I look down at the river and see how narrow it is – maybe only 10 metres or so. On the other side, close enough to have a conversation or throw something – is Palestine.
I wonder if there are ever conversations across the river because, on the other side of this natural border between Jordan and Palestine, I can see quite a few people.
The Jordan baptism site is quiet today but the other one is quite busy. This is actually not unusual, though.
The other side is technically known as Qasr el Yahud and, although it is in Palestine, it is occupied and managed by Israel. They have put a lot of money into upgrading the facilities at Qasr el Yahud and, looking across, I can see how much more modern and comfortable it looks.
The Israelis see this as a way to attract Christian tourists and pilgrims who want to visit the Jordan River to be baptised. With the help of some clever marketing, they are trying to attract visitors who would prefer to make the journey from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv than from Amman.
A World Heritage Site
While there is no argument about the spiritual significance of the waters of the Jordan River, I think it is a little disingenuous to claim that Qasr el Yahud in Palestine is the Baptism Site of Jesus, rather than Al-Maghtas in Jordan.
There has been disagreement over the years about the exact spot where Jesus was baptised and it’s not surprising that the Israelis would prefer people to think it’s on their side of the river. But there has been a decision made.
It is extremely significant that in 2015 UNESCO added the Jordan site to the World Heritage List and not the Israeli one. It was a clear determination by the international community – even though the official text acknowledges that there is no way to definitively prove where Jesus was baptised and that there are competing claims.
It could have turned into quite a diplomatic incident but, perhaps surprisingly, there was little blowback from the decision at the time.
However, two years later in 2017, both the US and Israel announced they were going to pull out of UNESCO because of perceived anti-Israel bias. It was about more than this World Heritage Site, but it probably played a part.
Both countries officially left on January 1 2019. But neither of them have been paying their dues to UNESCO since 2011 anyway, when the organisation voted to add Palestine as a member state.
I try not to think about the controversy as I sit down at the river, take off my shoes and socks, and dangle my feet in the water.
A couple of guards with guns are standing behind me, relaxed but also watching to make sure nobody tries to swim across the border.
A relatively large group of well-dressed people are singing as they start a baptism ceremony on the other side, surrounded by glossier infrastructure.
I try to put all of that out of my head as well and bring my mind back to my moment.
Here, by a river in a desert, a man was baptised 2000 years ago. Regardless of who he actually was and what he actually did, his name would be used to change the world more than probably anyone else in history.
Right from the start, some of that change involved conflict and it’s sad that it’s still happening two millennia later. But that’s what happens when people don’t separate the man from the movement.