The name

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The baptismal site of Jesus has many names. Different names have been used during different eras and in different contexts. The most widespread names are Baptismal site, Al Maghtas, Bethany Beyond the Jordan, Bethabara, Aenon and Sapsaphas.

Today the easiest and probably the most used and well-known is Baptismal site (or Baptism site). That is what you see on the road signs and it is also the official name that UNESCO uses together with Bethany Beyond the Jordan. The Arabic name (that you also will see on signs) for the same place is المغطس (Al-Maghtas), and that means Baptism place or place of immersion.

In the Bible, there are two different names for the Baptismal site, depending on which translation you are using. The biblical names are Bethany Beyond the Jordan and Bethabara  (or Beth Abara). Different ancient manuscripts containing the Gospel of John use two different names, either Bethabara or Bethany, for the place where John was baptizing “(John 1:28-29). Most of the ancient manuscripts, such as the major codices known as Vaticanus and Sinaiticus read Bethany in John 1:28. The word Bethany means House of the Ship.

Bethany Beyond the Jordan is also the name of the Lutheran church at the Baptismal site, or to be precise, The Evangelical Lutheran Church Bethany Beyond the Jordan.

The name Bethabara started to be used in the third century AD by the church father Origen. He was unable to locate the Bethany referred to in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, somewhat arbitrarily suggested emending the text to read “Beth Abara across the Jordan.” Beth Abara means House of the Crossing or House of the Ford, possibly identifying a ford in the Jordan. A site of that name does appear in the Talmud. Nevertheless, Beth Abara apparently caught on and it is used in the Syriac version of the Gospels as well as in King James Version.

On the famous mosaic map from 6th century AD in Madaba (a city about 40 km from the Baptismal site), there are three different names for the Baptismal site.

Beth Abara, not Bethany, appears on the Madaba map – on the west side of the Jordan. Beneath the name Beth Abara is a three-line legend telling us that this is the site of “The Baptism of St. John.” Perhaps the Madaba map mosaicist, who lived east of the Jordan, understood “beyond” the river to mean west of the river—though for the original writer of the Gospel of John, “beyond” the Jordan clearly meant east of the Jordan River.

The second name is Aenon (or Ænon), is the site mentioned by the Gospel of John as the place where John was baptizing after his encounter with Jesus. Ænon is the Greek rendition of the Semitic term for spring or natural fountain. The particular site mentioned in the Gospel of John is,  therefore closer identified as “Aenon near Salim.” John 3:23 is the only place in the Bible where the name Aenon is found.

The 6th-century Madaba Map shows the location of Ænon right across the Jordan from Bethabara, near Jericho. The map and archaeological findings at the site indicate that at least during part of the Byzantine Period, this was the site venerated as Aenon. The two relevant map inscriptions read:

  • Αίνών ένθα νύν ό Σαπσαφάς:  Ænon, where now is Sapsaphas
  • Βέθαβαρά το τού άγίου Ιωάννου τού βαπτίσματος: Bethabara, the place of baptism of St. John

As we see here Sapsaphas (or Sapsfas) is the third name for the Baptismal site and it means Place of the willows.