Palestine Calling
by
W. M. Christie

Chapter II

Bethabara, Bethany beyond Jordan, and Pella


Tourists and pilgrims to the Holy Land generally visit Jericho, the Dead Sea, and the Jordan. As the main crossing place of the river in this neighbourhood was always accessible and convenient, it [the Jericho district] became gradually associated in the minds of visitors with the baptism of Christ, and, finally, it was ecclesiastically declared to be the site of that great event.

The name of Bethabara, however, does not exist in the district, and a careful reading of Scripture suggests some place nearer Galilee. It does not appear, and no one has ever suggested, that John had moved from one district to another between the baptism of Christ and His return after the Temptation. The sequence of events is: (1) Baptism of Christ (Matt. 3; Luke 3); (2) Temptation in the Wilderness (Matt. 4; Luke 4); (3) Return to John at the Jordan (John 1:28), and this last event was clearly at Bethabara (John 1:28-29).

After the incidents at this place we are told there was a marriage at Cana of Galilee on "the third day" (John 2:1). Now from anywhere in the neighbourhood of Jericho it would be impossible for travellers to reach Cana on the third day. That journey would require at least five days either by way of Jerusalem or up the Jordan valley.

And although the word "Abarah," or "Crossing," might be used to designate any ford, it has been discovered in only one case in the whole course of the Jordan, and that is on the border of Galilee, just below Bethshan, or Beisan. There we have "Machadat Abarah," or "Ford Abarah," as a name recovered by the Palestine Exploration agents, while busy on their map. It is just eight to nine hours distant from Nazareth and Cana, and thus fits exactly into the time record given in the narrative. This must have been site of John's preaching by the Jordan, and of Christ's baptism. It is further worthy of note that it was more natural to find the Galileans from Bethsaida and Cana (John 1:35-45) in the middle of March at this northern site than in the Jericho district.

And when once we have assured ourselves of the accuracy of the identification, the site assumes a widening historical interest and links itself up with incidents in the ages which preceded its culminating glory. This was the chief crossing place on one of the great highways, between Western Palestine and Transjordania, as well as the lands approached through it. There can be little doubt that the armies of Syria used this way of approach as well as that on the immediate south of Lake Hulch when attacking Israel, and besides it was the natural trade route between Phoenicia and Arabia, as also between Decapolis and the Mediterranean.

But let us note some of the Old Testament incidents that certainly found place here. It was at Bethabara that the Ishmaelites crossed the Jordan, who the following day bought Joseph at Dothan, and carried him down to Egypt (Gen. 38:28). Had they come by a more northerly crossing they would have passed through Carmel at Megiddo, and would never have approached Dothan.

It was over this ford too, as probably also over others further south, that the Midianites, defeated by Gideon in the Valley of Jezreel, fled in wild confusion (Judg. 7:24). One point of interest arises in connection with this story. The book of Judges names the place Bethbarah, and the difference might mislead. We think we have here an example of a "word play" or "pun," and we know the Israelite was very fond of these. The writer, viewing Bethabara in the light of the historical incident he was recording, called it "The House of Flight." And if objection be taken to the slight difference in spelling, it must be remembered that confusion of the gutturals took place very early in some of the Semitic languages. Assyrian and Samaritan have altogether lost the most of them. The Galilean confused them, and as that confusion has persisted even with change of language to the present day, it is most likely that it had a place in these early ages. Be that as it may, the "pun" was natural in this case.

Also in connection with Jephthah's conflict with the Ephraimites (Judg. 12:4-6) this must have been one of the fords taken by the men of Gilead, who tested the fugitives with the word "Shibboleth." This is another error of long standing in North Israel, and it has also persisted till our own day. In Tiberias we knew a distinguished rabbi of the age-long inhabitants who "could not frame to pronounce" the "shin" aright, even when speaking Arabic.

Across this ford the men of Jabesh Gilead passed and bore back with them the bodies of Saul and his sons (1 Sam. 31:11-13) from the walls of Bethshan, after the Battle of Gilboa. By this route too Ahab went to fight against Ramoth Gilead, whence he was brought back, over the same ford in his chariot, dead (1 Kings 22:37).

But most interesting of all is the fact that it was at Bethabara that Naaman the Syrian must have bathed the seven times as commanded by the prophet Elisha, and was cured of his leprosy (2 Kings 5:14). His route to and from Carmel is very definite. Was it the memories of the scenes through which he passed, and which he must have known, that calmed his troubled mind and subdued him into obedience?

Had he been an Israelite at the beginning of the Christian era we should be obliged to recognise such influence. In a peculiar way the Jew was compelled, when moving through the land, to remember his own history, for whenever he looked upon a place where Divine intervention for good or for evil to his race had taken place, he was taught to pronounce a blessing: "Blessed be He who wrought signs for our fathers in this place" (Mishnah. Berachoth ix. 1). It is interesting to think that on the day of Christ's baptism, and on the day of His calling His first disciples, every Jew that approached Bethabara, for any reason whatever, was pronouncing that blessing, and that the memory of Naaman's washing from the uncleanness of leprosy was associated with it.

But there is a difficulty connected with this site in that John names it Bethany, and describes it as beyond Jordan. This, we are told, was the reading of many of the ancient MSS. Origen had that reading, but he could not discover the site, and solved the problem by simply changing the name into Bethabara. Tischendorf and Nestle both give "Bethany" as the true reading, and that is generally accepted. How then have we two names for the one place? The meanings of the designations give immediate solution. Bethabara means "the house of crossing," when Bethany, in this case means, "the house of the boat." The one means "ford," the other means "ferry." Now when John was there in January the river would be swollen with the winter rains, while in March, on his return, there might be added thereto the results of the early melting of the snows on Hermon. At these times it would certainly be a ferry. Besides, the mound that represents the old village is on the eastern side of the Jordan. Of course we must avoid confusing this Bethany with that on the Mount of Olives. It has an altogether different meaning, being derived from another Hebrew word. The coincidence is only in Greek.

"Bethany beyond Jordan" seems to have been a favourite resort of the Lord Jesus. In addition to the two visits already noted, it must be remembered that He crossed this ford when passing from Tyre and Sidon to the Decapolis circuit (Mark 7:31); and that there He had His headquarters from the Chanukah Feast (20 December, 29 A.D.) till the return to Jerusalem in connection with the resurrection of Lazarus (about the 24th February, 30 A.D.). This was also the meeting place of the Galilean caravans going up to the feasts by the eastern route, and so on His last journey toward the end of March, 30 A.D., He also crossed here, and went up to Jerusalem in company with His Galilean and other friends, and with them there would join in the pilgrims from the northern cities of Decapolis, including the citizens of the neighbouring Pella.

As this city [Pella] had a great part to play in later Christian history, and as the first instructions concerning it were given by the Lord Jesus Himself, it is well to seek a nearer acquaintance with it. Pella was one of the smaller cities of Decapolis. It is represented today by the ruins of Tabakat-el-Fahil, a long ridge on the hillside, about 4 kilometres (2 1/2 miles) to the east of Bethabara, which it overlooks. Its population was mainly Greek, but there would be a good many Jewish and Gentile Christians among them, who had probably heard the Gospel from the Gergesene evangelist (Mark 5:20). It was directly connected too with Bethabara, and it would be the first place of resort for its inhabitants during the periods of intense heat in the Jordan valley. At the beginning of the Jewish War, in May, 66 A.D., it was attaacked by the insurgent Jews, but was thereafter left in peace during the war.

Now we learn from the Church Fathers (Eusebius and Epiphanius) that this was the place that the Lord Jesus assigned to His disciples as a refuge, when He instructed them to "flee to the mountains." In obedience to the command (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3) they were led thither by Simeon, and so far secured liberty and protection, that this became in reality the second centre of Christianity in the Holy Land, the settlement surviving till the fifth century at least.

And the route thither of these fugitive pilgrims is well worthy of our meditation. At every step they were literally treading in the footsteps of the Lord Himself. We can think of old Simeon, who must have come up with Christ in the Galilean caravan, telling at each resting place of the incidents that occurred along the route--the resurrection of Lazarus, memories of the Good Samaritan Inn, the house of Zaccheus, blind Bartimaeus, the blessing of the Galilean children, and the yoke for two, one of the two being Christ Himself, then and now. And when Pella was reached there may have been some of the more aged, who looked down upon Bethabara, and remembered the baptism scene of January, 27 A.D., 39 years before.

Then we venture to suggest that the early Christian work known as "The Didache" or "Teaching of the Twelve Apostles," rediscovered in Constantinople in 1883, was really produced at Pella. It is certainly the first summary of Christian doctrine that we possess outside of the New Testament, and it represents the Church as an institution of synagogal simplicity, unworldly, and with no priestly or hierarchical organisation. We would date it at about 75 to 100 A.D.

In many ways this district, never visited by the tourist, and seldom seen even by those that dwell within the Land itself, is an intensely interesting one; but most of all to the serious Bible student, who seeks to picture to himself the scenes in which the Lord lived, to tread in His ways, to know the historical associations of the favourite meeting places with His disciples, and to understand what must have been the thoughts of the Jewish hearers who gathered around Him there.

Return to W. M. Christie Page


© Copyright 2017 Rediscovering the Bible. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us | Email Webmaster