John 1:28

Richard Wilson

The KJV of John 1:28 states: “These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing." When most Greek texts have this occurring in Bethany beyond ... So why the difference and why do we care? There is an ongoing scholarly debate over the validity of the King James Version’s use of Bethabara in place of the Greek Manuscripts common use of Bethany in John 1:28. The KJV translators likely took their translation cue of, βηθαβαρᾷ (Bethabara) instead of βηθανίᾳ (Bethany), from the conjecture made by Origen. He argues that it must have been Bethabara; an argument which modern criticism does not much esteem. Many blindly argue that since even Origen admits that most of the Greek manuscripts of his time had βηθανίᾳ (Bethany) and not βηθαβαρᾷ (Bethabara) that we need not look any further. They are quick to declare that since Origen was aware of the prominence of Bethany in Greek Manuscripts that it must needs be that Bethany is correct. If this is all there is to the John 1:28 problem then Joseph Smith must have carried over the mistake from the KJV rather than seek inspiration in all his translation.

Τα βηθαβαρᾷ - Bethabara

One mistake made by many of today’s New Testament scholars is to quickly dismiss Origen because of his own recognition of the use of Bethany in many of the Greek Manuscripts. The real question is: “What did Origen know or understand that we may be missing today?” Origen is much closer to the primary sources than we are, and being a Church Father, he is fully aware of the many theological debates. This must have already been a point of discussion in Origen’s time since he felt compelled to discuss it. In Ellicott's Commentary (http://biblehub.com/commentaries/john/1-28.htm) we read: “Origen found “Bethany” in “almost all the copies,” but not being able to find the place, he came to the conclusion that it must be Bethabara which he heard of, with a local tradition that John had baptized there; and in this he is followed by the Fathers generally.” This shows Ellicott’s commentary focused upon Origen’s siding with tradition over textual majority. Many of the commentaries spend more time focusing upon the ability of John, the evangelist, being sure of his location, since he was a disciple of John the Baptizer before he followed Jesus. I do not think there is much reason to doubt John the Evangelist knew exactly where John was baptizing and where Jesus was baptized since he was there. The question remains, what location did John, the evangelist, originally write all this occurred?
It has been suggested that Origen actually created this reading, but this is not clear in the evidence available. Note that Origen discusses the curious Τα βηθαβαρᾷ (Bethabara).

"These things were done in Bethabara, beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing." We are aware of the reading which is found in almost all the copies, "These things were done in Bethany." This appears, moreover, to have been the reading at an earlier time; and in Heracleon we read "Bethany." We are convinced, however, that we should not read "Bethany," but "Bethabara." We have visited the places to enquire as to the footsteps of Jesus and His disciples, and of the prophets. Now, Bethany, as the same evangelist tells us, was the town of Lazarus, and of Martha and Mary; it is fifteen stadia from Jerusalem, and the river Jordan is about a hundred and eighty stadia distant from it. Nor is there any other place of the same name in the neighborhood of the Jordan, but they say that Bethabara (Τα βηθαβαρᾷ) is pointed out on the banks of the Jordan, and that John is said to have baptized there. The etymology of the name, too, corresponds with the baptism of him who made ready for the Lord a people prepared for Him; for it yields the meaning "House of preparation," (οικος κατασκευης) while Bethany means "House of obedience" (οικος υπακοης). Where else was it fitting that he should baptize, who was sent as a messenger before the face of the Christ, to pre pare His way before Him, but at the House of preparation (κατασκευασαι)? And what more fitting home for Mary, who chose the good part, which was not taken away from her, and for Martha, who was cumbered for the reception of Jesus, and for their brother, who is called the friend of the Saviour, than Bethany, the House of obedience? Thus, we see that he who aims at a complete understanding of the Holy Scriptures must not neglect the careful examination of the proper names in it. In the matter of proper names, the Greek copies are often incorrect, and in the Gospels, one might be misled by their authority.” (Wieland Willker, “A Textual Commentary on the Greek Gospels, Vol. 4, John”; Bremen, online published 12th edition 2015)

It is not clear whether Origen made up this reading, however, he admits the Greek copies are incorrect, which does not exclude the possibility of manuscripts in other languages being correct – such as Aramaic / Syriac. Unfortunately the New Testament scholarly community shows a myopic scope when they only see that the “ ‘but they say’ seems to point to a local tradition”, they see it as Origen drawing upon an oral tradition. The fact that Origen was influenced by oral traditions is not in dispute, but the failure to allow for Semitic written traditions to also influence him is never mentioned.

“It should be noted that Origen based his solution to the Bethany problem on hearsay only. It should also be noted that the βηθαβαρᾷ on the Madaba map is west of the Jordan.” (Ibid Willker) Willker, like the majority of scholars, lays the conclusions of Origen upon oral “hearsay” traditions.
Burkitt speaking of Origen’s source states: "This source seems to have been not documentary evidence, but local identification. […] We cannot doubt that the author of the Fourth Gospel wrote 'Bethany beyond Jordan.' On the other hand, we have the cult of 'Bethabara', developed before the time of Origen, perhaps at a pre-Christian holy place. The cult led to the identification of 'Bethany' with 'Bethabara' and finally it influenced some texts of the Gospels." (Evangelion Intro, p. 308-9).” (Ibid Willker) Burkitt, viewing the Greek text and Origen, allows an alternative explanation of the place names and reconciles the two. This fails to address the idea that Origen may have been influenced by other textual traditions.

J. Carl Laney (“The Identification of Bethany Beyond the Jordan”; from Selective Geographical Problems in the Life of Christ, a doctoral dissertation (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1977)) approached the problem with different insights and detailed analysis. He states:

“One of the places where John the Baptist ministered is named in the Fourth Gospel as ‘Bethany beyond the Jordan’ (Jn. 1:28). There Jesus was baptized by John and later ministered with His disciples (Jn. 10:40-42). Origen, who lived in Palestine in the 3rd century, suggested that the correct place-name in John 1:28 was ‘Bethabara,’ a site he located on the west side of the Jordan. Many later manuscripts carry this suggestion. Since no site east of the Jordan has been identified as Bethany, Christian tradition has associated Bethany with Qasr el-Yehud west of the Jordan. John 1:28 has even been retranslated in such a way as to eliminate the site altogether. The identification of Bethany beyond the Jordan is without doubt a complicated geographical problem in the life of Christ…. …Origen sees a correspondence between the etymology of the name Bethabara and the baptizing ministry of John, and believes that this lends support to his conclusion. He understands Bethabara to mean ‘house of preparation’ signifying that John’s baptism prepared people for the coming of Jesus. Bethany, according to Origen, means ‘house of obedience,’ which he sees as an unfitting description of the place of Jesus’ baptism.”

C. R. Conder, a British army officer who with H. H. Kitchener made a detailed survey of western Palestine from 1872 to 1877, has advanced the proposal of Origen by actually identifying Bethabara. Conder sees the name Bethabara preserved in the Arabic 'Abara, and identifies the site with Makhadet 'Abara just one mile north of the mouth of the Harod Valley. Conder suggests that Bethabara was a small hamlet in the vicinity of a ford (where a river can be crossed by foot) on the Jordan. He suggests that part of this community may have been west and part east of the Jordan, thus accounting for the qualification, Bethabara “beyond Jordan.” (C. R. Conder and H. H. Kitchener, The Survey of Western Palestine, 3 vols. London: The Committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund, 1881-83, 2 (1882), pp. 89-90). Though Conder considers it curious that the oldest manuscripts read “Bethany” instead of “Bethabara,” he excuses this by stating that the Judean Bethany would not be a fitting place for Jesus’ baptism, nor could it be described as in the region of the Jordan. (Conder and Kitchener, Survey of Western Palestine, 2:90)

A “… step toward an identification of a site is criticism of the written sources in which the place-name occurs to determine the most reliable form of the name. The earliest and most widely attested reading in John 1:28 is “Bethany beyond Jordan.” This reading is supported by the Alexandrian, Caesarean, and Byzantine text types. Though Origen adopted the reading “Bethabara” which he apparently found in a few copies of his day, he states that “Bethany” is the reading of “nearly all the manuscripts.” The minority reading proposed by Origen was followed by Eusebius, Epiphanius, and John Chrysostom. However, the reading Bethany is favored on the basis of the age and distribution of the manuscript evidence, as well as the fact that, if Bethabara were original, there is no adequate reason why it should have been altered to “Bethany.” Later writers who used the name “Bethabara” appear to simply be following the suggestion of Origen.” (Ibid Laney)
One reason for the change to Bethany could be to cause it to be near the Bethany that was so frequented by Jesus, where Mary and Martha lived. Laney covers several steps in determining the validity of a location, he concludes: “It is possible that the ruins of Bethany beyond the Jordan will never be found …” or that because of the lack of archaeological evidence may never have been and allowing Bethabara to be what was originally written. Laney only viewed the Old Testament and Greek manuscripts for his New Testament research.

While the Greek commonly does not have Bethabara in the manuscripts, but, it does appear in the Greek mosaics. For example, “βηθαβαρᾷ appears on the Madaba mosaic map (ca. 560 CE), which is located on the floor of the Greek Orthodox church in Madaba near Amman. It mentions the St. John monastery το του αγιου Ιωαννου του βαπτιματος and above it (next to the Western bank of the Jordan) in smaller letters: βηθαβαρᾷ. It is noteworthy that the excellent manuscripts 029 and 083 support βηθαβαρᾷ. … “ (ibid Willker)

Jerome repeats this with the following words: "Bethabara trans Iordanem, ubi Ioannis in paenitentiam baptizabat, unde et usque hodie plurimi de fratribus, hoc est de numero credentium, ibi renasci cupientes vitali gurgite baptizantur." (De situ et nominibus), but Jerome leaves βηθανίᾳ in his Vulgate. Chrysostom notes that βηθαβαρᾷ is found in "the more accurate of the copies" (in Ioann Hom XVIII, 1)” (Ibid Willker) {translation - Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John baptized unto repentance, which until today, many of the brothers, that is, from the number of those who believe, they were baptized to be born again}by Richard Wilson
Other evidence that needs to be addressed are the two oldest Syriac Gospels. These two gospels both say “He spoke these things in Bethabara on the other side of the Jordan where John was baptizing.” (E. Jan Wilson; “The Old Syriac Gospels: Studies and Comparative Translations”, Gorgias Press and The University of Notre Dame De Louaize, 2002, vol. II)
We can conclude with a reasonable amount of confidence that Bethabara is a good candidate for Johns original writing. There are many problems with transmission of manuscripts, and one possibility of how Bethany became dominant in the Greek texts can be from its possible transmission. The Greek traditional text transmission would have been focused upon those who did not necessarily know the geography of Palestine, the Diaspora Jews and “God Fearers” who began to follow Christ. They may have also wanted to link this area with the Bethany where Jesus spent so much time with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (who lived there). (John 11:1-46; Mark 11:1; Luke 19:29; Matt. 21:17; Mark 11:11-12; Matt 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8; Luke 24:50; Luke 10:38-42) The Greek speaking audience is, by Origen’s time, wanting to separate themselves from a Jewish connection, as seen by Mark of Rome in the mid second century A.D., and so the Semitic manuscript tradition would not have been as prominent, since much of the church by this time is from non-Jewish backgrounds. If we look in the Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 10:9 which reads: "And my father said he should baptize in Bethabara, beyond Jordan; ..." There are many instances where we see the inspiration Joseph Smith must have had in translating the Book of Mormon. This is an instance that sheds some light on the fact that Joseph Smith did receive inspiration beyond his, or common knowledge of the time. The likelihood of Bethabara being the location is enhanced by all evidence we have today. So, the King James translators are also justified in the use of Bethabara as they did: “These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing."

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