WPost probes hot debate on the banks of River Jordan

I have crossed the Jordan River twice in my life and both times the experience was quite memorable. The river itself isn’t much to look at, but the social dynamics surrounding the location are fascinating.

The first trip was a singer in a choral music tour, done with the cooperation of the U.S. government, to perform “The Messiah” for cultural and political leaders in both Israel and Jordan. No big deal, right? However, this effort took place in late December, 1972. Look that up in the history of the Middle East. The second trip was linked to the 2000 pilgrimage that St. John Paul II made to the region. Look that one up, too.

Do the math and I am automatically going to be interested in the Washington Post news feature that ran under the following headline: “Pope picks one of dueling baptism sites in visit to Holy Land.”

This is a solid story and, first things first, I want to praise the wide variety of images and information contained in it. However, at the same time, I want to challenge the Post assumption that most readers would be most interested in the financial and political angles of this story, as opposed to the religions questions that it raises. You can get to both of those subjects from the material at the top of the report:

WEST BANK OF THE JORDAN RIVER – Christians believe that Jesus was immersed in the waters of the Jordan River by John the Baptist, who wore a cloak of camel’s hair and lived on locusts and honey in the desert wilderness.

But the Gospels are not precise about which side of the river the baptism took place on — the east bank or the west.

Although it might not matter much to a half-million annual visitors who come to the river for sightseeing or a renewal of faith, it matters very much to tourism officials in Israel and Jordan, who maintain dueling baptism sites, one smack-dab across from the other, with the shallow, narrow, muddy stream serving as international boundary.

Since many of those “visitors” can also be called “pilgrims,” as in believers making pilgrimages, it matters that Pope Francis is poised to become the latest major religious leader — more on that in a minute — to symbolically visit the Bethany Beyond the Jordan site on the Jordanian, or the east, side of the river.

Thinking hard news, it’s logical that the Post team jumped from the Pope Francis news hook straight into dollars, cents, tourism and politics. Viewed from this perspective, what we have here is Israeli tourism officials fighting to protect their market share in a tussle with Jordanian tourism officials.

I get that. I’ve seen that first hand, because the tourism battle is decades old. For starters, it’s easier — some say safer — to visit the Israeli side.

But is that the most important, the most interesting angle to take on this matter, from the viewpoint of the typical reader? I’m not convinced. I would ask: Why are most people going there? Trust me, this dispute is not about the scenery.

All of this made me think of a statement made by a church history professor (also an archaeologist) that I studied under long ago in my college and graduate-school years. When dealing with disputes about early-church history, he said, it usually makes sense to what people in the early-church concluded about the facts. They are not always right, but they are right more often than not.

Thus, I thought it was interesting that the Post writers waited until the very end of this long report to lay out the following material for readers:

Sleuths searching for the baptism site who favor Jordan point to pilgrim diaries dating to the early church, Roman road markers and a 6th-century mosaic map on the floor of St. George’s Orthodox Church in Madaba, Jordan. Jordanian archaeologists say the definitive evidence linking Bethany to Jesus’s baptism came in the form of a 4th-century monastery devoted to Elijah, which may have been commissioned by Helena, mother to Roman emperor Constantine, to mark the site of the baptism.

“When presented with the evidence, no one can deny that the baptism site is at Bethany, and that this is Bethany,” said Mohammad Waheeb, a Jordanian archaeologist who spearheaded the rediscovery of the site in the late 1990s.

“Now it is our job to get the truth out,” he said.

According to the Jordanians, 16 major denominations have officially recognized Bethany as the baptism site, from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church patriarch to Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor of a megachurch in California.

And in the final sentences, there is this:

This year saw the completion of a cavernous Russian Orthodox guesthouse and a Lutheran church and pilgrimage center, adding to the Coptic, Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox churches already there.

A centerpiece will be a Catholic church set to be one of the largest in the region when it opens in 2016. Officials promise that the destination will not be turned into an amusement park but will retain its natural, contemplative setting in a desert oasis.

An amusement park full of churches? That’s an interesting image.

Meanwhile, the story seems to be saying that the more ancient the church, the more likely it is to accept the judgment — duh — of the early Christians that the Bethany site gets the nod. And what does it mean to say that a site was “rediscovered” in the late 1990s, when it is already on the ancient mosaic map (the oldest map of the biblical sites in the world) on the floor of St. George’s Orthodox Church — which is near the site?

The tourism angle interests me. The debate over the location of the holy site interests me even more. The Post got both angles into this fine story. I’m simply questioning which angle deserved top billing.

IMAGE: The ancient mosaic map on the floor of St. George’s Orthodox Church in Madaba, Jordan.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia B

    I guess religiously it’s been settled. But I have read a number of times about the fighting over which side of the river should be honored. Interesting to think the fight is over tourism.
    That may be what’s behind the disagreement about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb, too.

  • Julia B

    Couldn’t find what was happening in Israel in late December,1972. Could you explain?

    • tmatt

      That’s right between the major wars in the region. Very tense times.

      • Julia B

        Thanks


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