Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Beyond the Jordan: an Ethnogeographical Study

The Jordan River, explicitly referenced nearly 200 times in scripture, flows north to south from Mt. Hermon through the Sea of Galilee into the Dead Sea. Only about 30 meters (100 feet) wide at its broadest point, and just over 5 meters (17 feet) at its deepest, it is a primary water source for an otherwise arid land. Its biblical significance comes from major events occurring in, around, and through it.1

When the Abrahamic land promise was fulfilled,2 most of the Israelite tribes settled on the western side of the river, later known as Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. The tribes of Manasseh, Gad, and Reuben settled lands on the eastern side, later known as Perea, the Decapolis, and the upper region. When the biblical record alludes to a location “beyond” or “across” the Jordan,3 what does this mean? Is the eastern side or the western side in view, and does it even matter? 


Sometimes the particular direction or locality is clearly stated or implied.4 At other times, however, it depends on the vantage point of the one making the observation, including allusions to “this side” and “the other side.”5 From the standpoint of the speaker or the writer, the directional view is mostly eastward,6 though at other times the west side of the river is intended.7

In the New Testament, only the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John make references to “beyond the Jordan.” Luke’s record does not use this terminology. The most apparent reason is the different authorial perspectives. Luke is not an ethnic Jew and, as far as we know, not from an area historically regarded as Jewish territory. The other three Gospel writers are. From a 1st-century Palestinian Jewish perspective, the phrase “beyond the Jordan” typically looks eastward.

Prophetic Significance

The phrase occurs in Matthew 4:15 in a quote from Isaiah 9:1. This could be alluding to the former land of the Amorites east of the Jordan, inhabited by Gentiles in Isaiah’s day, thus “Galilee of the nations.” However, from the vantage point of Israel’s northern enemies, particularly the Assyrians (cf. Isa. 8:4, 7), it would apply to the west side of the river, later known as Upper Galilee (formerly “land of Naphtali”) and Lower Galilee (formerly “land of Zebulun”), thus the home base and initial focus of the Lord’s public ministry.8

Evangelistic Significance

Jesus grew up west of the Jordan River in the Galilean village of Nazareth (Matt. 2:23) and later made his home base in Capernaum, a fishing village much closer to the water boundary (Matt. 4:13). Although his ministry initially and primarily targeted the people of Galilee, Judea, and to some extent Samaria, his far-reaching influence also impacted lives east of the river in the Decapolis and other places “beyond the Jordan” (Matt. 4:25; Mark 3:8). While principally pursuing “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6; 15:24), his earthly ministry was much broader than is often recognized. 

Jesus earned the reputation for associating with tax collectors and “sinners” (Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34), the latter expression descriptive of Gentiles (Gal. 2:15; cf. Acts 10:28) and of Jews who were not diligent students and practitioners of the law and traditions (cf. John 7:49). It is noteworthy that the accusations were made in Capernaum (Matt. 9:10-13; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 5:30-32), on the border of the Jordan River, and in Perea (Luke 15:1-2), across the Jordan. Since Jesus “came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15), these are the kinds of people who needed to hear his message (Matt. 4:17; 9:12-13).

East of the Jordan: the Upper Region

In the upper region east of the Jordan, Bethsaida was the hometown of at least three of the Lord’s earliest disciples: Philip, Andrew, and Simon Peter (John 1:44).9 Jesus was not in Galilee when he first encountered these men, and Andrew had learned of Christ through John the baptist’s ministry (John 1:35-43), which was mostly “beyond the Jordan” (John 1:28; 3:26; 10:40). Being from this culturally-diverse region would explain why Philip and Andrew are the Lord’s only apostles with Greek names. On one occasion, when certain Greeks desired to meet Jesus, it was Philip and Andrew who served as intermediaries (John 12:20-22).

In this area across the Jordan Jesus taught, healed, and then fed over 5,000 hungry people with five barley loaves and two small fish, his only miracle (besides the resurrection) recorded in all four Gospels (Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-14). As locals, both Philip and Andrew had important roles in the narrative. Jesus singled out Philip, inquiring of him where bread might be purchased in the vicinity, and Andrew is the one who introduced the Lord to a local boy with food, perhaps knowing the youngster personally (John 6:5-9). Unfortunately, the general populace of Bethsaida were not receptive to the Lords teaching and miracles (Matt. 11:20-22; Luke 10:13-14; John 6:15-66). 

Caesarea Philippi was also on the eastern side of the Jordan River, where Christ made the promise to build his universal church as he ministered with his disciples in surrounding villages (Matt. 16:13-20; Mark 8:27-30). The city was named after Caesar Augustus and Herod Philip II, formerly known as Paneas, after the Greek god Pan. The Lord and his disciples were far removed from their monotheistic Jewish environment, deep in pagan territory. The description in John 12:21 is apparently ethnogeographical rather than political, as both Bethsaida [Julias] and Caesarea Philippi were just beyond Galilee’s political boundaries and within the jurisdiction of Herod Philip II, today in the region known as the Galilee Panhandle.

East of the Jordan: the Decapolis

The Decapolis (League of Ten Cities) was comprised of Scythopolis, Gadara, Hippos, Dion, Pella, Raphana, Canatha, Damascus, Philadelphia, and Galasa (Pliny, Natural History 5.16). Other than Damascus of Syria, the rest of these communities, following the 4th-century BC conquests of Alexander the Great, were established as Greek municipalities and at various times controlled and influenced by the Ptolemies, the Seleucids, the Nabateans, and eventually the Romans. 

After the people of Judea broke free from Seleucid control and regained their independence in 142 BC, the Hasmonean dynasty increased in power, wealth, and territory, conquering Idumea to the south and cities of the Decapolis to the east. By 63 BC the Romans had gained control and liberated these Hellenized cities, allowing them political independence under Roman protection. Each was considered a polis or city-state, with jurisdiction over its surrounding countryside. In the early 1st century AD the culturally-diverse region east of the Jordan River was far more Greco-Roman than Jewish.

Among Christ’s many followers were those of the Decapolis district (Matt. 4:25), as he ventured beyond the Jordan into a place his fellow-Jews considered unclean, with unclean animals and unclean people tormented by unclean spirits (Matt. 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39). Despite initial rejection, he graciously returned to do good works, “and they glorified the God of Israel” (Matt. 15:29-31; Mark 7:31-37). His compassion compelled him to heal the afflicted and perform another great feeding miracle, with only seven loaves and a few small fish to fill over 4,000 famished souls (Matt. 15:32-39; Mark 8:1-10). These feeding miracles served as object lessons for the sometimes oblivious apostles (Mark 6:52; 8:17-21).

East of the Jordan: Perea

Perea (meaning “the country beyond”) was on the eastern side of the Jordan, south of the Decapolis, the territory formerly occupied by the pre-exilic Israelite tribes of Gad and Reuben. When Herod the Great was appointed by the Roman Senate as Judea’s king in 37 BC, Perea was included in his jurisdiction, later transferred to his son Antipas (cf. Luke 23:6-7), then to his grandson Agrippa I (cf. Acts 12:19-20), and eventually absorbed into the provinces of Judea and Syria Palestina under the control of a military prefect.

Herod Antipas was tetrarch of Galilee and Perea (4 BC to AD 39) when John the baptizer was preparing the way for Christ’s ministry (Luke 3:1-6). John was from the hill country of Judah (Luke 1:39), the northern part of which was roughly 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the Jordan River. The Jordan Valley runs along both sides of the river, and much of the lower region is wilderness.10 John conducted his ministry in the more isolated wilderness of Judea (Matt. 3:1; Luke 3:4), albeit mainly “beyond the Jordan” (John 1:28; 3:26; 10:40). Jesus and his disciples also baptized masses of people in this general area (John 3:26; 4:1-3).

As John went “into all the surrounding region of the Jordan” (Luke 3:3), multitudes went out to hear his preaching from “all the region around the Jordan” (Matt. 3:5-6; 11:7-10). Since he was “at first” immersing in a particular place across the Jordan (John 10:40), no single location can be identified as his only baptismal site, although farther north in the Galilee region seems to be excluded (Matt. 3:13; 4:12; Mark 1:9, 14; Luke 4:14 John 1:43). On at least one occasion he was baptizing converts from the west side of the river (John 3:23, cp. v. 26). 

A distinction is made in the Fourth Gospel between the Bethany “near Jerusalem” (John 11:18) and the Bethany in a more remote area “beyond the Jordan” (John 1:28).11 The Bethany west of the river was a small town on the southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives, less than 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) from Jerusalem (Matt. 21:17; 26:6-13; 12:1-8; Mark 11:1, 11-12; 14:3-9; Luke 19:29; 24:50; John 11:1-46). The Jordan River is about 33 kilometers (21 miles) east of Jerusalem (note John 1:19), and John’s original baptismal site was within a couple of days’ walk from the Bethany near Jerusalem (John 1:28; 10:40; 11:1, 6, 17).

John the baptizer was eventually arrested and executed by Herod Antipas, in whose territory he had been preaching and baptizing (Matt. 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29; Luke 3:19-20; 9:9). The death sentence was the result of John denouncing the tetrarch’s unlawful marriage to his half-niece Herodias. Jesus was informed of the incident (Matt. 14:12)and his attitude toward the malicious ruler was not favorable (Mark 8:15; Luke 13:31-32).12

A couple of years later Jesus was “beyond the Jordan” when some Pharisees publicly asked him about the legality of a husband divorcing his spouse for just any cause (Matt. 19:1-2; Mark 10:1-2). At the time they were in the political jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, a divorced man married to a divorced woman,13 wielding the power of life and death. The trap they were attempting to set makes the straightforward and courageous response of Jesus even more impactful. Like John, he implicitly regarded such a relationship unlawful (Matt. 19:4-9; Mark 10:3-12). 

East of the Jordan: Nabatea

Beyond the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, farther east and southeast was the Arabian Desert and the land of the Nabateans, which the Romans called Arabia (cf. Gal. 4:25)The kingdom was ruled for approximately forty-eight years (9 BC – AD 40) by King Aretas IV (cf. 2 Cor. 11:32-33), whose daughter, Phasaelis, was married to and divorced by Herod Antipas before his remarriage to Herodias.

During the Middle Nabatean period (30 BC – AD 70) the boundaries fluctuated but would have included what is today known as the Sinai, the Negev, the east side of the Jordan Valley, much of Jordan, and part of Saudi Arabia. At times it incorporated Damascus and other cities of the Decapolis. Jews from Arabia (the Nabatean Kingdom) were in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:11) and potentially returned home with the gospel (Acts 8:4). Later Saul of Tarsus was converted in Damascus and then spent the first three years of his Christian life in the general vicinity of Damascus in Arabia (Acts 9:3-19; Gal. 1:15-18).14

The biblical record does not indicate for how much of the three years Saul was in Arabia or what he did there, but in view of his preaching Christ almost immediately after his conversion (Acts 9:20-22) and subsequently arousing the disfavor of the Nabatean king (2 Cor. 11:32), missionary activity seems likely. While in Arabia, it is plausible that he worked with Arabian Christian Jews converted in Jerusalem, who had been forced to flee from Jerusalem due to the persecution he had earlier instigated (Acts 2:11, 41; 8:1-4).


Explicit allusions in the New Testament to the Lord’s care and outreach among non-Jewish people are rare until the end of his public ministry (Matt. 8:5-13; 15:21-28; 28:18-20). However, implicit in the ethnogeographical details of the biblical record is a much broader and more accurate description. His mission field included but was in no way limited to conservative Judaism in Jewish territories.15 From as far south as Idumea, as far north as Syria, as far west as the Mediterranean coastline, and as far east as “beyond the Jordan” (Matt. 4:24-25; Mark 3:7-8), in only three to three-and-a-half years Christ’s teaching and influence impacted lives in an area of over 46,000 square kilometers (18,000 sq. miles). 

Afterwards the universal gospel message spread and continues to spread even farther as his great commission was and continues to be carried out to all nations in all the world (Acts 1:8; Col. 1:5-6). Metaphorically, we still venture beyond the Jordan" when we trust God enough to leave our comfort zones, stepping out in faith to do his will, especially in demonstrating Christ-like love toward those who are different than us culturally, ethnically, socially, religiously, and morally. It involves not seeking my own advantage but of the many, that they may be saved (1 Cor. 10:33b).

--Kevin L. Moore


     1 After twenty years in Mesopotamia, Jacob and his family crossed the Jordan River westward into the land of Canaan (Gen. 32:10). Centuries later, following their exodus from Egypt and four decades of nomadic wandering, Jacob’s descendants returned to Canaan from the eastern side by crossing the river on dry ground (Josh. 3:17; 4:22-24). Elijah and Elisha crossed the Jordan eastward on dry ground, then Elisha did it again in the opposite direction (2 Kings 2:7-14). Naaman the Syrian was cleansed of leprosy by dipping seven times in the Jordan (2 Kings 5:10-14), and Jesus was baptized in the same river (Matt. 3:13-17).

     2 Gen. 12:7; 13:14-17; 15:7-18; Deut. 4:1; 16:20; Josh. 3:14-17; 21:43-45; 1 Kings 4:21; Neh. 9:7-8; Acts 7:2-5, 17, 45.

     3 Some translators and commentators avoid the question with a more generic expression like “near” or “in the vicinity of,” but in so doing rob the text of its more specific geographical focus. Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.

     4 Deut. 4:49; Josh. 1:15; 5:1; 12:7; 13:27, 32; 20:8; 22:7; Num. 32:19; 1 Chron. 26:30.

     5 Deut. 1:1, 5; 4:41, 46, 47; Josh. 1:14; cf. 2 Sam. 19:31-41.

     6 From the speaker’s point of reference: Deut. 3:8; Josh. 1:15; 2:10; 7:7; 9:10; 18:7; 22:4; 24:8; Judg. 5:17; 33:32; 35:14; from the writer’s point of reference: Gen. 50:10-11; Num. 22:1; 34:15; Josh. 12:1; 13:8; 14:3; 17:5; Judg. 7:25; 10:8; 1 Sam. 31:7; 1 Chron. 12:37.

     7 Deut. 3:20, 25; 11:30; Josh. 9:1; 2 Sam. 19:15; Isa. 9:1.

     8 The region had been controlled by Phoenician king Hiram I of Tyre-Sidon in the 10th century BC (cf. 1 Kings 9:11-14) and later populated by the Assyrians with exiled foreigners in the 8th century BC (cf. 2 Kings 17:5-24). Within its 1st-century AD borders were Hellenistic communities like Tiberias (on the Sea of Galilee’s western coast) and the capital Sepphoris (near Nazareth), primary cultural centers of Greco-Roman influence. The Lord’s directive in Matt. 10:5 implies the presence of Gentiles in the region. Upper Galilee is mountainous and barren, at times providing a much-needed getaway for Jesus (Matt. 14:23; Mark 6:46; John 6:15). Lower Galilee was a lot more populated, so the bulk of the Lord’s ministry was spent traveling around its many villages (Matt. 9:35; Mark 6:6). Christ’s immediate disciples, with the possible exception of Judas Iscariot, were all regarded as Galileans (Acts 1:11; 2:7).

     9 Although Bethsaida was the hometown of Andrew and his brother Simon Peter, at some point they were living in a house on the other side of the Jordan River in Capernaum (Mark 1:21, 29). Being fishermen by trade, they would have been subject to taxation whenever they crossed the river into the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas (cf. Luke 5:27). The house in Capernaum may have belonged to the family of Peter’s wife.

     10 The Eastern Plateau, east of the Jordan River and west of the Arabian Desert, was the location of the Transjordanian Mountains (incl. Mt. Hermon), the Decapolis, and Perea. Much of the lower region, which includes Jericho (Matt. 20:29) and Qumran, is wilderness. This is probably the wilderness area where Jesus was tested by the devil for nearly six weeks (Matt. 4:1-11). The desolate valley would have provided the Lord and his disciples secluded places of solitude (Luke 5:16; 9:10; cf. Mark 1:35).

     11 The variant reading Βηθαβαρᾶ (“Bethabara”) appears in the Textus Receptus version of John 1:28 (see LSV, N/KJV, RAV, YLT), although the weight of evidence favors Βηθανίᾳ (“Bethany”) as in NA28/UBS5 and the Byzantine Majority Text. The confusion generated by two locations of the same name probably led Origen to favor “Bethabara,” influencing Eusebius, Jerome, and the Textus Receptus. There is no clear reason to alter the text otherwise, even though there were other places sharing the same names (e.g., Gibeah, Antioch, Caesarea, Philadelphia, Nicopolis). The apostle John himself deemed it necessary to make the geographical distinctions, “near Jerusalem” vs. “beyond the Jordan.” For a more extensive discussion, see J. Carl Laney, Selective Geographical Problems in the Life of Christ (Dallas, TX: Dallas Theological Seminary, 1977): 50-70 <Link>. 

     12 The reading in Mark 8:15 in most Greek manuscripts is “Herod,” but the alternate reading “Herodians” occurs in some, alluding to the political supporters of Herod Antipas.

     13 Antipas had divorced his wife Phasaelis, the daughter of the Nabatean king Aretas IV, in order to marry Herodias, who had previously been married to his half-brother Philip I. Josephus reports: “Herod the tetrarch had married the daughter of Aretas; and had lived with her a great while …. However he fell in love with Herodias, this last Herod’s [Philip’s] wife …. One article of this marriage also was this, that he should divorce Aretas’s daughter…. But Herodias, their [Aristobulus and Agrippa’s] sister, was married to Herod [Philip], the son of Herod the Great …. Herodias took upon her to confound the laws of our country, and divorced her self from her husband, while he was alive, and was married to Herod [Antipas], her husband’s brother by the father’s side. He was tetrarch of Galilee” (Ant. 18.5.1, 4).

     14 Paul was in Damascus at least twice: (a) when he was converted to Christ (Acts 9:8-19), and (b) when he returned from Arabia (Gal. 1:15-17). His initial departure was prompted by a Jewish plot to kill him, and his second departure was instigated by the ethnarch of Damascus desiring to arrest him. On both occasions Paul’s escape was executed by being let down in a basket through the city wall.

     15 Christ’s initial focus was necessarily among his ethnic kinsmen (Matt. 10:5-6; 15:24) but his ultimate purpose and practical ministry were not so restricted (Matt. 9:36-37; 25:32; 28:19; John 10:16; cf. Rom. 1:16).


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