The canonical gospels all record that at the outset of Jesus’ public ministry John the Baptist is drawing crowds to be baptized (Matthew 3:1-12; Mark 1:4-8; Luke 3:1-20; John 1:6-13, 19-34, 3:22-35). Only John’s gospel, however, pinpoints the baptizer’s location (John 1:28, 3:23). When John the Baptist is last seen in the Gospel of John, he is said to be situated in Aenon (John 3:23).
John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there; and people were coming and were being baptized— (John 3:23 NASB)
John has evidently relocated to Aenon as he is previously seen baptizing in Bethany (John 1:28). Though Aenon is the locale’s most common spelling (CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV) it is also rendered Enon (ASV) and Ae’non (RSV).
This is the only time Aenon appears in the Biblical record. The fourth gospel communicating geographic locations not found in the other canonical gospels is not uncommon.
D. Moody Smith (b. 1931) relays:
John mentions a number of places not found in the Synoptics: Bethany beyond Jordan, where John baptized (John 1:28; cf. John 10:40); Aenon near Salim, another place where John baptized (John 3:23); the city of Sychar (John 4:5-6); a mountain of Samaria, presumably Gerizim (John 4:20); the city of Ephraim (John 11:54). (Smith, The Fourth Gospel in Four Dimensions: Judaism and Jesus, the Gospels and Scripture, 107)John’s precision has been lost to history as Aenon’s location is the subject of much debate. Walter Wink (1935-2012) researches:
A.M. Hunter [1906-1991], ‘Recent Trends in Johannine Studies’, ET, LXXI, 6 (1960), 164-7, declares that ‘the location of Aenon may now be regarded as reasonably certain’. It lies near the headwaters of Wadi Far’ah in Samaria. So also Charles H.H. Scobie [b. 1932], John the Baptist (1964), pp. 163ff. C.K. Barrett [1917-2011], St John, p. 183, remains skeptical. B.W. Bacon [1860-1932] cites evidence that there was a strong Samaritan gnostic wing of the Baptist movement and that John 3:23ff represents the struggle between Christians and Baptists there toward the close of the first century. Samaria is the traditional resting place of John (‘New and Old in Jesus’ Relation to John’, Journal of Biblical Literature, XLVIII, 1929, 52ff). Cf. also Carl H. Kraeling [1897-1966], John the Baptist, p.194 n. 9. Maurice Goguel [1880-1955] suggests that this passage originally emanated from a Baptist group, since it is John, not Jesus, who is so precisely located in John 3:23 (Life of Jesus, pp. 272-75). (Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition, 93)Three potential locations for Aenon have been suggested. Gerald L. Borchert (b. 1932) surveys:
Although we are not certain where this Aenon was, three possibilities have come down through tradition (two of these places are even noted on the ancient mosaic map at Medaba [pictured]). The first of the three is at the northeastern end of the Dead Sea and is the least likely. Another is in the Jordan Valley of Samaria south of the ancient city of Beth Shan (Scythopolis), a site advocated by Rudolf Schnackenburg [1914-2002]. The third, preferred by W.F. Albright [1891-1971], is near Shechem in Samaria. The need to note in John 3:23 that there was plenty of water for baptizing makes some sense if it was in the hill country of Samaria, but it could also apply to the Jordan Valley. (Borchert, John 1-11 (The New American Commentary), 189-90)As Borchert alludes, even church tradition has competing claims. J. Ramsey Michaels (b. 1931) observes:
The sixth-century mosaic map from Madeba in Jordan shows two Aenons, one east of the Jordan near where John was baptizing before (“Aenon there now Sapsaphas”) and the other west of the river and further north. The latter is specifically connected with our passage by being labeled “Aenon near Salim,” and agrees with the location eight miles south of Beth-shan assigned in a fourth-century gazetteer of biblical place-names, the Onomasticon of Eusebius [263-339] (cf. also the fourth-century travel diary of the European pilgrim Egeria). Modern attempts to locate Aenon in Samaria, where there is today a Salim southeast of Nablus and an Ainun nearby, are unconvincing because of John 4:1-4. The narrative hardly makes sense if Jesus was already baptizing in Samaria! Such names would have been common in any case: Aenon comes from the Aramaic word for “springs,” while Salim, like Salem or Jerusalem, is from a Semitic root meaning “peace.” The location assigned by Eusebius and the Madeba map appears not to rest simply on inferences from John’s Gospel and may therefore be regarded as an independent—and plausible—tradition. (Michaels, John (New International Biblical Commentary), 65)John J. Rousseau (b. 1930) and Rami Arav (b. 1947) add:
Eusebius [263-339] mentions the place (Onomasticon 40:1-4), which he locates on the western side of the Jordan, as does Jerome [347-420] (Epistle 73). The Madaba Map indicates another location on the eastern side, opposite Betharba...According to a Christian tradition dating from the sixth century and coming from the pilgrim guide Antonius and Cyrillus Scythopolitanus [525-559], there was a cave on the eastern location (named Saphasphas or “Willow” on the Madaba map) where Jesus dwelt at the time of his baptism. (Rousseau and Arav, Jesus and His World: An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary, 7)Joshua Schwartz (b. 1952) questions Eusebius’ traditional identification:
A number of problems surround the Byzantine identification. First, if crowds arrived to be baptized, why did John use a spring when the Jordan was nearby? And if perhaps this particular stretch of the Jordan was not convenient, would it not have been more logical to find another rather than to rely on such a spring? Moreover, was the Byzantine Aenon not too close to the pagan city of Scythopolis? Also, the Salem in the Jordan Valley was apparently not much of a settlement while the Gospel of John seems to imply that it was a well-known site. (Gershon Galil and Moshe Weinfeld [1925-2009], “John the Baptist, the Wilderness and the Samaritan Mission”, Studies in Historical Geography and Biblical Historiography: Presented to Zecharia Kallai [b. 1923], 112-13)Those who have placed Aenon in Samaria have seen it as evidence of a greater Samaritan ministry. Robert Kysar (b. 1934) researches:
Marie-Émile Boismard [1916-2004]’s study of John 3:23 leads him to find more prominence for the mission to the Samaritans than chapter 4 [John 4:1-54] alone would suggest. But he does not propose a Samaritan mission as a goal for the gospel as a whole (“Aenon près de Salem”). James D. Purvis [b. 1932] has scrutinized these theses for a Samaritan mission in the gospel and from his examination of the evidence concludes that, rather than a Samaritan mission, the evangelist was concerned with an anti-Samaritan polemic against a northern, sectarian prophet, a kind of Samaritan magus figure (“Fourth Gospel”). (Kysar, Voyages with John: Charting the Fourth Gospel, 97)Though Aenon has not been definitively identified, it can be placed on the west side of the Jordan River. Robert. H. Gundry (b. 1932) examines:
John 3:26 will put the Baptist—and therefore Aenon, where he was baptizing—opposite the other side of the Jordan River, where he’d been earlier. Since the other side is the east side, or Transjordan (compare John 1:28, 40), Aenon opposite the east side must be located in territory west of the river—but probably not on its bank, because then John wouldn’t have needed to say that “many waters were there.” (Gundry, Commentary on John)Despite the failure to distinguish Aenon’s exact location even the most critical of scholars accepts the probability of John’s notation. Craig L. Blomberg (b. 1955) acknowledges:
The location of Aenon, where the Baptist was currently ministering (John 3:23)... another incidental detail that even as sceptical a scholar as Rudolf Bultmann [1884-1976] (1971: 170, n. 9) assumed to be accurate. (Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues and Commentary, 96)The reason for John’s relocation is also lost to history, though some have seen it as a means of avoiding competition with Jesus, similar to Abraham and Lot’s dispersal of land (Genesis 13:1-18). In this way Jesus and John are taking measures not to infringe upon one another’s “territory” thus avoiding a potential turf war.
Jack W. Stallings (b. 1944) speculates:
The statement that John is “also” baptizing seems to indicate that the baptisms are essentially similar (i.e. for repentance). This is the last time that John and Jesus will be in any sense “together,’ sharing the same task. From this point on their paths will diverge drastically. This is the last time that Jesus will closely associate His ministry with that of John. It is an appropriate time for John to express the truth of John 3:30...“Also” is important for a question of geography. Is John “also baptizing”(his location being Aenon) or “also baptizing at Aenon”? If the second option is taken, then Jesus and John are in very close proximity. At any rate, the whole point of this episode seems lost if they are separated by a great distance. (Stallings, The Gospel of John (The Randall House Bible Commentary), 59)Charles R. Swindoll (b.1934) deduces:
Judea was clearly the Baptizer’s territory. Jesus and His disciples came into Judea, where they not only lingered indefinitely, they even baptized! [John 4:1-2] Meanwhile, John and his disciples continued their ministry of baptism in Aenon...near Salim...places undoubtedly familiar to first-century readers. John’s choice of words heightens the tension as well. The phrase “spending time” is based on the Greek word diatribō [John 3:22]. While the term is used figuratively to mean “to pass time, or to waste time,” it means literally, “to rub between, to rub hard, to rub away.” The potential for friction is unmistakable. (Swindoll, Insights on John, 77-78)Deeper meaning has been read into the passage’s geography. Some have connected Aenon’s waters with the prophecy of Zechariah: “In that day a fountain will be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for impurity.” (Zechariah 13:1 NASB).
Others have found symbolic meaning in the names “Aenon” and “Salim”. Craig R. Koester (b. 1953) considers:
The word Aenon means “springs” in Aramaic, and the evangelist explained that “there were many waters there” (John 3:22-23). He described the location of Aenon by relating it to the village of Salim, which suggests that he expected some readers to know where Salim was. Readers familiar with the Greek translation of the Scriptures may have heard that there was a village named Salem or Salim near Shechem, in the region of Samaria. It was best known from the story of Jacob, who stopped there when he bought the piece of land mentioned in John 4:5 and used it as a place of worship (cf. John 4:20). Those who knew these stories may have seen in John’s movement to Aenon a foreshadowing of Jesus’ ministry in Samaria, where he would tell Jacob’s descendants about living water and a new way to worship. (Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community, 186)Thomas L. Brodie (b.1940) theorizes:
The uncertainty itself may be significant...In dealing with the elusive location of Jesus’ place of abode (John 1:39) and with the rather perplexing use of place names in the call of Philip (John 1:43-44), the fourth gospel’s geographic puzzles—like many of its other puzzles—appear to be a way of challenging the mind and of seeking to raise it to another level of perception. In the case of “Aenon near Salim” the puzzle would seem to be resolved through the fact that “the name [Aenon] is from the Aramaic plural of the word for ‘spring,’ while ‘Salim’ reflects the Semitic root for ‘peace’” (Raymond E. Brown [1928-1998] 151. Shalom=”peace” or “salvation”). In other words, “Aenon near Salim” means “Springs near Peace.” This suits the context and makes theological sense. The passage as a whole (John 3:22-36) is largely connected with aspects of the peace which is brought by Jesus, particularly with the ideas of love and joy (cf. especially John 3:29-36). It is also concerned with John, the representative of the old dispensation who baptized with water, and with John’s relationship to Jesus (John 3:26-30). The picture of John as being at “Springs near Peace” fits the theological role. His is a world of springs, of cleansing water, of preparatory baptism. But nearby is Jesus, the one who, as well as cleansing what is negative, brings a positive peace. The distinctness of the two, as well as their nearness to one another, is further reflected in the image of the bridegroom and his friend, the best man (John 3:29)...In this geographic context...the interpreter has to choose between superficial confusion and theological coherence...Rather than presume that the writer was incapable of giving a clear geographic designation—something which should have been very easy—it seems more appropriate, given the theological depth of the gospel, and given also its tendency towards ambiguity, to interpret “Aenon near Salim” as being primarily theological. (Brodie, The Gospel According to John: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 201-202)C.H. Dodd (1884-1973) summarily rejects such figurative readings:
All attempts that have been made to extract a profound symbolic meaning out of the names of Sychar, the city of Ephraim, Bethany beyond Jordan, Aenon by Salim, of Cana and Tiberias, or again, of Kedron, Bethesda (or Bethzatha), and Gabbatha, are hopelessly fanciful; and there is no reason to suppose that a fictitious topography would in any way assist the appeal of the gospel to an Ephesian public. The names, whether we are able to identify them on the map or not, cannot reasonably be supposed to have got into the gospel except out of a tradition which associated certain episodes in the life of Jesus (or of John the Baptist) with those sites. (Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 452-53)The concrete historical and geographic setting of John’s ministry firmly places baptism in the realm of reality. Frederick Dale Bruner (b.1932) advises:
This text keeps baptism from being understood too abstractly as, say, a spiritual and not a physical reality. John was baptizing in this very particular place “because,” we are explicitly told, “there was a lot of water there.” The “water” of our John 3:23 is the water of Jesus’ promise in John 3:5 — the real water with which the Spirit is united in baptism. We do well to be as physical as Jesus and John were. (Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 218)Why does the evangelist include the location of John’s ministry; is he transmitting more than geography? Why does John move his base of operations? Where is the best place to be baptized? Where were you baptized? Does that venue have special significance to you?
There is practicality involved in John’s positioning: Aenon possesses an abundance of water (John 3:23). Andreas J. Köstenberger (b. 1957) explicates:
The site chosen for baptism was Aenon near Salim, because there was an ample supply of water. “Aenon” is a Semitic term meaning “springs”; hence John’s mention of “plenty of water” (literally, “many waters,” i.e. springs), which would have made this an ideal site for John’s (and Jesus’) baptismal preaching (Leon Morris [1914-2006] 1995: 210). (Köstenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 135)Leon Morris (1914-2006) adds:
One suggestion for Aenon is a site about seven miles south of Beisan. If this is correct, there is a striking accuracy in the statement that there was “plenty of water” or, more literally, “many waters” there, for in this locality there are seven springs within a radius of a quarter mile. In some such place John pursued his activities. The tense of the last two verbs is continuous and we might give the force of this as “they kept coming and being baptized.” (Morris, The Gospel According to John (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 201)The choice of Aenon is directly related to John the Baptist’s unquestionable popularity. Robert H. Mounce (b.1921) explains:
Since people were “constantly coming to be baptized,” an abundance of water would be required. A.T. Robertson [1863-1934] (Word Pictures in the New Testament [Nashville: Broadman, 1933], 54) observes that it was “not for drinking, but for baptizing” and quotes Marcus Dods [1834-1909] as saying, “Therefore even in summer, baptism by immersion could be continued.” (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], Luke-Acts (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary))The popularity of John’s ministry is also affirmed in the Synoptic gospels (Matthew 3:5-6; Mark 1:5; Luke 3:7).
The abundance of water makes Aenon an ideal location for John’s ministry on some levels. In other ways, it is inopportune. Francis J. Moloney (b. 1940) comments:
The imperfect passive form of the verb to “to baptize” reappears to describe the fact that people came to John and were baptized. (ebaptizonto) (John 3:23). (Moloney, The Gospel of John (Sacra Pagina), 105)Aenon is off the beaten path. It is so insignificant that it cannot be accurately identified. Seekers had to go out of their way to reach the baptizer. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom commonly espoused by the modern church growth movement.
Reggie McNeal (b. 1955) outlines:
The idea that the church should be growing put a lot of pressure on denominations and church leaders on whose watch the steam had gone out of post-Word War II church expansion...The sprawl of growth rings around cities created economic and social centers in communities close to where people lived and sent their kids to school. This seemed to be the place to locate growing churches. Church growth, many argued, was simply a corollary to the real estate maxim: location, location, location. (McNeal, The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church, 22)Location is commonly a significant factor in a religious institution’s success. Donald A. McGavran (1897-1990) professes:
Where people live, their geographical location, is an obvious part of the social structure and greatly affects church growth. Throughout Hindu India, the depressed-class ward has been separated from the rest of the village by physical distance—often a hundred yards or more. As people of these wards became Christian and pastors were appointed to shepherd them, the separate location posed a problem to missions. Should the pastor—an educated, respectable Christian—live in the untouchable ward or seek quarters in the upper-caste section of the village? Arguing that it would help Christians more if their pastor lived in a respectable part of the town, missions in North India located their pastors there. Arguing that the pastor’s place was with his people, missions in South India located him in the untouchable ward itself. J. Waskom Pickett [1890-1981] observes that the South India procedure (its use of social structure) was much more successful in terms of creating a genuine Christian church (1933:228). (MacGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 157)Gary L. McIntosh (b. 1947) recounts:
As I continued to study church growth principles, I became aware of some practical issues...Many of the problems a church faces are not theological. It had interested me that less than a mile away on the other side of the freeway a church with similar theological convictions as the church I served was going through a season of spiritual and numerical growth. After surveying people living on the other side of the freeway, it became clear that they were unwilling to drive over the freeway to where our church was located. The problem was related to the fact that the church I served was located in an increasingly industrialized area. According to most families at that time, an industrial area was not an appropriate area for a church. No matter how much we went door-to-door or advertised our ministry, people were not going to drive the mile over the freeway to our church. (McIntosh, Biblical Church Growth: How You Can Work with God to Build a Faithful Church, 14)While location plays a factor in the success of many churches, John the Baptist’s appeal gives hope to those who reside in outlying communities. While it can be argued that John the Baptist was not a pastor and did not have a church, it is indisputable that he operated a successful ministry by drawing people to him as opposed to him going to them. For all intents and purposes, Aenon is nowhere. And yet the something John offered was worth enough to draw people to nowhere to receive it.
In what ways is Aenon an ideal location for John the Baptist? How important is geographic location to a ministry’s success; does it ever trump theology? Is there an inappropriate place to plant a church? Why did John the Baptist’s “church” grow in spite of his unfavorable location? How does your church’s geography affect its ministry? How does your physical address influence the place at which you worship? How far would you travel for a meaningful worship experience?
“So much of difference between a triumph and a flop is determined by choice of venue.” - Anatoly Belilovsky (b. 1961), “Kulterkampf”, Gareth D. Jones and Carmelo Rafala (b. 1970),The Immersion Book of Steampunk