Authentication and Competition at Sacred Sites

Three Baptism Sites along the Jordan River

  • Lior Chen
Keywords: Authentication, Sacred place, Competition, Holy Land, baptism sites, place authentication, authenticity, Jordan River, pilgrimage, sacred places


This paper is based on fieldwork findings in three Christian baptism sites along the Jordan River. It includes a discussion on the authentication of (sacred) places and examines how various agents compete for the recognition of sacred places as "authentic." The three sites draw their significance from the same canonical text and appeal to similar audiences. In recent decades, with over a million annual visitors, each site has been undergoing a continuous process of re-formation. This motivates the non-Christian site managers to compete for the recognition of their site as "authentic."

Researchers have recently proposed to shift the discussion from "authenticity" to "authentication," thus focusing on the social process in which objects or places are recognized and declared as "authentic" (Cohen and Cohen, 2012.) This shift addresses the academic call to abandon the colloquial term “authenticity” for the sake of standardization. Therefore, my examination of the agents' actions employs the Cohens' model of authentication, which distinguishes between "cold" authentication, stemming from scientific evidence and authority-based knowledge, and "hot" authentication, stemming from the ritualistic activity on the site.

The baptism site Bethany Beyond the Jordan underwent a "cold" authentication process, which, among others, stemmed from archaeological findings and religious authority. However, the site Yardenit underwent a "hot" authentication process, stemming from ritualistic activity on the site, with no tradition whatsoever. However, unlike the first two sites, I will argue that the authentication of the site Qasr El Yahud requires an extension of the Cohens' typology. Being in a disputed area, its agents are nearly inactive. Yet, interestingly, this very limited process of authentication has paradoxically strengthened the authenticity of the site.