Sunday, July 26, 2015

Capernaum - Synagogue and House of Peter

There is a hymn that starts with the words, “I walked today where Jesus walked, In days of long ago. I wandered down each path He knew, With reverent step and slow.” If you want to walk where Jesus walked, Capernaum, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, is the place to do it. Jesus lived in Capernaum and used it as the hub of his public ministry (Matt. 4:12). It is referred to in the scriptures as “his own town” (Matt. 9:1) and when he would come back the scriptures say he “had come home.” (Mark 2:1)


When Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, his will divided up his kingdom among three sons. This division was approved by the Roman Emperor Augustus. Archelaus became a king and Antipas and Philip got the lesser title of tetrarch. Archelaus ruled Judea, Idumea and Samaria; Antipas ruled Galilee and Perea; and  Philip ruled Gaulanitis (the Golan Heights), Batanea (southern Syria), Trachonitis and Auranitis.

Herod Antipas established the city of Tiberias around 20 CE as the capital of Galilee. He named it after his patron, the Emperor Tiberius, who succeeded Augustus in 14 CE.

The Via Maris was an ancient trade route that linked Egypt with Syria, Anatolia and Mesopotamia. It followed the coastal plain before turning east and crossing through the Jezreel Valley until it reached Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. Then it turned northward along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, passing through Migdal, Capernaum (10 miles from Tiberias), Hazor, through the Golan Heights and then northeast into Damascus.


Capernaum was established in the 2nd century BCE during the Hasmonean period. It extended along the Sea of Galilee, from east to west, for about 1600 feet and had a population of 1000 to 1500 people during the time Jesus was alive. It was built next to the Via Maris which passed it on the north side. Capernaum was built in straight lines with a north-south main street parallel to the Via Maris, with districts bordered by small cross-sectional streets and no-exit side streets. Villagers were mainly fishermen, farmers and people that provided services to the Via Maris, which by this time was a Roman road. Josephus, who spent some time in Capernaum, described its soil as fruitful. Grapes and figs were available ten months during the year and other fruits and nuts were available seasonally, such as olives, dates and walnuts. A cemetery was about 200 meters north of the synagogue beyond the inhabited area of the village.

Homes in Capernaum were built of local basalt, a hard, black volcanic rock. The stones were not dressed and no mortar was used. Each house had a courtyard with small dwelling rooms around it, often separated from the courtyard by a wall with a row of windows to allow air and light to enter into the interior. The courtyard had one opening to the street and usually no windows in the outer walls to maintain privacy. Ovens and stores for cooking were in the courtyard and a stone staircase gave access to the roof or, rarely, a second story. Roofs were constructed by placing light wooden beams across the opening and then a thatch of briar branches mixed with mud. When the mud hardened it provided a nice hard surface. The roofs were used to dry fruit, and in warm weather, people often slept on them. The floors were cobbled stone. People often lived communally, using the same courtyard and door-less internal passages. The houses had no drainage or bathroom facilities. Objects found by archaeologists were mostly clay pots, plates, amphoras and lamps; fish hooks, weights for fish nets, striker pins, weaving bobbins and a few basalt mills for milling grain and pressing olives.
Black basalt remains of Capernaum. The Sea of Galilee is to the far back right.
Framing for a row of windows internally to let in air and light. An opening to the street is toward the upper right. 
The housing was shockingly compact and similar. The fence between the Franciscan and Greek Orthodox compounds is at the very back. 
The remains of the white synagogue are to the far left. Some internal windows are left and a basalt container is front center.
Capernaum was partially destroyed in the Persian conquest in about 640, including the synagogue and the basilica church over Peter’s home. What was left of Capernaum was completely abandoned by the 11th century. In modern times, the Franciscans purchased about two-thirds of the area of Capernaum in 1894 and the Greek Orthodox Church purchased the other one-third. The Franciscans have opened up their portion of Capernaum to visitors. The Greek Orthodox Church of the Seven Apostles, part of a contemplative monastery, now stands on the other site, and no visitors are allowed.
The Greek Orthodox Church of the Seven Apostles as viewed from a distance from the Franciscan compound.
The Synagogue

Jesus began his public ministry in the synagogue in Capernaum where he taught as “one who had authority…” That first day he commanded an impure spirit in a man to “Come out of him!” and the spirit left “with a shriek.” (Mark 1:21-28)

While teaching in the synagogue Jesus told the people he was the bread of life. Their ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, yet died. He was the living bread come down from heaven and whoever ate that bread would live forever. (John 6:25-59)

He healed a man with a withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath. To the Pharisees, he said this man was more valuable than a sheep that had fallen into a pit which could be lifted out on the Sabbath. (Matt. 12:9-14)

A man named Jairus, a leader in the synagogue, had a dying 12 year old daughter. He fell at the feet of Jesus and pled that he would come and put his hands on her and heal her. By the time Jesus got to the home, the daughter was dead and people were crying and wailing. Jesus went into the home with Jairus, his wife, and Peter, James and John, took her by the hand and told her to get up. She immediately stood and began to walk. (Mark 5:21-43) 
A modern drawing of what the white synagogue looked like. 
The partially re-constructed remains of a synagogue, made of imported white limestone, are found in Capernaum today. The white limestone contrasts starkly with the black basalt and makes it really stand out. It is a basilica-type plan, oriented north/south, with a small terrace on the south side and three entrances, one large, and two small, all on the south side. The west, north and east walls are lined with columns that supported wooden beams, which in turn, supported a pitched, tiled roof. A door in the east wall leads to a courtyard. The floor is covered with large flagstones and stone benches line the east and west walls. It was decorated with carved stone reliefs, many concentrated on the south fa├žade and around doorways and windows. 
An aerial view of the synagogue. The south entrances are to the lower left. The courtyard is on the right. From 
The synagogue from near the left front door. Note the rock benches on the west wall and the columns which helped support the roof.
A view of the northwest side of the synagogue from the east side and another set of columns.
The main entrance on the south side as viewed from the north. The opening to the left (east) goes to the courtyard.
Wording on a column.
Corinthian capitals on columns - viewed from outside the west wall.
What remains of the south facade. Remains of the basalt home structures are in front and to the right.
One of the most interesting stone reliefs is what appears to be a representation of the ark of the covenant. It is represented by a wheeled structure with engaged pilasters, a pitched and tiled roof and a double-paneled door. 
Pieces from the decorative facade.
Decorative, non-weight bearing, columns.
The dating of the synagogue is problematic. Its style and orientation suggest a date around 200 CE. But coins and pottery were found under the floor from the 5th century and diverse architectural elements suggest that maybe it consisted of successive synagogues which were then dismantled in the 5th century by Christian pilgrims who rebuilt it as a Christian shrine.

Most importantly, from a Christian standpoint, on the west side the foundation consists of a black basalt layer which many archaeologists believe belonged to the original synagogue which was here at the time of Jesus. In 381, a pilgrim named Egeria wrote, “the synagogue where the Lord cured a man possessed by a devil. The way in is up many stairs, and it is made of dressed stone.” Egeria clearly visited the white synagogue, but like Peter’s house, it may have been built by or taken over by Christians because of the connection of Jesus to that site. It is believed the original synagogue was destroyed by the Romans in 69 CE during the First Jewish Revolt.
The white limestone layer sits on the black basalt foundation on the west side.
This may be the foundation of the synagogue from the time of Jesus.
Roman Centurion

A small military garrison was east of Capernuam under the command of a Roman centurion, who would have been under the command of Herod Antipas. A Roman bath has been found there. Luke 7:5 notes that the synagogue in Capernaum was built by the centurion, a gentile, who “loves our nation.” The centurion had a servant, apparently in the garrison, that was sick and about to die and reached out to Jesus through others to ask him to heal his servant. He expressed his faith that Jesus could heal his servant even without being present. The centurion’s faith was rewarded and his servant was healed. (Luke 7:1-10) This healing from afar shows how astute the centurion was and likely part of the reason Jesus was so impressed with him as it allowed Jesus to remain ceremonially clean. Had Jesus gone to the gentile compound, he would have become ceremonially unclean.


Matthew (Greek, or Levi in Hebrew) was sitting at a tax collector’s booth in Capernaum when Jesus told him to “follow me” and he became one of Jesus’s disciples. (Matt. 9:9) As mentioned previously, Capernaum was located on the Via Maris, and merchants traveling that road brought goods such as silks and spices from Damascus and dried fish and fruits from the Galilee region when going back the other way. The custom-house or tax collector’s booth was probably located on the road and Matthew and other publicans (derived from the Latin publicanus for a man who did public duty) collected duties or tolls from the traveling merchants. Customs were exacted on things such as axles, wheels, pack animals and pedestrians and collection points were often located near provincial borders. Capernaum was located near the provincial border between Herod Antipas’s tetrarchy of Galilee and Herod Philip’s tetrarchy of Gaulanitis. The border was the Jordan River, just 2 ½ miles to the east. The customs raised at Capernaum went into the treasury of Herod Antipas and he used “tax-farmers” who purchased the right to collect taxes in advance. The collection of sums above and beyond that were the tax collector’s profit which led to abuses. This is what led John the Baptist to tell “tax collectors [who] came to be baptized” not to “collect any more than you are required to...” (Luke 3:12-13)  Matthew and other publicans probably also collected duties for fish caught by fishermen in the Sea of Galilee.

Publicans were excluded from religious fellowship by the Jews and their money was considered tainted and defiled anyone that accepted it. This is why Jesus’s association with Matthew was so scandalous. Matthew had a house in Capernaum and held a banquet for Jesus with other tax collectors, sinners and Jesus’s disciples in attendance. (Matt. 9:10-13, Luke 5:27-32)

Peter’s House

While in Capernaum, Jesus may have lived with Peter in his house, along with Peter’s wife (1 Cor. 9:5), mother-in-law (Mark 1:30-31) and brother Andrew (Mark 1:29). It was there Jesus touched the hand of Peter’s mother-in-law and healed her of a fever and where the sick were brought to be healed and those possessed with demons brought to have them driven out. (Matt. 8:14-16)

When Peter was approached by the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax about whether Jesus paid the tax, it was in his home where Jesus told Peter to go to the lake and throw out a line, take the first fish he caught, open its mouth and find a four-drachma coin, enough to give to the tax collectors for both Jesus and Peter. (Matt. 17:24-26)

It was also there that a paralyzed man, carried by four other men, was brought to be healed by Jesus. Jesus was surrounded by so many people as he taught that there was no room to get the paralyzed man to Jesus. So these four helpers, with the paralyzed man in tow, climbed the stairs to the roof, “made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.” Jesus forgave the paralyzed man of his sins, then said to the man, “get up, take your mat and walk.” (Mark 2:1-12)

Archaeologists have found what they believe to be the house of Peter. Just south of the synagogue, a 5th century church was located with a central octagon with eight pillars, another outer octagon, and a portico that led both into the interior of the church as well as into a complex of related buildings. The central octagon had a mosaic floor with a strip of flowers, schools of fish with small flowers and a circle with a peacock in the center. The floor of the outer octagon had mosaics of plants and animals and the floor of the portico had mosaics that were geometric, with four rows of contiguous circles and small crosses. This octagonal memorial church is similar to the Church of the Apostles in Jerusalem built in 382 by Theodosius I and coin and ceramic evidence put the dating of the structure to the mid-5th century.
The inner octagonal structure and the outer octagonal structure beneath the modern church.
A view of other structures underneath the church.
This mosaic of a peacock inside a circle found on the grounds appears to match the description of the mosaic found on the floor of the central 5th century octagonal church.
Archaeologists, convinced this was a shrine to something earlier, removed the mosaic tiles to preserve them and excavated beneath the floor. They found large quantities of painted plaster on which quite a bit of graffiti was preserved. This encouraged them to go deeper and they found increasingly older ceramics, an intact pot that had never been used, oil lamps from the time of Herod and a succession of different pavements.

They determined that the church covered some basalt structures, which were small rooms, grouped around two courtyards. Coins, oil lamps and fish hooks dating to the 1st century CE were found. In the latter part of the 1st century CE, the house was modified. The walls and floor of the main room were covered with plaster and the walls were covered with inscriptions. No domestic ceramics were recovered, but many large storage jars and oil lamps were. It appeared that the function of the room had changed from a residence to a place for communal gatherings.
An artists rendering of Peter's house. From
Then in the 4th century a thick-walled and slightly trapezoid enclosure was built around the original walls. A central archway was added to support a roof and the north wall was strengthened with mortar. New pavement was installed and the walls and floors were plastered again. Etchings in the walls say thing like, “Lord Jesus Christ help they servant” or “Christ have mercy.” There were also etchings of small crosses and even a boat. The Spanish nun, Egeria, wrote of this structure sometime between 381 and 395: “And in Capernaum, what is more, the house of the prince of the apostles [Peter] has been turned into a church, leaving its original walls however quite unchanged.”
An artists rendering of the 4th century structure. From
This 4th century structure was then later replaced by the 5th century octagonal church described above, which completely tore down the original house walls and covered the location with mosaic tiles. The internal octagon in the 5th century structure is centered over Peter’s house. The octagonal church was meant to preserve the location of Peter’s house, not preserve the house itself. The 5th century church was mentioned by an un-named pilgrim around 560 to 570, when he wrote: “And so we came on to Capernaum to the house of Saint Peter, which is now a basilica.” The basilica was destroyed by the Muslims in about 640.

In about 1990, the Catholics built a church over and above the archaeological site of Peter’s home. It has a glass floor that allows you to look below into the remains of the old 5th century church.
The view of the modern church over Peter's house, as viewed from the south end of the synagogue.
Cobblestones in Peter's house viewed through the floor of the modern church.
A modern wood carving from the life of Jesus inside the modern church. 
Another woodcarving inside the modern church. Perhaps Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
The Ministry of Jesus and Miracles in and near Capernaum

Two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew and James and John, were fishermen living in Capernaum at the time Jesus issued calls to them to follow him and become fishers of men. (Matt. 4:18-22). As previously mentioned, Matthew was a tax collector living in Capernaum at the time of his call.
These are the remains of a 1st century CE boat found near Capernaum. The boats of the disciples would have been similar. They were very shallow to allow them to get close to shore, could be rowed and could also handle a sail. 
More miracles of Jesus happened in and around Capernaum than any other place.

A woman who had been bleeding for 12 years touched the cloak of Jesus while he stood in a crowd. Her bleeding immediately stopped. Jesus felt power go out of him and asked who had touched his clothes. The woman fell at his feet, trembling and told him her story. Jesus responded, “Daughter, thy faith hath made the whole.” (Mark 5:25-35)

Jesus walked through grainfields on the Sabbath and picked and ate grain with his disciples, a practice questioned by the Pharisees. (Matt. 12:1-8)

Jesus forgave the sins of a paralyzed man and then told the man to get up off his mat and go home. (Matt. 9:1-8)


Frederic Farrar wrote a book called Life of Christ in 1874. I was reading it this morning after nearly completing this post and was struck by how much archaeology has added to our understanding of the life of Jesus and the Holy Land. In discussions of Capernaum, the archaeological remains had not been discovered yet and Farrar was speculating it was at one of two tels. He noted the tips of a white synagogue on one of the tels and speculated it may be the synagogue in Capernaum during the time of Jesus. He also speculated it would be just one of many synagogues in that town. 

Our walk where Jesus walked has been greatly aided by these archaeological discoveries.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Church of the Primacy of St. Peter - Tabgha, Israel

In Tabgha, Israel, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee is a Franciscan Church known as the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter. It was built in 1933 on the foundation of a 4th century church where it is believed the events of the Gospel of John, chapter 21 occurred. 
Church of the Primacy of St. Peter near the Sea of Galilee.
View of the church from the shore-line of the Sea of Galilee. The mortared rock near the foundation are part of the foundation of the 4th century church that was here. 
View of the tower.
John Chapter 21

Seven of the disciples of Jesus, including Peter, James, John, Thomas and Nathanael, had been fishing all night in a boat on the Sea of Galilee and had caught no fish. The next morning, Jesus arrived, post-resurrection, and started a cooking fire with coals and began roasting fish. Then he called out to his disciples in their boat, about 100 yards off-shore, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” They answered, “No.” 
A boat on the Sea of Galilee
The Church of the Primacy of St. Peter is in the foreground and the fishing boat is in the background.
So Jesus yelled out to them to throw their net on the other side of the boat, which they did. They caught so many fish they couldn’t haul the net up on the boat. Perhaps remembering his call to the discipleship in Luke 5:1-11, near this same spot, when Jesus similarly asked Peter, James and John to cast their nets after an unsuccessful night of fishing, John turned to Peter and said, “It is the Lord,” and Peter immediately jumped into the water and started swimming for shore for Jesus. The rest of the disciples started the boat back to shore dragging the net full of fish through the water. As they got to shore, the rest of the disciples recognized Jesus as he invited them over for a breakfast of roasted fish and bread. As he did so, Jesus asked them to bring some of their fish over with them as well. The account notes that this was the third visit by Jesus to his apostles after his resurrection.

After eating breakfast, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Peter responded, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus responded, then “Feed my lambs.” Twice more Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, with the same response from Peter, followed by Jesus's command to Peter to “Feed my sheep.”

Compare the Denial of Jesus, the Call to the Ministry and the Feeding of the Multitude

This three-fold duplication of Jesus's question, followed by Peter's response and Jesus's ultimate command immediately brings to mind Peter's three-fold denial of Christ in Jerusalem outside the Palace of Caiaphas. Was this Jesus's way of rehabilitating Peter and preparing him for his future ministry? At least one of the messages that Jesus was conveying to Peter is that actions are stronger than words. 

During their call to the ministry when Jesus had asked Peter, James and John to cast out their nets near this spot and they had hauled in a net-full of fish, Jesus told them that from then-on, they would be fishers of men (Luke 5:10). This was a reminder, a second call, that they should no longer be fishing for fish. 

This was also near where Jesus had fed a multitude with a few fish and a few loaves of bread. Here Jesus fed the disciples, but apparently did not have enough for them. This time it was the disciples who added their fish to augment what Jesus had available. As Jesus had helped them provide food for this breakfast, he would also be able to help them feed his sheep. 

Church of Primacy of St. Peter

Inside the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter is a large limestone rock where tradition holds that Jesus served the disciples the breakfast of fish and bread. The rock is known as Mensa Christi, Latin for “table of Christ.” It is also where Jesus told Peter three times to feed his sheep. As I understand it, the Catholics believe that Christ's command to Peter to feed his sheep reinstated Peter as the head of the church, after his pitiful denial, and thus the term "primacy" or preeminent is applied to this spot
View of the inside of the church from near the front door. The Mensa Christi is before the altar. 

I love that the limestone rock is left bare in the center of the floor, not encased in clear plastic like the Rock of Calvary in Jerusalem. 
View of the front of the church. Note the metal reliefs on the open front doors.
The metal reliefs on the front doors signify the events that occurred here, including the visit of two popes to this church: Pope Paul VI in 1964 and Pope John Paul II in 2000. 

Metal insignia on the inside door of the church.
The Franciscan symbol on the inside of the door in the church.
A statue just outside the church commemorating Jesus's command to Peter to feed his sheep.
A closer view of the statue.
A Franciscan priest sitting on a bench outside the church. 
The Sea of Galilee off Tabgha

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Bethany Beyond Jordan - Where Jesus was Baptized

UNESCO recently named an area on the east side of the Jordan River in Jordan as a World Heritage Site (here is an article from the Salt Lake Tribune). It is an area just east of Jericho and near Elijah's Hill where tradition states Elijah was taken to heaven by a whirlwind.  As the article in the Salt Lake Tribune notes, quoting archaeologist Jodi Magness, there is no solid archaeological evidence of a sites "that were continuously venerated from the first century on," but UNESCO found that it is a site of "immense religious significance to the majority of denominations of Christian faith, who have accepted this site as the location" of the baptism of Jesus. 

Matthew 3 discusses the baptism of Jesus by John: "In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River...Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”'
John the Baptist - a wonderful mosaic in St. George Church in Madaba. Note John's decapitated head to the bottom left. 
I believe this represents the baptism of Jesus - a mosaic from St. George Church in Madaba. 
A mosaic near the baptism site.
Closer view of the above mosaic.
The Baptism is also discussed in John 1: "[W]hen the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask [John] who he was. He...confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing. The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.” Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.  And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”
A painting of the baptism of Jesus in St. Peter's monastery in Jaffa.
The Madaba Mosaic Map is a floor mosaic from the Byzantine church of St. George in Madaba, Jordan. It is the earliest known map of the Holy Land. It was created between 542 and 570 A.D. (because the Nea Church in Jerusalem is shown which was dedicated in 542 and buildings in Jerusalem built after 570 are not included). The original church was destroyed by an earthquake in 746 and the map was rediscovered in 1884 when a new church was being built on the site of the old church. The map has been used to help locate and verify biblical sites, including the site of the baptism of Jesus. On the map, a lion chases a gazelle in Moab. Only the tail and back legs of the lion are clear as the tiles were scrambled during the iconoclastic controversy. The Dead Sea is to the right and a fish in the Jordan River has turned the opposite direction from the Dead Sea. East of the Jordan River (above it) an English translation of the Greek reads "Ainon where now is Sapsaphas." Ainon means "springs" in Aramaic and "sapsas" means willow in Arabic. So it means "willow springs." To the west, below the Jordan River, an English translation of the Greek reads "Bethabara the place of Saint John's baptising." Bethabara means "place of the crossing." Below it is the Monastery of St. John the Forerunner.
The lion chasing the gazelle is upper left. 
I love the location of the baptism site being so close to the spot where Elijah was taken into heaven by the whirlwind because John the Baptist is associated with the spirit and power of Elijah by an angel talking to his father Zacharias, the high priest of the temple (Luke 1:13-17). 

The River Jordan has changed course over the centuries and no longer runs where it presumably did at the time of Jesus. It now has much less flow because much of the water is sucked up by both Israel and Jordan before reaching this point. The River Jordan now runs to the west of the baptism site quite some distance. 
The Jordan River as it looks today (up river from the current baptismal site).
A spot on the current Jordan River where pilgrims today can be baptized. This is the Jordan side looking over the the Israel side. 

The location of the baptism site of Jesus is based on the archaeological findings of a series churches built in the area from the 5th to the 6th centuries and writings from pilgrims at that time which correspond to the archaeological findings. A small spring known as "John the Baptist Spring," or "Ainon (on the Madaba Map) reached the Jordan River near the John the Baptist Church. There is still a little bit of stagnant water today, although I'm not sure it is from that spring, which I believe has been diverted. A small chapel nearby with remnants of a stone arch is believed to be the spot where Jesus un-robed before entering the water. A marble staircase led up to a site where three churches were built in succession over each other. They had mosaic and marble flooring, some of which still remains today.
A mosaic representation of what the site may have looked like when the church, marble steps and arch were in good repair. 
The baptismal pool is in the form of a cross. This is where pilgrims would descend the marble steps to be baptized. Plaster was discovered on two of the four piers where thousands of cross marks were still visible, probably left by pilgrims that were baptized there. 
Arculfus of France, in 670 CE, noted that "...At the edge of the river is a small square church, built, as is said, on the spot where the garments of the Lord were taken care of at the time when He was baptized. This is raised, so as to be uninhabitable, on four stone vaults, standing above the water which flow below." Although this is a view through the small wood structure there now, where apparently Jesus un-robed, the quote makes it sound like there was a chapel actually built over the baptismal site on the four pillars. Note the channel straight ahead where the spring waters flowed into the Jordan River. 
In 570 CE, Antoninus Martyr of Piacenza wrote, "We celebrated Epiphany by the side of the [Jordan?], and wonders take place on that night in the place where the Lord was baptized. There is there is a mound surrounded with railings, and at the place where the water returned to its bed,...marble steps descend into the water,...the priest descends into the river." 
Looking through the wood structure that covers the footprint where the John the Baptist Church once stood. Theodosius, in 530 CE wrote, "5 miles north of the Dead sea in the place where the Lord was baptized there is a single pillar and on the pillar an iron cross has been fastened, there too is the church of S. John the Baptist, which the Emperor Anastasius built [491 to 518 CE]: this church is very lofty, being built above large chambers, on account of the Jordan River when it overflows." The pillar marking the spot of the baptism has not been found. 
Remnants of mosaic flooring in the church.
Another view of the cross shaped baptismal pool and the exit for water to flow to the Jordan River.
Another view gives a better sense of the cross shaped pool.
A modern Orthodox church near the baptism site. It was locked and we were unable to enter.