During my visit to Israel this summer , I had the pleasure of spending considerable time in the region of the Galilee, learning about the places where Jesus walked, spoke and taught. The center of Jesus' Galilean ministry was an area now called the "evangelical triangle." At the points of this triangle were the towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum.
Map showing Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, the points of the "evangelical triangle." (BAR, Sept./Oct 1987)
Chorazin is located about 2.5 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, situated on the basalt hills above Capernaum. The site is split by a modern road. Renowned for good wheat, Chorazin is mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (Menahot 85/A). On the hill are the ruins of 1st century AD Chorazin, which has never been excavated. On the southern side of the modern road are the ruins of an impressive basalt synagogue from the fourth century AD, as well as dwelling houses, a paved courtyard, and a reconstructed olive oil press.
Layout of Chorazin. Note how the modern road splits the site. The fourth century AD synagogue is located in the center. (Israel Nature and Parks Authority).
Several excavations have taken place on the southern end of the site. In 1905, Heinrich Kohl and Carl Watzinger identified the site as Chorazin. In 1926, Na’im Makhouly and Jacob Ory worked at the site as well. One interesting find from 1926 is the "Seat of Moses", carved from a basalt block. This is where the reader of the Torah sat. Jesus mentions this type of seat in Matthew 23:1-3:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 'The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.'
The Seat of Moses. (BAR, Sept/Oct 1993)
From 1962-1965 and 1980-1986, Ze’ev Yeivin conducted excavations at Chorazin. He writes:
The synagogue at Chorazin was first built at the end of the third century or the beginning of the fourth century A.D. Probably in the second half of the fourth century, the synagogue, as well as the rest of the town, was partially destroyed by an earthquake. The town apparently lay in ruins for some time thereafter. The Church father Eusebius, writing at the end of the fourth century, tells us that Chorazin was a destroyed village, apparently in fulfillment of the prediction in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
The fourth century AD synagogue at Chorazin. (Henry Smith)
Yeivin found an olive press that dates occupation of the site as early as the second century AD. There is not any sound archaeological evidence dating the site any earlier. The only sources placing occupation of Chorazin in the 1st century AD are found in the Talmud and the Gospels. However, arguments from silence in the archaeological record are not valid criticisms of what is reported in the Scriptures. Only a small fraction of the 80-100 acres has been excavated.
The occupation and importance of Bethsaida dates back to the time of David. It was at the heart of the kingdom of Geshur (Jos 13:13, 2 Sam 13) in the tenth century BC, and possible called Zer (Jos 13:2). Later, it appears to have been destroyed by Tiglath-Pileser III around 732 BC. For our purposes here, Bethsaida is mentioned in the Gospels more often than any other town except Jerusalem and Capernaum. It is known as the home of Peter, Andrew and Philip (Jn 1:44, 12:21). Bethsaida was renamed Julias by Herod Philip around 30 AD. According to Josephus, Bethsaida played an important role in the revolt against Rome around 67 AD.
Despite various literary sources mentioning Bethsaida in the Roman and Hellenistic periods, the knowledge of its exact location faded into history. The location of Bethsaida has been uncertain for centuries and has been a recent topic of academic debate. There are two predominant views on the location of Bethsaida.
The Bethsaida Excavation Project (BEP) is conducting excavations at Bethsaida-Julias, a site also known as et-Tell (not to be confused with the et-Tell incorrectly identified as Ai). Bethsaida-Julias is located 1.5 miles north of the Sea of Galilee on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Being this far from the modern shores of the Sea of Galilee begs the question: Could a fishing village be so far from the water?
The excavators argue the topography has changed: 1) Earthquake and tectonic activity have altered the topography, since the Jordan River is on a fault line. 2) Rivers change course over time, and the Jordan River has done just that. 3) Deposits from the Jordan have increased the size of the delta as it enters the Sea of Galilee, causing the shore to migrate south from Bethsaida-Julias.
View towards the Sea of Galilee from Bethsaida-Julias. An ancient lagoon with a series of estuaries came up as far as the tree line in the center. Excavator Rami Arav reports that up against the base of the Bethsaida-Julias mound, lake clays containing crustacean microorganisms have been found, supporting his theory that this is the Bethsaida found in the Gospels. (Henry Smith)
A second proposed site for Bethsaida is el-Araj, located almost due south of Bethsaida-Julias, and on the modern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This location was most notably held by Mendel Nun, the famous and well-respected local from Ein-Gev who spent much of his adult life studying the cities and harbors on the shores of the Sea.
Sketch of the region around Bethsaida-Julias (et-Tell) and el-Araj. Note the proximity of el-Araj to the approximate shoreline of the first century AD. (Bible and Spade, vol. 11.3, 1980).
Mendel Nun agreed that the shoreline has changed over centuries. He argued, however, the Sea has moved north, leaving most of the remains of el-Araj underwater today. He also pointed out several other problems with identifying Bethsaida at et-Tell, including misinterpretations of fishing implements found at et-Tell. Arguments against the location of et-Tell are: the excavations have revealed few remains typical of a Roman city, few simple first-century AD houses, and little evidence of a flourishing city in the early first century. This criticism is reasonable, but it is partly an argument from silence that needs further exploration.
Tel el-Araj from above. It is nestled between the Jordan River on the left and the Meshushim River on the right. Note the proximity to the Sea of Galilee. (http://pace.cns.yorku.ca/York/york/placePopup?id=107)
There appear to be legitimate criticisms of both viewpoints. Despite the debate, we know from the Gospels that several events occurred with respect to Bethsaida that were of significance. First, Jesus healed a blind man there:
They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spat on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, "Do you see anything?" He looked up and said, "I see people; they look like trees walking around." Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, "Don’t go into the village." (Mark 8:22-25).
Second, right after Jesus feeds the 5000 men, Mark records:
Immediately [Jesus] made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded... (Mark 6:45-51).
Lastly, Jesus proclaims judgment against Bethsaida for their refusal to repent, which will be discussed further below.
Aerial view of et-Tell.
While there are archaeological uncertainties with Chorazin and Bethsaida, there are virtually none with Capernaum. It has been clearly identified through various archaeological and literary sources. Traditions indicate that this was the birthplace of the prophet Nahum, hence the name. Capernaum served as Jesus' home in the Galilee, although he did not own his own property (Mt 4:13-14; 8:20).
The main feature at Capernaum is the synagogue. The limestone remains of the synagogue are most likely dated to the fourth century AD, and are built on the remains of first century AD synagogue base made of basalt. The first century synagogue would have been in existence at the time of Christ. Jesus cast a demon out of a man in this very place (Mk 1:21-28). Jesus' 'Bread of Life' discourse occurred in the Capernaum synagogue as well (Jn 6:25-59).
The synagogue at Capernaum. (Henry Smith)
Jesus cured the Roman centurion's servant in Capernaum (Luke 7:1-10). Note how the centurion understood the principle of authority, an idea all but lost on western societies. He also raised the 12 year-old daughter of Jarius, a ruler of the synagogue, from the dead (Luke 8:40-56). The paralytic was healed at Capernaum as well (Mk 2). Simon Peter owned a home in Capernaum, mentioned several times in the New Testament (Mk 1:29-31; Mt 8:14-15).
It would generally be very difficult to identify the home of a particular individual that lived over 19 centuries ago. However, Loffreda (1981) has outlined the archaeological and literary evidence that supports the identification of Peter's House near the synagogue at Capernaum. A Byzantine Church was built directly over the house in a later period.
Remains of a Byzantine Church built over St. Peter's House. (BAR, Sept/Oct 1993)
Capernaum was central to the teaching ministry of Jesus. In fact, the Jews at Nazareth had even heard of Jesus' miracles at Capernaum, but refused to believe in him (Lk 4:23-30). Although his deeds were clearly divine and unassailable, Capernaum also refused to repent and accept Jesus' claims to the office of Messiah.
Aerial View of St. Peter's House (top left) and the synagogue (bottom right). Note the proximity of Peter's House to the synagogue, possibly indicating that Peter was not necessarily poor. (BAR, Sept/Oct 1993)
Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you. --Matthew 11:21-24
The New Testament tells us that Jesus performed many of his miracles in the "evangelical triangle." One event in particular stands out. The Gospel of Mark records the healing of the paralytic. The story follows:
A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. So many gathered that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven."
Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins ....” He said to the paralytic, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mk 2:1-12)
Here, Jesus validates his authority to forgive sins with tangible evidence: he heals the paralytic right in front of their very eyes. The skeptics scoffed when Jesus told the man his sins were forgiven and rightfully so: only God can forgive sins. Jesus agreed with them to be sure. Only they missed one vital point: Jesus was God! He showed them he had the authority to forgive sins, therefore showing them he indeed was Yahweh himself (John 8:58).
Many people personally witnessed his divine power, authenticating his claims to deity and the office of Messiah. They willingly and purposefully chose to reject him and remained unrepentant. Note the serious nature of the sin: it would be worse for these three cities than it was for Tyre, Sidon and Sodom. Space limitations do not allow for a discussion of these previous judgments in detail, but one thing should be noted: God himself visits Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum and is summarily rejected. The depth of the sins at Tyre, Sidon and Sodom were quite egregious...the sin in the triangle was even worse.
The modern church often tends to focus primarily on the pleasant and appealing parts of God's character: grace, mercy, peace, love, etc. While these aspects of God's character are attractive, it is improper for the church to focus solely on these characteristics. To ignore the holiness, wrath and judgment of God is to ignore the entirety of his being. A balanced view of God as presented in the Scriptures and understood in the context of orthodoxy should lead the church to appreciate the love and grace of God even more. Sin is a serious matter. It is an offense against a just and righteous God who reigns supreme in perfection.
Let us all take a great lesson from the residents of the triangle: embrace the full character of God so we can appreciate his love, mercy and grace in a much more profound way. Only understanding the bad news about sin and God's authority to judge us can we better grasp the good news of the Gospel.
Arav, Rami; Freund, Richard A.; and Shroder, John F. Jr
2000 Bethsaida Rediscovered. BAR 26.01.
Bethsaida Excavation Project
2003 Jesus and the Sea of Galilee. Bible and Spade 16.4: 116-119.
2000 For Young Archaeologists: Peter’s House and the Synagogue at Capernaum. Bible and Spade 13.1: 30-31.
1988 News and Notes: Bethsaida Found. Archaeology and Biblical Research 4.4: 24.
1998 Diggings: The City of Andrew and Peter: Bethsaida. Bible and Spade 11.1: 45-46.
2000 The Case for el-Araj. BAR 26:01.
1991 Ancient Harbors of the Sea of Galilee. Archaeology and Biblical Research 4.4: 111-121.
Laughlin, John H.C.
1993 Capernaum: From Jesus’ Time and After. BAR 19.05: 54-61, 90.
1981 Capernaum-Jesus' Own City. Bible and Spade 10.1: 1-17.
2004, January. Has Bethsaida Finally Been Found? Jerusalem Perspective Online.
1982 Putting Bethsaida-Julias on the Map. Bible and Spade 11.2-4: 78-86.
Shanks, Hershel and Strange, James F.
1982 Has the House Where Jesus Stayed in Capernaum Been Found? BAR 8.06: 26-37.
1983 Synagogue Where Jesus Preached Found at Capernaum. BAR 9.06: 24-31.
1981 Recent Work at Capernaum. Bible and Spade 10.1: 19-26.
1987 Ancient Chorazin Comes Back to Life. BAR 13.05: 22-36.
Henry B. Smith Jr. is Director of Development for ABR. With a 13-year business background, he has an MA in Theology from Trinity Seminary, and is currently enrolled in the M.A.R. program at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.