Where is Bethsaida?
Bethsaida is mentioned more times in the gospels than any other city with the exception of Jerusalem and Capernaum, yet scholars still are debating the exact location of this site.
The name 'Bethsaida' means either 'house of the fisherman' or 'house of the hunter.' Both names fit well the geographical context. Bethsaida was the birthplace of at least three of Jesus' early disciples - Peter, Andrew and Philip - and Philip apparently still lived there while a disciple (John 1:44; 12:21). Bethsaida was one point of what Bargil Pixner calls the 'Evangelical Triangle' (1992: 34-35). Korazin and Tabgha were the other two points of the triangle and Capernaum was the midpoint of the triangle's base. Jesus did most of His mighty works and miracles of His Galilean ministry within these three points (Matt. 11:21; Luke 9:10). Two recorded miracles are the healing of the blind man outside the city of Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26) and the feeding of the 5,000 men, plus women and children in a 'deserted place' within the region of Bethsaida (Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:11-17; John 6:1-13). Prior to this miracle, Jesus turned to Philip and asked him where they should buy bread. Philip, whose hometown was just down the hill, would have known where all the bakeries were.
Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, recounts three incidents relating to Bethsaida. First, Herod Philip expanded the city to a polis and named it after Julia, the daughter of Caesar [Augustus] (Antiquities 18:28; LCL 9:25). However, the excavator of Et-Tell, Rami Arav, has suggested, based on some coins, that it was 'the wife of Caesar Augustus and mother of Tiberias Caesar [who was] … accepted into the Julian family is 14 CE and then officially took on the name Julia Augusta …' M. Avi-Yonah concurred (Kuhn and Arav 1991: 88). Josephus' second point regarding Bethsaida is that Herod Philip died in Julias and was buried in a sepulcher there after a costly funeral (Antiquities 18: 108; LCL 9: 77). Josephus also relates his own experience during the First Jewish Revolt. A battle took place between the Jewish forces under Josephus and the Roman legion commanded by Sulla in the fall of AD 66 (Life 398-406; LCL 1:147-149). Josephus includes a geographical reference when he says that the Jordan River flows into the Sea of Galilee 'after passing the city of Julias' (Wars 3: 515; LCL 2: 721).
In spite of all these literary sources, the site of Bethsaida has not been positively identified. Where was the city? Was there one, or were there two Bethsaidas? Is Bethsaida Julias different from Bethsaida in Galilee?
The Site Identification
One of the earliest explorers to visit the Holy land, Edward Robinson, identified Bethsaida Julias with Et-Tell, 2 kilometers from the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee and to the east of the Jordan River. He also maintained there was a second Bethsaida in Galilee, based on the passage in John 12:21. Since the territory of Galilee was to the west of the Jordan River, he identified Bethsaida in Galilee with Tabgha, to the west of Capernaum (1977: 289, 290, 295, 308, 309).
Ever since the days of Robinson the site of Bethsaida has been hotly debated. Today, four different scholars argue for three different locations of the site. Dr. Rami Arav, the excavator of Et-Tell, maintains that the site of Bethsaida is only at Et-Tell and concluded that Tel el-Araj has no Herodian remains and can not be Biblical Bethsaida. Another scholar, Mendel Nun, a fisherman from Kibbutz Ein Gev and an expert on the Sea of Galilee, believes there are Herodian remains at Tel el-Araj and that is Biblical Bethsaida (1997; 1998). Bargil Pixner (1982: 165-170; 1985: 204-216) and an Israeli archaeologist Dan Urman (1985: 121) have suggested that Bethsaida had two parts. Tel el-Araj was the Jewish fishing village to be identified with Bethsaida in Galilee, whole Et-Tell was the acropolis of the city and identified with the Hellenistic Bethsaida Julias. They suggest that the Jordan River ran a course to the east of Tel el-Araj in antiquity, today known as the es-Saki lagoon, putting it in Galilee (Inbar 1974). G. Schumacher, the early surveyor of the Golan Heights, suggested el-Mes'adiyeh was Bethsaida Julias and Tel el-Araj was the fishing village. Et-Tell appeared to him to be too far inland to be the fishing village of Bethsaida (1888: 93, 94, 221, 245, 246).
The Excavations and Surveys
In 1987, Rami Arav of the Golan Research Institute and the University of Haifa began a regional study of the Plain of Bethsaida. One of his objectives was to positively identify the site of Biblical Bethsaida. Arav wanted to change the question marks in the Bible atlases to exclamation marks! To meet his objectives, he conducted excavations at Et-Tell and Tel el-Araj. At Et-Tell, he uncovered remains from the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods (second century BC to AD 65/66). These remains from the Early Roman period were sufficient evidence, according to Arav, to identify Et-tell with Bethsaida of the Biblical narrative (1991: 104). Among other finds, he discovered a private residence with a courtyard from the late Hellenistic-Early Roman period. 'The finds in the house, such as fishing net weights (lead), hooks (iron), and a needle (bronze) for repairing nets and sails, indicate that a fisherman owned the house' (Arav 1991: 104). One important find was a clay seal depicting a scene with two people standing in a boat and fish underneath (1991: 102, 103).
Jim Strange conducted a survey at el-Mesadiyeh in 1982. He did not find conclusive early Roman pottery (1982: 255, cf. Kuhn and Arav 1991: 86). However, Dan Urman and Mendel Nun did find some while conducting a survey in the fall of 1974 (Urman 1985: 201, site 128). In a survey conducted in the fall of 1990 by Yosef Stepansky, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine remains were found (1992: 87).
Arav put in one 4 x 4 meter square at Tel el-Araj in 1987 and discovered 'a floor and two walls forming a corner' (1991: 94). He noted that there was a 'sterile level' underneath this Byzantine building. The pottery from this square dated to the Byzantine 2 period (AD 419-640). Based on this limited probe, Arav concluded that there were no Hellenistic or Roman remains, and thus the site could not be identified with Biblical Bethsaida (Arav 1988: 187, 188; Kuhn and Arav 1991: 93, 94). In a personal correspondence, Dr. Arav noted he could not excavate further down because the water table was high.
Is Rami Arav justified in making the claim that there is no Early Roman occupation at this site? A German traveler, K. E. Wilken, sometime before 1956, visited the site of Tel el-Araj. A cistern was being constructed while he was there. During construction, the walls collapsed and Wilken observed the stratification. He noted that 'there was an upper layer of about twenty inches composed of alluvial sand; below that was a layer of about six inches with sherds of the Roman period down to about AD 250. He mentioned the typical red-colored sherds and painted jar-handles. Another layer of alluvial sand of twelve to fourteen inches, which lay above the next layer, he assigns to the time of Christ, for from it he was able to extract four lamps and eleven small coins showing three ears of grain on one side; these, he asserts, were minted in the time of Pilate (AD 26-36). The coins with the three ears of grain are either from the time of Pontius Pilate (Kindler 1974: 102) or Agrippa I (Kindler 1974: 42). He notes that the stratum in question was destroyed by fire (Kraeling 1956: 388, 389). If this report is accurate (Rami has serious questions about it), then Wilken was able to observe another level because of a low water table.
A heart-shaped column can be seen protruding from the surface of the site. This column belongs to a synagogue or some other monumental building. Mosaics were also discovered in the area.
In the fall of 1990, Y. Stepansky conducted a survey at the site as part of the Archaeological Survey of Israel project. He found Early Roman and Late Roman remains on the site, including a Herodian lamp and an eastern terra sigillata bowl. These finds led the surveyor to conclude that 'the continuing identification of the site with Bethsaida cannot be excluded' (1992: 87).
Unfortunately, the fluctuating water level of the Sea of Galilee has made excavating at Tel el-Araj more difficult because of its high water table. If there is another drought like the one from 1989-1991, and the water table drops again, then it would behoove someone to excavate Tel el-Araj.
I think the jury is still out on the identification of Bethsaida. There are Early Roman remains at Tel el-Araj and the nature of that settlement should be ascertained before ruling out the site as Bethsaida. Mendel Nun suggested that since the water level of the Sea of Galilee was lower in antiquity, the city was much larger than previously assumed. The fluctuation level in antiquity was from 209.25 meters below sea level down to 210.75 meters below sea level. It is higher today because the water level of the lake is regulated by the National Water Carrier (Nun 1991).
This observation was confirmed by Stepansky's survey in the fall of 1990. He observed that 'additional lines of building remains can be traced along 200-300 meters of the 25-30 meter wide strip of beach exposed by the receding waters. Visible next to the hill on the south are the foundations of a round structure (about 5 meters diameter), similar to a building located about 30 meters west of the hill, above the exposed beach. The ancient site probably extended over an area of some tens of dunams, encompassing the hill, the center of which probably contained remains of a public building' (1992: 87).
Further excavations are required to give a definitive answer to the identification of the site of Biblical Bethsaida.
Since this article was written in 1995, the debate has continued. I would draw your attention to the on-going debate between Dr. Steve Notley (2007: 220-230; 2011: 101-103), and the director of the et-Tell excavation, Dr. Rami Arav (Arav 2011: 92-100, 103-104).
This article first appeared in Archaeology in the Biblical World, (1995) 3/1: 6-11. It was slightly revised and updated on November 10, 2007.
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