Sites vie to be seen as Christianity’s ‘lost’ city of Bethsaida
Seeking the location of a myriad of New Testament miracles, excavations in area of important Second Temple-era town uncover conflicting finds
In the New Testament, Bethsaida is a place of miracles. Here, Jesus cured a blind man, turned a few loaves and fishes into food for 5,000, and walked on water. But mysteriously, its location was lost. Now, dueling archaeological excavations place it in the same vicinity on the northern bank of the Sea of Galilee, but at slightly different locations.
Based on the recent discovery of a Roman-era bathhouse in the Bethsaida Valley Nature Reserve, a Haaretz report this week trumpeted “The Lost Home of Jesus’ Apostles Has Just Been Found, Archaeologists Say.” Its location, according to the article, is el-Araj, one of three sites historically debated by scholars.
Known in the New Testament as Bethsaida, the location is the birthplace of three of Jesus’s apostles — Peter, Andrew and Philip. Aside from New Testament accounts, its history was chronicled solely by the Jewish leader Josephus Flavius, who recorded that Herod’s son Philip Herod turned the fishing village into a Roman polis called Julias after the mother of the Roman Emperor Tiberius Livia Drusilla, aka Julia Augusta.
“Josephus reported that the king had upgraded Bethsaida from a village into a polis, a proper city,” Dr. Mordechai Aviam of Kinneret College told Haaretz. “He didn’t say it had been built on or beside or underneath it. And indeed, all this time, we have not known where it was. But the bathhouse attests to the existence of urban culture.”
In 2014, excavations began at the el-Araj site with a shovel survey, headed by the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology and the Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies directed by Dr. Dina Shalem and Aviam. Other collaborators include Nyack College and North Central University.
The site was previously known primarily for its Byzantine-era artifacts. However, in addition to the bathhouse, a newly excavated Roman layer at el-Araj has offered up remains of a mosaic and pottery sherds from the 3rd to the 1st centuries BCE, according to Haaretz. Additional evidence helps date the settlement: a bronze late-2nd century coin and a silver denarius featuring the Emperor Nero from the year 65-66 CE.
According to a 2016 dig report, “The most surprising find was a group of gilded glass tesserae, which are used in the construction of wall mosaics. These type of tesserae are typical to large and important churches. Which means, even before finding the church itself, it is possible to suggest that in the Byzantine period, el-Araj was identified as a holy place, most likely Bethsaida.”
However, according to the head of a decades-long Bethsaida Valley excavation team at competing site e-Tell, these findings are hardly conclusive for pinpointing the “lost” city’s location. Besides, he’s already found it.
Rami Arav, professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and co-director of the excavation at Bethsaida north of the Sea of Galilee, has excavated the e-Tell site since 1987. He is the head of the Consortium of the Bethsaida Excavations Project, which consists of 30 scholars from 18 international institutions.
In an email exchange with The Times of Israel, Arav explained that the newly discovered Roman layer “is not enough to identify a place with Bethsaida, there are some more requirements which the dig at El Araj thus far failed to provide,” including finds from the second and the early first half of the first century and a cultic center dedicated to Livia/Julia.
“All these and much more was discovered at e-Tell, hence the identification of e-Tell with Bethsaida as was confirmed by the place-name committee of the Prime Minister of Israel,” wrote Arav.
The el-Araj excavators, however, remain unconvinced.
“The evidence of over twenty years of excavations is far from conclusive in demonstrating their claim that et-Tell was first century Bethsaida. The site’s elevation and remoteness from the lake, together with its unexplained decline in material culture at the beginning of the early Roman period, challenge the identification of et-Tell as the lost city of Bethsaida,” according to their website.
Could there have been two Bethsaidas?
Bethsaida’s history predates the dawn of Christianity. The region was settled some 3,500 years ago during the early Bronze Age as evinced by remains of ancient dolmens (tombstones), which can be visited in the Bethsaida Valley Nature Reserve.
The Hebrew Bible depicts it as a desirable and strategic area. According to a 2000 Biblical Archaeology Review article by Arav and the team of archaeologists who excavated the e-Tell Bethsaida site, “In the tenth century B.C.E., Bethsaida was at the heart of the small kingdom of Geshur.”
The city-state Geshur appears in the trove of cuneiform tablets called the el-Amarna letters, which largely consists of missives between Egyptian pharaohs and governors of their conquered territories, including in the Holy Land.
The military force of the kingdom of Geshur was to be reckoned with, according to the Bible. In the Book of Joshua it is written, “The Israelites failed to dispossess the Geshurites and Maacathites, and Geshur and Maacah dwell among the Israelites to this day.” Based on archaeological evidence of an impressive city found at the e-Tell site from the Israelite period, Arav and his team hypothesize that Bethsaida is the capital of Geshur.
Through the marriage of Geshur King Talmai’s daughter Maachah to King David, 10th century BCE Bethsaida “allied itself with King David and his dynasty (as a result, Bethsaida absorbed many Israelite cultural influences).” Maachah was the mother of Absalom, who murdered his half-brother Amnon and fled to his mother’s homeland, Geshur. Ties were reformed when Absalom’s daughter Maachah married Solomon’s son Rehoboam, king of Judah.
The Second Temple era saw a flurry of settlement and activity in the Galilee, as many Jews fled the Jerusalem area, which had become more difficult under Roman occupation. Under Josephus, it was fortified ahead of the 67 CE Great Jewish Revolt against Rome.
The potential viability of three potential locations of Bethsaida — the potential third location, el-Mesydiah, about 2 kilometers from the mouth of the Jordan River, has not yet yielded promising finds — has led to some scholars to question whether there was more than one settlement with the same name.
“It is true that there is Degania Alef and Degania Beth and Ein Harod Ihud and Ein Harod Meuhad. But unlike these wonderful modern examples, there was not such a case in antiquity, particularly when they were in such proximity,” said archaeologist Arav.
‘The fishermen at e-Tell abandoned their site because it became too far from the lake and moved further south to the sea shore’
“I suggested long ago, that el-Araj became Bethsaida in the Byzantine period (4th–6th centuries CE) after a geological disaster pushed the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee further south. In this period, the fishermen at e-Tell abandoned their site because it became too far from the lake and moved further south to the sea shore,” said Arav.
“So the great great grandchildren of the first century Bethsaida moved three hundred years later to their new location at el-Araj. Perhaps they called it New-Bethsaida,” Arav wrote.
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