Recent discovery reopens the debate about its location
The ancient village of Bethsaida is believed to be located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, but where precisely the abandoned city lies remains a fiercely-debated question among scholars. Recent discoveries at the site of el-Araj have called into question the decades-old claim that et-Tell on the eastern shore of the Jordan River is this lost Biblical city.
Along with Jerusalem and Capernaum, Bethsaida is frequently mentioned in the Gospels. When Jesus was first calling his disciples, he traveled to Galilee and found there Philip, who is described as being of Bethsaida along with Peter and Andrew (John 1:43-44). The town—including its nearby shore—is identified as the location where Jesus performed some of his most indelible miracles. Here he led a blind man away from the village, restored his sight, and instructed the man not to reenter the town nor to tell anyone of the miracle he had performed (Mark 8:22–26). Bethsaida is also said to be the fishing village where Jesus fed the masses with just five loaves and two fish (Luke 9:10–17; Mark 6:30–44).
A consortium of schools headed by the University of Nebraska, Omaha, claim to be excavating Biblical Bethsaida at the site of et-Tell on the east bank of the Jordan River and have published their findings as the Bethsaida Excavations Project since 1991. For years, director Rami Arav has asserted that et-Tell’s archaeological remains sync up with historical accounts of the ancient village, including ancient Jewish historian Josephus’s report that under Philip the Tetrarch (one of Herod the Great’s sons), the town was improved, “… both by the number of inhabitants it contained, and its other grandeur” (Antiquities 18:2). In 30 C.E., Philip had renamed the city Julias after Livia-Julia, Roman emperor Augustus’s wife and mother of Tiberius, the reigning emperor at the time. Arav cites occupation and substantial growth of the town throughout the Roman period as evidence corroborating Josephus’s account.1
This claim, however, has not gone without criticism from other scholars. Most notably, Dr. Steven Notley, Professor of Biblical Studies at Nyack College, New York, has charged that et-Tell, a mile and a half from the Sea of Galilee, is too far from the body of water to be the Biblical fishing village.2
Since 2014, a team led by Mordechai Aviam, Dina Shalem, and Notley under the auspices of the Center for Holy Land Studies (CHLS) and Kinneret College has conducted survey and excavation at el-Araj, another proposed site for the location of Bethsaida. As reported in Haaretz, the 2016 excavations revealed evidence of early Roman occupation from the first through third centuries C.E., including a Roman-style bathhouse, mosaic fragments and a silver coin from 65–66 C.E. portraying Roman emperor Nero. The recent evidence shows that, despite assertions by Arav and others,3 there is significant Roman-era material culture at el-Araj.
These recent discoveries led the archaeologists at el-Araj to declare the site as Bethsaida, challenging the claim held for decades by et-Tell. The team suggests that the sea levels in antiquity would place el-Araj directly on the coast of the Sea of Galilee, an appropriate position for a fishing village compared to et-Tell. Arav disputes the interpretation of the recent discoveries, suggesting the conclusions are “extremely premature.”
As it stands, archaeologists from two separate sites now claim to be excavating Biblical Bethsaida, and both boast historical and archaeological evidence to support their case. Only further survey and excavation of the northern shores of the Galilee and discourse among the scholarly community can begin to elucidate this predicament of identity.
Samuel D. Pfister is the Collections Manager at the Badè Museum of Biblical Archaeology at the Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, California.
1. Rami Arav, “Bethsaida—A Response to Steven Notley,” Near Eastern Archaeology 74, no. 2 (June 2011), pp. 92–100.
2. Steven Notley, “Et-Tell Is Not Bethsaida,” Near Eastern Archaeology 70, no. 4 (December 2007), pp. 220–230; Steven Notley, “Reply to Arav,” Near Eastern Archaeology 74, no. 2 (June 2011), pp. 101–103.
3. Rami Arav, “A Response to Notley’s Reply,” Near Eastern Archaeology 74, no. 2 (June 2011), pp. 103–104.
R. Steven Notley and Mordechai Aviam, “Searching for Bethsaida: The Case for El-Araj,” Biblical Archaeology Review, Spring 2020.
Rami Arav, “Searching for Bethsaida: The Case for Et-Tell,” Biblical Archaeology Review, Spring 2020.
Rami Arav, Richard A. Freund and John F. Shroder Jr., “Bethsaida Rediscovered,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2000.
Steven Feldman, Sidebar: “The Case for el-Araj,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2000.
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This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on August 30, 2017.
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