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WASHINGTON, D.C. (March 23, 2020)—Bethsaida appears seven times in the Bible. Jesus performed miracles there (e.g., Matthew 11:21; Mark 8:22), and it was the hometown of the apostles Peter, Andrew, and Philip (John 1:44). All of the biblical references situate Bethsaida by the Sea of Galilee. Around 30 C.E., Herod Philip, the son of Herod the Great who governed the area, transformed this fishing village into a city (polis). Josephus reports that Herod Philip renamed the site Julias and increased its population and “grandeur” (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.28). The city lasted for several centuries before disappearing from the historical record.
Even though Bethsaida is a significant biblical site, we don’t know its exact location. In fact, two archaeological sites—et-Tell and el-Araj—are contenders for biblical Bethsaida. Both are being excavated by reputable teams of archaeologists and biblical scholars, and both teams are confident that they have found the real Bethsaida-Julias.
In the Spring 2020 issue, Biblical Archaeology Review plunges into the great Bethsaida debate and presents articles on el-Araj and et-Tell. First R. Steven Notley and Mordechai Aviam, directors of the el-Araj Excavation Project, make a compelling case for why their site is biblical Bethsaida in “Searching for Bethsaida: The Case for El-Araj.” Then Rami Arav, who directs excavations at et-Tell, sifts the evidence and argues that et-Tell is the better candidate in “Searching for Bethsaida: The Case for Et-Tell.”
Based on textual sources, here are five factors you would expect for biblical Bethsaida:
(1) It should be a settlement near the Sea of Galilee’s northeastern shore.
(2) It should have existed as a village during the early first century C.E. (and probably before).
(3) It should show evidence of a fishing industry.
(4) It should have been transformed into a larger settlement—a city (polis)—around 30 C.E.
(5) It should have been inhabited into the third century.
According to the interpretations of the sites’ directors, both sites meet the above five criteria, which makes it hard to tell definitively at this point. Future excavation seasons will undoubtedly uncover more data to create a fuller profile of each site during the first century C.E., which in turn might provide a conclusive answer. In the meantime, jump into the debate and weigh the evidence for yourself!
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