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Bethsaida Overview

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Places of Interest

Bethsaida Overview

 

Location

 

1. Currently, there are two main candidates for the true Bethsaida location. The first is the traditional site that has been excavated from 1987 to the present. It sits upon a hill and is located about 1.5 miles or 2.25 kilometers from the highwater mark of the Sea of Galilee. Because there were no other sites excavated besides this first site, it became the default site. The traditional site is known as Et Tell.

 

A number of years ago we did a video about the traditional site because at the time it was the only site that was considered legitimate. However, we have changed our position and now believe a new site that is called El Araj is the best candidate for the true Bethsaida location. It is located at the high-water mark on the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee at the inlet of the Jordan River and fits the biblical and historical records much better.

 

2. We know from the Bible that Bethsaida was in a desolate, remote place with little population.

 

Luke 9:10: The apostles, when they had returned, told him what things they had done. He took them, and withdrew apart to a deserted place of a city called Bethsaida.

 

3. The northwestern side of the Sea of Galilee was densely populated in Jesus’ time, but the northeastern side where Bethsaida was located was desolate.

 

4. Bethsaida was a fishing village on the Sea of Galilee. In fact, its name means “House of Fishing.”

 

5. In John 1:44, we find that at least 3 disciples were from here, “Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.” We also know that at least Peter and Andrew were fishermen, so they lived in Bethsaida to be close to the sea.

 

Historical Evidence Supporting the El Araj Site

1. Edward Robinson first identified the site of Et-Tell as the possible site of the Biblical Bethsaida, in 1841. However, in 1888, Gottlieb Schumacher challenged Robinson’s proposed site because it was too far from the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. He proposed the site of El Araj as the true location.

 

2. Like Schumacher, today some archaeologists and historians like Mordechai Aviam, Steven Notley, and Marc Turnage are not convinced the traditional site of Et Tell is the true location of Bethsaida for two main reasons:

 

  • The first problem has to do with the distance Et Tell is from the Sea of Galilee. It is just a long way away and doesn’t fit with the biblical, historical, and eyewitness accounts that clearly point to Bethsaida being right next to the sea. The traditional site is about 100 feet, or 30 meters, above the high-water level of the Sea of Galilee.

They propose that the Sea of Galilee was around 16 feet or 5 meters higher than the high-water mark that exists today. It would have been impossible for the Sea of Galilee to have been 16 feet or 5 meters higher than the high-water mark, and that it would have covered other known towns like Magdala, Gennesaret, Capernaum, and the newly discovered site of Bethsaida that existed during the time of Christ and are located right next to the high-water mark of the Sea of Galilee.

A dam was built in 1930 at the outlet of the Sea of Galilee that allows Israel to regulate the water flow. As a result, today the water level of the sea can rise higher than it could have during the time of Christ. In recent years, due to heavy rainfall, the sea has risen higher than in previous years. However, as mentioned, during the time of Christ the outlet prevented the sea from rising higher than the high-level watermark found around the shoreline. Therefore, the traditional site has real problems as it is so far from the sea. 

 

  • The second problem has to do with a lack of Roman archaeology found at the traditional site of Bethsaida. Josephus, a Jewish historian, writes about how Bethsaida was converted into a Polish, or a Roman City, in the first century AD and was urbanized. He says: "And to the village of Bethsaida [located] next to the lake of Gennesar [Sea of Galilee] Herod Philip granted the dignity of the city by [introducing] a multitude of inhabitants and other fortifications and he called it Julias after the name of the daughter of the Emperor" (Antiquities of the Jews: 18:28).

There have not been found any substantial remains of a Roman settlement at Et Tell. Its ruins are mainly from the time of King David and Solomon. It has an impressive six-chamber gate that was common during the time of Solomon.

Jody Magnus, from UNC, speaks about the lack of Roman ruins at Et Tell. She says: "While the iron age remains at Bethsaida, or Et Tell, are monumental and impressive, the Roman period remains are very poor, and therefore, the site does not look like an urban center."

For these two main reasons, the traditional site of Bethsaida has been questioned as the true site by some. We agree, and now believe this new site of El Araj is the true location of Bethsaida.

 

3. This “El Araj” site is also known by the locals as a different name. They call it "Bet Habek," which means the "Habek House" and was named after a Kurdish aristocrat who lived here in the 19th to 20th century. Some of the ruins of the villa can still be seen today.

 

4. This site of El Araj is being excavated under the leadership of Professor Mordechai Aviam from the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archeology at Kinneret College, Israel. Dr. Steven Notley is the academic and historical director at the site. He is a professor from New York City campus of Nyack College. Marc Turnage provides assistance as well.

 

The excavation process at el Araj started in 2014, when Marc Turnage organized what is called a “shovel survey” under the leadership of Aviam Mordechai and Steven Notley.  This involved digging and sifting the soil from several five-meter by five-meter squares to a depth of about a foot, or 30 centimeters. Archaeologists then collected and dated the pottery, glass, and coins they found to create a profile of the site and its settlement. It was determined that there was a settlement at el Araj over a thousand years spanning the Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, and Crusader periods —precisely the time frame of Bethsaida, according to historical sources. More serious excavations began in 2016 and continue to the present.  

 

5. Now let’s look at some of the evidence that supports this site of El Araj as the best candidate for biblical Bethsaida. We will first look at the biblical accounts, then the eyewitness accounts, and then the archaeological evidence that matches wonderfully with the Bible and historical descriptions.


Biblical account:

 

  • According to the Bible, Bethsaida was located right beside the Sea of Galilee and Jesus repeatedly traveled to and from it by boat. 

Historical and eyewitness accounts: 

 

  • As mentioned, Josephus, a Jewish historian, wrote about how Bethsaida was converted into a Polish, or a Roman City, in the first century AD and urbanized. He wrote about how Bethsaida was located next to the lake of Gennesar [Sea of Galilee], and how Herod Philip converted Bethsaida into a Roman Polis city and called it Julias after the name of the daughter of the Emperor.

  • Pliny the Elder, a first-century Roman writer, called Bethsaida “One of four lovely cities on the Sea of Galilee.”

  • Later, Eusebius, in 305 AD wrote about Bethsaida, He said, “The city of Andrew and Peter and Philip. It is located in the Galilee next to the lake of Gennesar" [Sea of Galilee].

  • Finally, we have a key testimony recorded of Willibald Bishop of Bavaria in 725 AD that speaks of a church being built at this site during the Byzantine period. "From Tiberias, they went around the sea by the village of Magdala to the village of Capernaum where our Lord raised the prince’s daughter. And from Capernaum, they went to Bethsaida from which came Peter and Andrew. There is now a church where previously there was a house.” Evidence of this church, and a monastery, have been discovered at this site. 

6. From these biblical, historical, and eyewitness accounts we learn the following about the location of Bethsaida:

 

  • During the time of Christ, it was a Jewish community.

  • Peter, Andrew, and Philip originally lived in Bethsaida.

  • It was located right beside the Sea of Galilee.

  • Its name means fishing village.

  • Jesus sailed to and from it regularly.

  • Bethsaida was converted into a Roman Polis city in the first century and urbanized.

  • Later, there was a Byzantine church built over the home of Peter and Andrew in the fourth century that was still visible in 725 AD by Willibald.

  • During the Crusader Period, it was venerated and used as a sugar plantation.

7. There are three main excavations happening at this site. There is the main area called Area A, which began in 2014. Then Area B began in 2016, which is located 50 meters east of Area A. In 2019, a third area called Area C was begun, which is located about 100 meters north of Area C.

 

8. In summary, all the archaeologic evidence is pointing to the El Araj location as the true site of Bethsaida. It fits better with the biblical narrative, and the historical and archaeological evidence, than the traditional site of Et-Tell.

 

Archaeological Evidence at the Site of El Araj

From the Jewish Settlement period we find:

 

  • Walls and plastering from the first century.

  • Pottery

  • Oil lamps

  • First-century coins

  • Stone vessels used by Jews in purification rituals.

  • Limestone dishes and knife-pared Herodian lamps that were only made in Jerusalem prior to 70 AD present clear indications of Jewish settlement at el Araj.

  • First-century homes also found in area C.

  • Lead fishing weights

  • Galilean pottery

  • Two capitals were unearthed that resemble those found in use in other early Roman synagogues.

  • A Lioness was found which is common in Jewish communities. 

From the Roman Period we find:

 

  • A key discovery from this time period is a Roman Bathhouse that had small tiles and mosaics. This bathhouse had an elaborate heating system and was used as a sauna. It proves Bethsaida was converted into a Roman Polis as a bathhouse of this nature was not found in Jewish communities.

  • The Roman Bathhouse dates to the first century AD and proves the water level was exactly where the Bible indicates it would have been during the time of Christ, and that Bethsaida, and the other towns around the Sea of Galilee, are on the shoreline as the Bible and the archaeology describes them to be. This discovery presents even more problems for the site of ET Tell. 

  • Area C was opened up in 2019? And shows Bethsaida was a large Roman city that was described by Josephus as Julias.

  • A Roman coin from the Roman Emperor Nero dating to 66 AD was discovered as well.

  • In the fourth century AD, a Byzantine Church and monastery were built over the homes of Peter and Andrew. 

  • A 30-meter Byzantine wall of the monastery was found. 

  • A Cross was discovered on a Byzantine vessel.

  • The Church described by Willibald was discovered. It was quite elaborate and had mosaic floors.

  • Individual gold-gilded glass tesserae, which are only found in wall mosaics of ornate churches.

  • A Byzantine Frieze was found.

  • The base of a chancel screen was discovered.

  • In 2019, the excavation team stood side by side to form the outline of what the Byzantine Church have been. Lord willing, in the coming years, the church and monastery will be completely uncovered for all to see.

Lastly, there is also a Crusader presence found at this site as well. There have been discovered:

 

  • Sugar bowls

  • A glass vase piece

  • A ring, among other discoveries.

At the end of excavations done in 2019, a geophysical study was conducted in the vicinity, using electromagnetic sensors operated on the ground and from a drone. The results indicate that this site is quite large and there are many houses and buildings buried that are waiting to be uncovered and tell their story.

 

Now regarding this site of El Araj being the true location of biblical Bethsaida, Dr. Steven Notley says: "Every day, the argument gets stronger and stronger. You know, we are preparing, we are coming to the point where you say there's no question now. The question mark is finished, we're on the site of Bethsaida truly."

 

Historical Background

 

1. Bethsaida was a fishing village with several hundred inhabitants during the time of Christ.

 

2. At least 3 of the 12 disciples were from Bethsaida.

 

John 1:44: Now Philip was from Bethsaida, of the city of Andrew and Peter.

 

3. Later on, however, it appears these disciples moved to Capernaum to be closer to where Jesus lived.

 

Mark 1:21: And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching. 
Mark 1:28: And immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.

Places of Interest

 

1. Et-Tell site of Bethsaida – Traditional Location

 

2. El Araj site of Bethsaida – New Location

 

3. Feeding of the 5,000

 

4. Approximate place Jesus walked on the water.

 

5. Capernaum

 

Bethsaida in the Bible

 

1. Philip, Andrew, and Peter were from Bethsaida (John 1:44).

 

2. Jesus healed a blind man at Bethsaida.

Mark 8:22–25: And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. 23 And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” 24 And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” 25 Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.

 

3. Bethsaida was one of the 3 towns Jesus cursed because of their unbelief in Him after witnessing all His miracles.
Matthew 11:21: Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which were done in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.

 

4. It was close-by to Bethsaida, where Christ fed the 5,000.
Luke 9:10–17: When the apostles returned, they gave an account to Him of all that they had done. Taking them with Him, He withdrew by Himself to a city called Bethsaida. 11 But the crowds were aware of this and followed Him; and welcoming them, He began speaking to them about the kingdom of God and curing those who had need of healing. 12 Now the day was ending, and the twelve came and said to Him, “Send the crowd away, that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside and find lodging and get something to eat; for here we are in a desolate place.” But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” 14 For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15 And they did so, and had them all sit down. 16 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing over them. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. 17 And they all ate and were satisfied. And what was left over was picked up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.

 

5. Not far from Bethsaida is where Jesus walked on the water and calmed the sea.
Mark 6:45–51: Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47 And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night [the last watch before dawn], he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50 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.” 51 And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded.

 

Faith Lesson from Bethsaida

 

1. Like the healing of the blind man, Jesus often heals in different and strange ways. Do we have faith and trust in God regardless of how or if He chooses to heal?

 

2. Christ cursed the town of Bethsaida because its inhabitants were apathetic, showed unbelief in Christ, and chose not to follow and obey Him. Are we often slow to trust and obey Christ as well?

 

3. Christ fed the 5,000 in the area of Bethsaida to reveal He was the true bread of life from heaven and that His Word is our spiritual food. In the same way there were 12 baskets of food left over, Christ, as our Bread from Heaven, is also abundant and overflowing in feeding us spiritual food through His Word. Are we eating daily and finding our life from the true Bread of Life?

 

4. Not far from Bethsaida Jesus walked on the water and calmed the sea. Am I finding rest and peace in Jesus in the midst of my personal storms of life?
Isaiah 26:3–4: You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. 4 Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.

 

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