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Where is Biblical Bethsaida?

an article by Samuel De-Witte Pfister

in the 13 November 2021 issue of Bible History Daily, 

published by the Biblical Archaeological Society

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 the 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 and 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’ 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’ 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’ account.

This claim, however, has not gone without criticism from other scholars.   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.

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 an early Roman occupation from the first through third centuries, including a Roman-styled bath house, mosaic fragments, and a silver coin from 65-66 CE portraying Roman Emperor Nero.   The recent evidence shows that, despite assertions by Arav and others, 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 ad 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.


Bethsaida and the Church of the Apostles

from an article by Nathan Steinmeyer 

in 5 November 2021 issue Bible History Daily

In 2017, excavators at el-Araj uncovered a Byzantine Basilica:  the question on everyone’s mind – “Is this the lost Church of the Apostles?”   

From the start of the excavations, the team found gilded glass tesserae, which only appear in ornate churches of the Byzantine period.   As the dig continued, it became clear that the basilica was extremely lavish.  During the 2019 season, the team discovered the remains of elaborate mosaic floors.   In 2021, more of the church’s mosaic was uncovered, along with walls that indicated the building measured approximately 88 by 51 feet in size.   The team also found two fragmentary inscriptions, one mentioning the construction of the basilica, and the other referencing major renovations carried out on the church.  According to Dr. Notley, “There are no other churches in the vicinity mentioned by Byzantine visitors to the Holy Land and there is no reason to question that this is the Church of the Apostles.”

The basilica only went out of use in the eighth century when a large earthquake devastated much of the region   While there is still no definitive evidence that el-Araj is Biblical Bethsaida, Notley notes that “the Byzantine church serves as a witness to the long Christian memory that kept alive the location of the city of the Apostles.   Everything we have now discovered has only strengthened the case that el-Araj is the site of New Testament Bethsaida.”