Has the biblical city of Bethsaida finally been uncovered?


Excavations in northern Israel resulted in the uncovering of a fishing village that is believed to be the biblical Bethsaida, hometown of Jesus’s apostles Peter, Andrew, and Philip according to the New Testament. The excavations carried out in the village of el-Araj, already in their second year when the discovery was made, were not the first of their kind. In fact, archeologists have for decades been searching for Bethsaida and three sites were actually identified as possible sites, but none had enough evidence to support this assumption. It was only during this excavation, carried out by a team from the Christian Nyack College in New York, that substantial evidence came into being and that biblical city by the Sea of Galilee might have finally been found.

According to head of the excavation team Mordechai Aviam, unearthed objects included remnants of a Roman bathhouse as well as coins and pot parts from the first to the third centuries, which is consistent with Jewish historian Josephus Flavius’s account of Bethsaida been turned around 30 AD from a small village into a city state or a “polis” by king Philip, son of the biblical Herod, who named it Julias.

House of Tsaida

“He didn’t specify whether he built it directly on top of the village or nearby, but the presence of a Roman bathhouse says this was once an urban area,” said Aviam, who is also head of the Institute of Galilean Archaeology at Kinneret College in northern Israel. “We discovered a mosaic floor and other items that made it clear this was a Roman bathhouse.” The golden glass mosaics found at the site, Aviam noted, demonstrate that a church was built there, which coincides with eight century chronicles of a church called the House of Tsaida that was built in tribute to two of Jesus’s apostles, namely Peter and Andrew. “The Hebrew word for ‘house’ is ‘beth’ or ‘beit’ so the word Bethsaida means ‘house of Tsaida’,” said Aviam, adding that he is certain that more evidence will surface soon to confirm that this is the site of Bethsaida.

Steven Notley, professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Nyack College, explains that the eighth century account of the church built in Bethsaida was that of Willibald, the Bavarian Bishop of Eichstätt, who performed a pilgrimage to the region around 725 and reported that a church was constructed over the house of Peter and Andrew. “[What Willibard’s account] tells us is that in the Byzantine period we have living memory of the site of Bethsaida and identifies it with the Gospel tradition,” said Notley. “Only time will tell if (1) our site has the Byzantine church, and (2) it is correctly situated on the site of first-century Bethsaida.” Notley, who is also the academic director of the excavation, says that the gilded-glass mosaics that were found are one that are only used in “ornate, important churches,” which supports the argument that it might be the church built to honor the apostles.

Sea of Galilee

Journalist Narjas Zatat argues that an error previously made about the Sea of Galilee would have excluded el-Araj as the site of Bethsaida, yet this is not the case anymore. “Calculations made near the site assume the level of the lake was 209 meters below sea level during the period that the city was thriving. However, this would mean the el-Araj site was under water until the Byzantine period, which cannot be the case,” she wrote. “Researchers found the Roman layer to be 211 meters below sea level, which would make sense if a city existed in the area at the time.” By the Roman later, Zatat refers to one of the two layers uncovered at the site, one from the Roman period and another from the Byzantine. The Roman layer was found six feet below the Byzantine one. )

Rami Arav, co-director of the excavation, argued that the evidence found so far at el-Araj is not enough especially when compared to that found at the village of el-Tell, another possible Bethsaida site in which Arav also worked. “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,” he said. Arav, who is also professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, noted that it was possible that two villages carried the name Bethsaida, hence making both el-Araj and el-Tell the right sites. “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.” This, according to Arav, means that the old Bethsaida lasted for 300 years, after which migrations to the new city started. The third village that can potentially turn out to be Bethsaida is el-Mesydiah, yet very little evidence has supported this assumption so far.

The religious importance of Bethsaida is not only attributed to the fact that it is the birthplace of three of Jesus’s apostles, but also to the miracles Jesus performed there such as healing a blind man, who came to be called “the blind man of Bethsaida,” and feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish, also known as “feeding the multitude.”