Seeking the location of a myriad of New Testament miracles, excavations in area of important Second Temple-era town uncover conflicting finds
In the New Testament, Bethsaida is a place of miracles. Here, Jesus cured a blind man, turned a few loaves and fishes into food for 5,000, and walked on water. But mysteriously, its location was lost. Now, dueling archaeological excavations place it in the same vicinity on the northern bank of the Sea of Galilee, but at slightly different locations.
Based on the recent discovery of a Roman-era bathhouse in the Bethsaida Valley Nature Reserve, a Haaretz report this week trumpeted “The Lost Home of Jesus’ Apostles Has Just Been Found, Archaeologists Say.” Its location, according to the article, is el-Araj, one of three sites historically debated by scholars.
Known in the New Testament as Bethsaida, the location is the birthplace of three of Jesus’s apostles — Peter, Andrew and Philip. Aside from New Testament accounts, its history was chronicled solely by the Jewish leader Josephus Flavius, who recorded that Herod’s son Philip Herod turned the fishing village into a Roman polis called Julias after the mother of the Roman Emperor Tiberius Livia Drusilla, aka Julia Augusta.
“Josephus reported that the king had upgraded Bethsaida from a village into a polis, a proper city,” Dr. Mordechai Aviam of Kinneret College told Haaretz. “He didn’t say it had been built on or beside or underneath it. And indeed, all this time, we have not known where it was. But the bathhouse attests to the existence of urban culture.”
In 2014, excavations began at the el-Araj site with a shovel survey, headed by the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology and the Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies directed by Dr. Dina Shalem and Aviam. Other collaborators include Nyack College and North Central University.
Pottery shards found at the 2016 el-Araj excavation at Bethsaida (courtesy of Dr. Mordechai Aviam)
The site was previously known primarily for its Byzantine-era artifacts. However, in addition to the bathhouse, a newly excavated Roman layer at el-Araj has offered up remains of a mosaic and pottery sherds from the 3rd to the 1st centuries BCE, according to Haaretz. Additional evidence helps date the settlement: a bronze late-2nd century coin and a silver denarius featuring the Emperor Nero from the year 65-66 CE.
According to a 2016 dig report, “The most surprising find was a group of gilded glass tesserae, which are used in the construction of wall mosaics. These type of tesserae are typical to large and important churches. Which means, even before finding the church itself, it is possible to suggest that in the Byzantine period, el-Araj was identified as a holy place, most likely Bethsaida.”
However, according to the head of a decades-long Bethsaida Valley excavation team at competing site e-Tell, these findings are hardly conclusive for pinpointing the “lost” city’s location. Besides, he’s already found it.
Rami Arav, professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and co-director of the excavation at Bethsaida north of the Sea of Galilee, has excavated the e-Tell site since 1987. He is the head of the Consortium of the Bethsaida Excavations Project, which consists of 30 scholars from 18 international institutions.
In an email exchange with The Times of Israel, Arav explained that the newly discovered Roman layer “is not enough to identify a place with Bethsaida, there are some more requirements which the dig at El Araj thus far failed to provide,” including finds from the second and the early first half of the first century and a cultic center dedicated to Livia/Julia.
“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,” wrote Arav.
Judea Capta coin with the head of Domitian found at Bethsaida, dated to 85 CE. (photo credit: Hanan Shafir)
The el-Araj excavators, however, remain unconvinced.
“The evidence of over twenty years of excavations is far from conclusive in demonstrating their claim that et-Tell was first century Bethsaida. The site’s elevation and remoteness from the lake, together with its unexplained decline in material culture at the beginning of the early Roman period, challenge the identification of et-Tell as the lost city of Bethsaida,” according to their website.
Could there have been two Bethsaidas?
Bethsaida’s history predates the dawn of Christianity. The region was settled some 3,500 years ago during the early Bronze Age as evinced by remains of ancient dolmens (tombstones), which can be visited in the Bethsaida Valley Nature Reserve.
The Hebrew Bible depicts it as a desirable and strategic area. According to a 2000 Biblical Archaeology Review article by Arav and the team of archaeologists who excavated the e-Tell Bethsaida site, “In the tenth century B.C.E., Bethsaida was at the heart of the small kingdom of Geshur.”
Basalt Stele decorated with a bull’s head from Bethsaida, 8th c. BCE. (photo courtesy of Israel Museum)
The city-state Geshur appears in the trove of cuneiform tablets called the el-Amarna letters, which largely consists of missives between Egyptian pharaohs and governors of their conquered territories, including in the Holy Land.
The military force of the kingdom of Geshur was to be reckoned with, according to the Bible. In the Book of Joshua it is written, “The Israelites failed to dispossess the Geshurites and Maacathites, and Geshur and Maacah dwell among the Israelites to this day.” Based on archaeological evidence of an impressive city found at the e-Tell site from the Israelite period, Arav and his team hypothesize that Bethsaida is the capital of Geshur.
Taken from the 2016 report of the e-Tell excavation site of Bethsaida, Area A South, Stratum VI city gate. (courtesy)
Through the marriage of Geshur King Talmai’s daughter Maachah to King David, 10th century BCE Bethsaida “allied itself with King David and his dynasty (as a result, Bethsaida absorbed many Israelite cultural influences).” Maachah was the mother of Absalom, who murdered his half-brother Amnon and fled to his mother’s homeland, Geshur. Ties were reformed when Absalom’s daughter Maachah married Solomon’s son Rehoboam, king of Judah.
The Second Temple era saw a flurry of settlement and activity in the Galilee, as many Jews fled the Jerusalem area, which had become more difficult under Roman occupation. Under Josephus, it was fortified ahead of the 67 CE Great Jewish Revolt against Rome.
The potential viability of three potential locations of Bethsaida — the potential third location, el-Mesydiah, about 2 kilometers from the mouth of the Jordan River, has not yet yielded promising finds — has led to some scholars to question whether there was more than one settlement with the same name.
“It is true that there is Degania Alef and Degania Beth and Ein Harod Ihud and Ein Harod Meuhad. But unlike these wonderful modern examples, there was not such a case in antiquity, particularly when they were in such proximity,” said archaeologist Arav.
‘The fishermen at e-Tell abandoned their site because it became too far from the lake and moved further south to the sea shore’
“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,” said Arav.
“So the great great grandchildren of the first century Bethsaida moved three hundred years later to their new location at el-Araj. Perhaps they called it New-Bethsaida,” Arav wrote.
Trump hails ‘big week’ for historic move; ‘Congratulations to all,’ he tweets ahead of May 14 opening
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman gives a first glimpse of the new US embassy in Jerusalem on May 11, 2018, ahead of its opening on May 14 (Screenshot)
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on Friday gave a first glimpse of the new US embassy in Jerusalem, showing off workers erecting the official seal on the building and preparing for the opening ceremony.
“We are so excited,” Friedman said in a video posted on the embassy’s Facebook page. “We have the official seal of the United States embassy. We have the dedication plaque. They are covered right now, but on Monday they are going to be unveiled.”
‘Next time in Jerusalem,’ jubilant Barzilai yells after victory; ‘Toy’ marks Israel’s 4th win; hundreds jump in Rabin Square fountain to celebrate; PM calls her ‘best ambassador’
Netta Barzilai after winning the final of the 63rd edition of the Eurovision Song Contest 2018 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, on May 12, 2018. (AFP/ Francisco LEONG)
Israel won the Eurovision song contest for the first time in two decades Saturday as singer Netta Barzilai clucked and bucked her way to the top of the international song contest with women’s empowerment anthem “Toy.”
Backed up by three dancers, her trademark side buns featuring stripes of pink dyed hair to match her pink-and-black outfit, Barzilai busted her way through “Toy” on stage in Lisbon, Portugal, punctuating her singing with her trademark eye rolls and chicken dance moves
Quoted by US president one day, hosted by Russia’s president the next, PM is on a high, including in the polls. But will this encourage his more divisive tendencies?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after the Victory Parade marking the 73th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
JTA — On Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu began his week by meeting his Cypriot and Greek counterparts to finalize the commercial export to Europe of Israeli gas that he has pushed to exploit for about a decade.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from nuclear deal with Iran was widely seen as a coup for Israel’s prime minister, a fierce opponent of the deal.
The same day Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed that Israel seized Iran’s archive of its military nuclear program in Tehran and spirited it to Israel, a video was posted of IDF soldiers singing Soltane Ghalbha, a traditional Persian love song – in Persian.
Taken together, the two events demonstrate the purpose of Netanyahu’s presentation.
Netanyahu’s detractors in the US and Israel called his presentation as a dog and pony show. “He didn’t tell us anything we haven’t known for years,” they sniffed.
Moreover, they insisted, Netanyahu’s presentation was actually counterproductive because he couldn’t show evidence that Iran is in breach of the nuclear deal it concluded in 2015 and so did nothing to persuade the Europeans to abandon the deal.
While US policy-makers are trying desperately to stabilize Afghanistan, a shift is being orchestrated by China.
The Chinese evidently see their role in Afghanistan as the “good cop” versus the U.S. role as “bad cop.” Like Pakistan, China seems to view the Taliban as the political opposition, not as a terrorist organization, and has offered itself as an intermediary to negotiate the departure of the U.S. and, thereby, be in a position to reap the economic and geopolitical benefits of Afghanistan as a client state of the China-Pakistan alliance.
Reuters/Ipsos set a new standard this week when it condemned its own polling as unreliably favorable to the president.
“This week’s Reuters/Ipsos Core Political release presents something of an outlier of our trend,” stated a paragraph that appeared before the press release on its latest polling even began.
“Every series of polls has the occasional outlier, and in our opinion, this is one. So, while we are reporting the findings in the interest of transparency, we will not be announcing the start of a new trend until we have more data to validate this pattern.”
For the sixth Friday in a row, protestors from Gaza came to Israel’s border with intentions to penetrate it. They come with scissors to cut through the fence, with burning tires, Molotov cocktails, slingshots with rocks, and kites with firebombs attached to them to destroy Israeli farmlands and villages.
This is not some peaceful demonstration akin to Selma in the 1960s when blacks were simply trying to sit together with whites at a lunch counter. The usage of the word “demonstrators” is a misnomer; these are “rioters.”
What would happen if the world took Pope Francis’ advice (via a tweet)? “Do we really want peace? Then let’s ban all weapons so we don’t have to live in fear of war,” said the pontiff.
While on the surface, the disappearance of all weapons might suggest the inability to do violence, in reality, it would mean the certain annihilation of the West as a civilization.
When a Philadelphia Starbucks manager called the police after two black men refused to leave, the chain of events ended with the burnt taste of the overpriced coffee chain colluding with anti-Semitism.
Starbucks reacted to the brief arrest by blaming the police, but Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, who is African-American, initially said that his officers, “did absolutely nothing wrong”. But then he was forced to offer a bewildering apology to the arrested men, the officers and the entire city.
“It is me who in large part made most of the situation worse than it was,” he announced.
“Your threshing season will last until your grape harvest, and your grape harvest will last until the time you plant. You will have your fill of food, and you will dwell securely in your land” (Vayikra 26:5).
This blessing is promised to the People of Israel on condition that, as a unified nation, they observe the laws of the Torah and live by its spirit. Its promise is quite surprising. Not only will the Israelites have plenty to eat but, as the verse clearly indicates, the Jews will experience an overflow of food. The first season, when produce is brought to the threshing floor, will last until the days of the grape harvest, which in turn will continue into the planting season.