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.
An antisemitic flyer found on the University of Houston campus on Tuesday. Photo: Michael Leone / Facebook
Dozens of flyers and stickers promoting neo-Nazi propaganda were found at the University of Houston (UH) this week, the latest incident associated with an increase in white supremacist activity on campuses nationwide.
The flyers, found on bulletin boards, walls, trash bins, and lamp posts at the university’s main campus on Tuesday, included phrases such as, “Beware the International Jew” and “Imagine a Muslim-Free America,” according to a statement shared online by UH’s chapter of the Young Communist League (YCL).
IDF soldiers make a blessing on the traditional Jewish custom of apple and honey to welcome Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. (ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com)
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship) and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) said they will provide $1.5 million in annual Rosh Hashanah “Fellowship Gift Cards” to 12,000 IDF soldiers marking the upcoming Jewish New Year.
The initiative, coordinated in collaboration with the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers and the LIBI Fund, will provide more than 10,000 lone soldiers and soldiers $140 gift cards. Another 2,200 soldiers will receive gift cards worth $100.
The cards “will allow the soldiers to celebrate the New Year without the burden of financial stress,” the organizations said in a statement Wednesday.
Gaza-based terror group says it will agree to Palestinian Authority conditions on forming joint government and holding elections
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, center, and spokesman Fawzi Barhoum attend a protest in Gaza City on July 22, 2017, against new Israeli security measures implemented at the holy site, which include metal detectors and cameras, following an attack that killed two Israeli policemen the previous week. (AFP/Mohammed Abed)
For the past week or so, Iranian official media and social networks have been abuzz with anecdotes woven around a football match in Tehran between Iran and Syria and the light it might shed on a complicated relationship.
According to most accounts, a group of Syrians flown in by special charter to cheer their national squad in its bid for a place in the World Cup in Moscow staged an anti-Iran demonstration in the stadium. The Syrian contingent included young ladies who refused to wear the Iranian-style hijab.
Their presence in the stadium highlighted the fact that no Iranian woman is allowed to attend a football match after a fatwa by the “Supreme Guide” that women watching young men running around with bare legs might cause “undue excitement”
An Orthodox man passes a British guard in London, UK. (drserg / Shutterstock.com)
A new in-depth survey conducted by the U.K.-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) found that around 30 percent of the British public hold at least one anti-Semitic viewpoint.
The report noted, however, that most of the 30 percent polled also held some positive views about Jews.
Further, around 15 percent of the British public indicated they agreed with two or more anti-Semitic views presented to them, while two percent of British adults polled were found to be “hard-core” anti-Semites.
The survey was conducted by JPR senior research fellow Dr. Daniel Staetsky using face-to-face interviews and online polls.
That’s followed by the sounds of the terrorists assaulting a passenger.
“Please don’t hurt me,” he pleads. “Oh God.”
As the passengers rush the cabin, a Muslim terrorist proclaims, “In the name of Allah.”
As New York firefighters struggle up the South Tower with 100 pounds of equipment on their backs trying to save lives until the very last moment, the Flight 93 passengers push toward the cockpit. The Islamic hijackers call out, “Allahu Akbar.”.
The autumn of 2015 was unusual in almost every way on the north Aegean Greek island of Lesbos from which I am writing. There were tens of thousands of illegal migrants on the island, the native population of which was scarcely 100,000. New refugees arrived every day by the thousands.
One evening, the blue-gray sky grumbled shortly after sunset. The thick clouds blackened and rain poured down over the city with a roar. As I ran across the slippery pavement into a friend’s bar, I heard a group of five poor souls speaking Persian with a Turkic accent and running amok, seeking shelter under the eaves of a building.
Back in May, a New Orleans statue of Joan of Arc was tagged with “Tear it Down” graffiti.
Why Joan of Arc? Any famous historical figure is by definition controversial. Joan is a French national
symbol, but Shakespeare depicted her as a malicious witch. The French Quarter where the statue stands is a mostly white neighborhood. France was dealing with a controversial election.
This is what happens when you open a can of historical, religious and nationalistic worms.
Regarding the question that forms the title of this article, I truly believe that the answer is “yes.” It is my belief that Christian Zionism is as obvious a sign of the beginning of the redemption of Israel as are the ingathering of millions of Jews to the land of Israel and the existence of the State of Israel itself. But there are many people who don’t share this perspective.
In the Jewish community, there are still many who are wary of Christian friendship and support. Many Jews are suspicious of an ulterior motive to convert Jews to Christianity that they fear underlies this political partnership.
Last weekend, the world experienced a petrifying “wake up call” when Pyongyang test launched a hydrogen bomb. According to Yukiya Amano, director of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), Sunday’s test represents “a new dimension to the threat.” Added Amano, “I think the North Korean threat is a global one now.
In the past, people thought it was a regional one, but that is no longer the case.”
Since 1994, when North Korea decided to pull out of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), there has been a huge history of attempts to chain the North Korean nuclear beast, including efforts for military cooperation, sanctions and, of course, negotiations.