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.
A common but mistaken reading of the current strategic situation in the Middle East presents the region as approaching the end of a period of instability. The “return of the Arab state” is one of the more arresting refrains that this perspective has produced.
According to this view, the wars in Syria and in Iraq are drawing to a close. The defeat of the Islamic State in these countries represents the eclipse of the political ambitions of Salafi jihadi Islamism for the foreseeable future. Assad is set to restore his repressive but stable rule in Syria. In Iraq, the firm reaction by the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to the Kurdish bid for independence has ended prospects of the imminent fragmentation of the country. In Lebanon, attempts by Sunni jihadis to export the Syrian war have failed, and all is quiet.
In July 2016, Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria (pictured in front at center)—the leader of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church—hosts Ignatius Aphrem II (left), patriarch of Antioch and All East of the Syriac Orthodox Church, and Aram I, head of Lebanon’s Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
While Christianity traces its birthplace to the Middle East, that region has been arguably the most hostile area for the religion in recent years. A new report by the Christian charity group Open Doors has found that most of Israel’s neighbors, including Egypt, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian territories, are among the world’s most dangerous places for Christians.
Kingdom says Jerusalem agreed to pay compensation over deaths of three people, in order to end diplomatic standoff
Jordanian protesters wave national flags and chant slogans during a demonstration near the Israeli embassy in the capital Amman on July 28, 2017, calling for the shutting down the of the embassy, expelling the ambassador, and canceling the 1994 peace treaty with Israel. (AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI)
Israel is paying $5 million in compensation to the families of two people shot dead by an Israeli embassy guard last year, as well as a Jordanian judge killed in a 2014 incident, diplomats in Jordan told the al-Rai newspaper Saturday.
Ultra-Orthodox women and children attend a ceremony to welcome new Torah scrolls in a neighborhood of Jerusalem, Oct. 1 2014.
Reuven K., who is about 30 years old, is an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic man who lives in Betar Illit, one of Israel’s most prominent ultra-Orthodox localities. Reuven studies in a yeshiva, a Jewish school for Talmudic learning, but works half of each day as a wholesale merchant selling religious ritual supplies. His wife, Bracha, works as a bookkeeper in a governmental institution.
Palestinian boss Mahmoud Abbas recently declared that Israel is “a colonial enterprise that has nothing to do with Jewishness.” Moses, King David and thousands of years of Jewish history would disagree. Israel and the Jews are part of the story of human civilization. Over 50% of the human race has a holy book that tells of the Jewish journey to Israel. That includes Mohammed’s own copy of the Koran.
Israel isn’t a “colonial enterprise.” Palestine is.
Anyone who wants to find out where the name Israel comes from can open the Book of Genesis 32:29. The story even appears in Islamic hadiths. But where does “Palestine” really come from?
It may not be a shooting war. For the most part. (Though don’t tell that to some Republicans at a charity game practice who were targeted by a Bernie Sanders supporter.) But it’s a war all the same.
The war is still being fought with paper and protests. But it’s based on irreconcilable differences between parts of the country. Much like the ones that brought on the war between brothers.
This is a topic that I’ve written about quite often over this past year. Rush Limbaugh saw fit to read and promote some of those pieces. And now I’ll be giving a talk on the subject at the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Conference in Myrtle Beach, SC. It’ll take place from Jan 20-22. I’m scheduled to speak on the 21st, but there are plenty of other great speakers there.
The speech was loud and clear. It wasn’t just the “may your house be demolished” curse that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas fired at the leader of the strongest world power. It was the utterly delusional ideology, with false claims that only make the Palestinians sink deeper into a path of delusions and collapse.
The reactions were predictable: We have to understand him. He’s under a lot of pressure. He has no political horizon. The Palestinians are desperate. He didn’t really mean it.
A document drafted by members of the global Christian community convening at the 3rd International Christian Forum held in Moscow, detailed how over the past 10 years the Middle East’s Christian population has shrunk by 80 percent and warned that unless current trends are reversed Christianity “will vanish” from its ancient homelands in a few years’ time. Around the year 2000, there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq, whereas today there are only 100,000, roughly a 93 percent drop, the document notes. In Syria, the largest cities “have lost almost all of their Christian population.”
Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, has delivered a speech triggered by his rage at the President of the United States Donald Trump, going so far as to hurl the most bitter curse in the Arabic language at the POTUS: “May your house be destroyed.”
This imprecation does not merely relate to someone’s present home, but to all the members of his family being thrown into the street to lead lives of destitution, humiliation, and shame. Only someone familiar with Middle Eastern culture understands the real significance of this curse.
The 1964 presidential election was the second in which I voted. Lyndon Johnson who had succeeded John Kennedy was running against Barry Goldwater. I didn’t like either candidate: Johnson’s personal characteristics were obnoxious, though he had achieved much, especially in the area of civil rights; Goldwater’s personal characterizes seemed fine, but I disapproved of his conservative political views.
I was shocked to read an article in Fact magazine, based on interviews with more than 1,000 psychiatrists, which concluded that Goldwater was mentally unstable and psychologically unfit to be president. It was Lyndon Johnson whose personal fitness to hold the highest office I questioned. Barry Goldwater seemed emotionally stable with excellent personal characteristics, but highly questionable politics. The article was utterly unpersuasive, and in the end, I reluctantly voted for Lyndon Johnson. Barry Goldwater went back to the Senate, where he served with great distinction and high personal morality. Lyndon Johnson got us deeply into an unwinnable war that hurt our nation. The more than 1,000 psychiatrists, it turned out, were dead wrong in their diagnosis and predictions.