Biblical Sites: Is et-Tell Bethsaida?

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Everyone loves a good mystery!  In the world of biblical archaeology there are many mysteries to solve.  One in particular is the question of where the town of Bethsaida is located.  Lost to history centuries ago, two sites are currently the leading candidates as the true location of this biblical town.  In this two-part series, we’ll explore the evidence for et-Tell and el-Araj, to determine which site is the likely location.

Criteria For Bethsaida

Before beginning, it is important to examine the descriptions in the Gospels and other ancient writings to determine what we should look for.

Geography: Located on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee

  • In Mark 6:45, we read, “Immediately he [Jesus] made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida…” implying that the village was on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
  • When Jesus pronounced his woes on the villages that had not responded to his message, he specifically centered out – Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum – which would indicate these three were relatively close to each other. (Matt. 11:21-24). Thus, Bethsaida should be found on the northern end of the Sea of Galilee.
  • After the feeding of the five thousand, which Luke locates near Bethsaida, the disciples got into a boat and “started across the sea to Capernaum.” (John 6:17). Since Capernaum is on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, this would place Bethsaida on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Map of Bethsaida Sites
This map shows the locations of et-Tell (labeled as Bethsaida) and el-Araj, the two leading candidate as the site of Bethsaida. Photo Credit: A.D. Riddle/BiblePlaces.com This image is part of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands – Galilee and the North – Vol. 1 – https://www.bibleplaces.com/01-galilee-and-the-north-revised/

Topography: Located near a desolate hill or mountain

  • According to Luke 9:10-17, the Feeding of the five thousand took place near Bethsaida. Mathew and Mark’s gospels state that this event occurred in a “desolate place” (Matt. 14:13 & Mark 6:35), while John records that it occurred on a mountain or hill (John 6:3)
  • Also, a plain would be located nearby, as Josephus describes in the battles he fought nearby1

Archaeology: Artifacts/Structures related to Fishing, Jewish and Roman Occupation and a Byzantine Church

  • Artifacts Related to Fishing – Bethsaida literally means, “house of fish,”2 so we should expect to find artifacts related to the fishing industry.
  • Jewish Artifacts from the First Century – Bethsaida is described as a village (kōmē in Mark 8:23). The picture one gets reading the gospels is that Bethsaida was a typical Jewish village, with people coming to hear the rabbi’s teaching and hoping that he would heal them (Mark 8:22)
  • Roman Artifacts from the First Century – Josephus records that Herod Philip “provided the village of Bethsaida on lake Gennesaret with the dignity of a city, by increasing the multitude of its inhabitants and by the other honor of naming it Julias, the same name as Caesar’s daughter.”3 Thus we should expect to find some structures of a typical Roman polis in the archaeological record.
  • A Byzantine Church –Bethsaida was the home of Philip, Andrew and Peter (John 1:44). In 725 AD, Willabald, Bishop of Bavaria, described coming to Bethsaida and seeing a church that had supposedly been built over the house of Peter and Andrew.4  While the discovery of a Byzantine church is not conclusive proof (it would only indicate that the Byzantines thought it was the location of Bethsaida), it would be one more piece of evidence

The Case for et-Tell

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The gate at et-Tell dates to the Iron Age. The excavators at the site propose that in the Iron Age it was the capital of the Kingdom of Geshur. Photo Credit: תמר מרום / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.5

In 1838 Edward Robinson explored the area and identified et-Tell as Julias-Bethsaida.  Excavations began there in 1987 under the direction of Dr. Rami Arav and his team.  Over the past 30 years, the Bethsaida Excavations Project (BEP), as it is known, has unearthed the remains of a significant Iron Age city.  The site also has evidence of occupation during the Hellenistic, Hasmonean, Herodian and Early Roman periods, as well as in the later Mamluk and Ottomon eras.5  It is Arav’s identification of et-Tell as biblical Bethsaida that really put the site on the map.

In his landmark article, “Bethsaida Rediscovered,” in the January/Feburary 2000 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Rami Arav laid out his case for identifying et-Tell with Bethsaida.  With the recent discoveries at el-Araj, another site that has been identified as Bethsaida, Arav has doubled down on his belief that the true location of the hometown of Peter, Andrew and Philip (John 1:44) is at his site.  Let’s analyze these claims in light of the criteria set out above.

Geography

Et-Tell is located 3 km (1.5 miles) from the northern shore of the sea of Galilee.  How can a fishing village be so far inland from the water?  Arav and his team explain this apparent problem through geology:

“Up against the base of the et-Tell mound, we found lake clays containing crustacean microorganisms. At one time, Bethsaida was right on the water! Further work has refined that finding. At the base of the tell lie terraced deposits of gravel and boulders on top of the lake clays. Carbon 14 dating of bovine bones and other organic matter underneath the boulders has yielded a date between 68 and 375 C.E. We believe that a cataclysmic event, probably the major earthquake of 363 C.E., swept a vast amount of basalt boulders, rock, gravel, soil and artifacts across the plain on which et-Tell lies, cutting Bethsaida off from the shore.”6

Topography

It is difficult to determine what the topography looked like 2000 years ago, especially if the cataclysmic earthquake proposed by the BEP team changed the landscape as much as they’ve proposed.  However, there are numerous plains and hills which would hold large numbers of people7, as required by the account of the feeding of the five thousand and the battles Josephus describes.

Archaeology

Et-Tell_House_of_a_fisherman
An artists reconstruction of the Fisherman’s House on display at et-Tell. Photo Credit: Hoshvilim / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The BEP excavated a residential quarter at et-Tell, and unearthed two houses from the Hellenistic period that may have been still in use in Jesus’ day.  They dubbed one the Winemaker’s House, because it had a wine cellar in which were found four large wine jars.  The other house was named the Fisherman’s House, because they discovered lead net weights, anchors, and fishhooks within it.8  In addition, parts of Herodian oil lamps and limestone vessels – the hallmarks of a Jewish village – were discovered at the site.9

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A structure at et-Tell that the excavators have identified as a fisherman’s house. Photo Credit: Drahnier / Wikimedia Commons / Copyrighted Free Use

The BEP has also uncovered a structure, which they identify as a temple, and believe was repurposed to honor Julia-Livia, wife of Caesar Augustus, after whom the new Roman polis was named.10  Arav describes it this way:

“On the highest part of the mound, atop debris of the Iron Age city gate, there was an old Phoenician temple built in the second century B.C.E. (or perhaps late third century B.C.E.) that was in ruins during the time of Philip…. Philip rebuilt it and converted it into a Roman-style temple by diverting its opening from the north to the east and decorating it with reliefs, dressed stones (the only structure at the site bearing dressed stones), and a marble floor, of which we have found a few remains. The lintel of the temple was decorated with meander and rosettes, recalling the decoration used by his father, Herod the Great, in the Jerusalem temple. These decorations followed the Augustan style and allude to bounty and prosperity, a propaganda hallmark of the pax Romana. Overall, the temple was discovered in a very poor state of preservation. Its dressed stones, floors, and decoration were almost all looted. It is likely that much of it was taken to Chorazin, situated only five miles west of Bethsaida.”11

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A decorated stone that the excavators of et-Tell have proposed is the lintel from the Roman-era temple at Bethsaida. Photo Credit: Bukvoed / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

In addition, several religious objects were found around this structure, including two bronze incense shovels, a bronze ladle, two bronze bowls, a highly decorated oil lamp filler, and several high-quality jugs and juglets.12  The excavators at et-Tell believe these to be evidence of an Imperial cult at the site.

All of this has led Rami Arav to make the bold claim that et-Tell “contains more evidence for its identification with Bethsaida than, for example, Capernaum, Cana, or Chorazin.”13

Problems with et-Tell

Despite the discoveries at et-Tell, and the fact the Israeli government has declared the site to be Bethsaida, not all scholars agree.  Todd Bolen from BiblePlaces.com summarizes the difficulties with this identification succinctly:

“There are many problems with the identification of et-Tell with Bethsaida, including:

  • Distance from the Sea of Galilee
  • Elevation of the site, about 20 feet (7 m) above the level of the lake in ancient times
  • Lack of ancient remains from the 1st century A.D., including significant pottery and coins
  • Lack of buildings from the New Testament period. After 30 years of digging, excavators have identified only one Roman period house and another building they identify as a Roman temple. This latter identification is dubious.

In short, there is little to commend this site as being the Bethsaida mentioned by Josephus and the Bible.”14

et-Tell Google Earth
This Google Earth image gives an idea of how far et-Tell is from the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Photo Credit: Google Earth

One of the main arguments against et-Tell being Bethsaida is that it is located 3km (1.5 miles) from the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Despite the theory put forth by the excavators at et-Tell to explain the distance, this continues to be a significant stumbling block to their identification.  Mendel Nun, an expert on the ancient shoreline of the Sea of Galilee counters the BEP’s explanation of a cataclysmic event separating et-Tell from the shore:

Shroder and Inbar’s theory contradicts the accepted geological explanation of how the shore of the lake was formed. It also contradicts the archaeological evidence. The creation of plains around the lake was, in fact, a result of erosion—mud and rocks were carried by streams through valleys to the lakeshore….The Beteiha Plain was created not by some catastrophic geological event, but by the erosion deposited by the Meshushim, Yehudiyeh and Daliyot Streams, the three streams that flow into the plain.15

As to the BEP’s discovery of lake clays containing crustacean microorganisms, it has been pointed out that, while the plain may have been under water between 2700 and 1800 years ago, this wide 900 year gap does not prove that it was under water in the narrow timeframe of the early first century.16  Furthermore, recent excavations at el-Araj have clearly demonstrated that it was occupied in the New Testament-era.  If the Bethsaida plain was under water up to the base of et-Tell, as the BEP excavators claim, then el-Araj would have been submerged.  The fact that it was not is significant evidence that the et-Tell was a considerable distance from the shore of the Sea of Galilee even in the first century.

For Steven Notley, a historical geographer and one of the men behind the el-Araj excavations, in addition to the distance from the shore of the Sea of Galilee, another significant issue is one of urbanization; there simply isn’t evidence at et-Tell of a village becoming a Roman polis, as described by Josephus.17  In fact, the archaeological record at et-Tell during the first century seems to exhibit the opposite.  Rather than evidence of a larger more Romanized population, et-Tell appears to have become smaller, with fewer Roman artifacts.  Using the BEP’s own excavation reports, Notley has shown that the amount of fineware, ceramics and coins drops significantly in the Roman era.  He concludes: “The dramatic decline in fineware is characteristic for the pottery, coins, and structural remains and indicates a visible decline in all aspects of material culture at the beginning of the Roman period.  So, while two large Hellenistic private homes are prominently displayed…only one small, poorly attested Roman period house is presented in the excavation reports. This meager state of affairs in the Roman period at et-Tell stands in irreconcilable conflict with the historical picture of Bethsaida-Julias in the first century of the Common Era, when Josephus reports the city at its zenith in size and prominence.”18

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This structure has been proposed as a Roman Temple in connection with Bethsaida’s transformation from village to a Roman polis, as mentioned by Josephus. Photo Credit: Steven Notley

In his response to Notley, Rami Arav points to the supposed Roman temple as evidence of Bethsaida’s conversion from fishing village to Roman polis.  Even this identification is questionable, however, as other scholars have pointed out that the structure the BEP team identified as a Roman temple lacks the fine stonework found in other Roman temples built during that era.  Even Arav himself admits “the temple was discovered in a very poor state of preservation” and theorizes that “Its dressed stones, floors, and decoration were almost all looted. It is likely that much of it was taken to Chorazin, situated only five miles west of Bethsaida.”  Unfortunately, there is no definitive archaeological evidence at Chorazin to support Arav’s theory.

Finally, Mendel Nun points out that the “Fisherman’s House” is of a size that it was clearly owned by a well-to-do person.  He writes, “These are not houses of perennially poor fishermen, although it is quite possible that these affluent citizens of ancient et-Tell may have occasionally engaged in fishing for pleasure. The large et-Tell houses can in no way be compared to true houses of fishermen, such as those excavated at nearby Capernaum.”20

Summary

After over 30 years of excavations at et-Tell, it is clear that it was a significant city in the Iron Age, and was occupied, albeit with a much smaller population, during the early Roman period.  The evidence for it being biblical Bethsaida, however, is lacking, and the lead excavators’ theories stretch credulity.  Despite the BEP’s prominent display of two Hellenistic homes (the “Fisherman’s House” and the “Winemaker’s House”), and the tenuous identification of a structure as a Roman Temple, the site lacks the significant Roman-era finds one would expect given Herod Philip’s conversion of Bethsaida from a village to a city.  As the ESV Archaeology Study Bible notes, “Few architectural forms similar to those that dominate the sites of other cities of polis status (columns, capitals, theatres, paved streets and the like) have been found.”21  Moreover, et-Tell is too far from the shore of the Sea of Galilee to be Bethsaida, and the excavations at el-Araj indicate it was situated at a similar distance from the shore in the first century AD.  These facts make the identification of et-Tell as biblical Bethsaida doubtful.

NOTE: In part-2 of this series, we’ll evaluate the evidence for el-Araj that leads some scholars to identify it as biblical Bethsaida.

 

Title Photo Credit: AVRAMGR / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Endnotes

1 Josephus, Life 399-406

2 “Bethsaida,”BibleTools.org  https://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Lexicon.show/ID/G966/Bethsaida.htm (Accessed Aug. 9, 2019).

3 Josephus, Antiquities 18.28

4 Willibald, Hodeoporicon, XIV, Online: http://media.bloomsbury.com/rep/files/Primary%20Source%205.4%20-%20Willibald.pdf (Accessed Sept. 13, 2019).

5 “About Bethsaida Excavations Project,“ Bethsaida Excavations Project, https://bethsaidaarchaeology.org/about/ (Accessed Aug. 9, 2019).

6 Rami Arav, Richard A. Freund and John F. Shroder Jr., “Bethsaida Rediscovered,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 26:1 (January/February 2000): 48.

7 Todd Bolen, “Bethsaida,” BiblePlaces.com. https://www.bibleplaces.com/bethsaida/ (Accessed Aug. 9, 2019).

8 Rami Arav, Richard A. Freund and John F. Shroder Jr., “Bethsaida Rediscovered,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 26:1 (January/February 2000): 55.

9 Rami Arav, “Bethsaida – A Response To Steven Notley.” Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 74, No. 2 (June 2011), 95.

10 Rami Arav, Richard A. Freund and John F. Shroder Jr., “Bethsaida Rediscovered,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 26:1 (January/February 2000): 55.

11 Rami Arav, “Bethsaida – A Response To Steven Notley.” Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 74, No. 2 (June 2011), 96-97.

12 Ibid, 97.

13 Ibid, 97.

14 Todd Bolen, “Bethsaida,” BiblePlaces.com. https://www.bibleplaces.com/bethsaida/ (Accessed Aug. 29, 2019).

15 Mendel Nun, “Has Bethsaida Finally Been Found?” Jerusalem Perspective. July 1, 1998. https://www.jerusalemperspective.com/905/ (Accessed Aug. 29, 2019).

16 Steven Notley, “Et-Tell Is Not Bethsaida,” Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 70, no. 4 (December 2007), 223.

17 Steven Notley.  Interview by author. Skype. North Bay. Aug. 8, 2019.

18 Steven Notely, Steven Notley, “Et-Tell Is Not Bethsaida,” Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 70, no. 4 (December 2007), 225-226.

19 Rami Arav, “Bethsaida – A Response To Steven Notley.” Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 74, No. 2 (June 2011), 97.

20 Mendel Nun, “Has Bethsaida Finally Been Found?” Jerusalem Perspective. July 1, 1998. https://www.jerusalemperspective.com/905/ (Accessed Aug. 29, 2019).

21 “Bethsaida” in ESV Archaeology Study Bible (ed. John Currid and David Chapman; Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 1500.

2 comments

  1. Nice article! When the road isn’t muddy I take my groups to el Araj… in fact (here is a little secret), one in my group 2 years ago exposed the famous 6th century AD “Lionness” while casually looking through one of the debris pile of the site. :). This forced Notley to dig through it the following year. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing!

    My dad a long time ago served on the ABR board. I dug with Dave Livingston at Kh. Nysia back in 1982. Dave was a dental patient of my dad’s. :).

    John DeLancey http://www.biblicalisraeltours.com

    >

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