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They Came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, ‘Do you see anything?’ He looked up and said, ‘I see people; they look like trees walking around.’ Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, ‘Don’t go into the village.’’’ (Mark 8:22-26).

Aside this story of healing a blind man, Bethsaida is known from the New Testament as the home of Philip, Andrew,and Peter (John 1:44). Other sources teach us that in the year 30 CE, Philip the son of Herod elevated the village of Bethsaida to the status of a Greek city (Polis), and renamed it “Julias”, in honor of Livia, the wife of the emperor Augustus. Philip fortified the city and built in it a temple in honor of the empress. He apparently also lived, died and was buried in the city.

Later, sources of the Byzantine period record that in their days a big church was constructed at Bethsaida, perhaps where remains related to the disciples were recovered and sanctified. Following the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land, Bethsaida was abandoned, and even its location was forgotten. Pilgrims of the Crusader period don’t even mention the site. It seems that the curse of the city by Jesus was indeed fulfilled: “…Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you” (Matthew 21:22).

The Search for Bethsaida

On the turn of the 19th century, E. Seetzen was the first scholar to suggest locating Bethsaida at “E-Tell”, a large mound close to the Jordan River, and 1.5 km from the Sea of Galilee. This suggestion was repeated by the famed Bible Scholar E. Robinson in 1838, yet the lack of matching surface finds led other scholars to suggest locating Bethsaida at “Arj’”, a small site on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, near the mouth of the Jordan River. Indeed, a site at the shore of the sea of Galilee seemed more appropriate for a village of fishermen, as is also indicated in the name of “Bethsaida” (=”home of the fisherman” in Aramaic).

bethsaidah stelaYet in 1987, an expedition led by the Israeli archaeologist R. Arav started excavating at the site of “E-Tell”, whose size seemed more promising for retrieving archaeological data. And indeed, Arav and his team discovered at “E-Tell” impressive remains from the time of the Old Testament, which portray a large city, perhaps the capital of Biblical “Geshur”.

But from the classical periods the finds are rather poor. The architectural remains are mostly a large house of a fisherman, a large house with wine cellars, and remains of a narrow and long building which may have been an edifice. The small finds suggest that the site was inhabited mostly in the Hellenistic period (3rd-1st century BCE), but far less in the Roman period (1st-4th century CE).

Although Arav and his team are convinced the site is indeed ancient Bethsaida, the lack of clear urban remains from the Roman period lead other scholares to doubt this hypothesis.

Furthermore, recent excavations at Arj started uncovering a Byzantine church on top of a remains from Roman times. These finds suggest that Arj is the site of ancient Bethsaida, but it remains to be proven.

Watch a Video presentation about the quest for ancient Bethsaida >>

Touring Bethsaida

Both “E-Tell” and “Arj” sites are on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee. “E-Tell” site is accessed from “Hayarden” Park. The site trails and signs marking some of the discoveries.

“Arj” is still under inverstigation, and has no proper road reaching it. It is not far from the Jordan river’s feeeding point into the Sea of Galilee.

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