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19. Bethsaida – the Lost Village of Peter, Philip, and Andrew

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).

Bethsaida is known from the New Testament as the home of Philip, Andrew, and Peter (John 1:44). Jesus visited Bethsaida at least once, during which he cured a blind man (Mark 8:22-26). 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. Historical 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).

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 theSea 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).

A sign at the entrance to the "house of the fishermen" at e-tell

A sign at the entrance to the "house of the fishermen" at e-tell. Although some suggest e-tell is ancient Bethsaida excavations at the site revealed so far only scarce evidence form the first century CE. According to historical sources Bethsaida was also the burial place of Herod Antipas and home to a Roman temple dedicated to Livia, but to this day no clear remains of these structures were found. Photo © M. Browning.

Yet 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”.

A fragment of a lintel decorated with a "meander" design

A fragment of a lintel decorated with a "meander" design. Could this lintel be part of a local Roman temple? If indeed so, it is the only evidence found so far of the edifice. Photo © M Browning

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 some to doubt this hypothesis.

The site of “Arj’” has not been excavated yet, and perhaps future research will shed light on the site and its identity. Until then, the location of Bethsaida will remain an unsolved mystery.