Has the Lost City of Bethsaida Finally Been Found?

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The scholarly debate over the location of Bethsaida continues to rage. Now, Mendel Nun, an authority on the Sea of Galilee and its ancient harbors, weighs in on the side of el-Araj.

Most people think the search for Bethsaida is over. Archaeological excavations have taken place at et-Tell for ten years, and they continue this summer. Many scholars, too, have accepted Bethsaida Excavations Project director Dr. Rami Arav and his associates’ conclusion that et-Tell is the Bethsaida of the New Testament. So has the Israeli government. Since 1989 Bethsaida has been located at et-Tell on all maps produced by the State of Israel. Even the Vatican has accepted this identification: the Vatican’s committee on holy sites has recognized et-Tell as Bethsaida. Among archaeologists, however, there is growing skepticism about the claims of the et-Tell expedition. Mendel Nun, an authority on the Sea of Galilee and its environs, believes Bethsaida was located at el-Araj, a site on the Sea of Galilee’s northeastern shore near the Jordan River—the lake’s ancient fishing villages were always located on its shores. Nun rejects outright Arav’s contention that he has found the ancient site of Bethsaida. Nun thinks the et-Tell excavation results do not support Arav’s claims, but, in fact, disprove them. Nun calls for a thorough excavation at the el-Araj site, where surface remains are especially impressive.

The fishermen’s village of Bethsaida on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee is one of the most important holy sites of the Christian world. Yet the question of its exact location in Jesus’ time has long been a troubling and disputed issue.

Some basic clues are provided by the Gospels. According to John, three of Jesus’ apostles—Simon Peter, Andrew and Philip—came from Bethsaida (John 1:44; 12:21). We also know that Jesus performed miracles in Bethsaida: When a blind man was brought to him, Jesus took him to the outskirts of the village and there healed him (Mark 8:22-26). The miracle of the loaves and fish was performed near Bethsaida, when from two fish and five loaves Jesus provided ample food for a multitude of five thousand (Luke 9:10-17).

Bethsaida 003The site of Bethsaida was certainly somewhere on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, near the inlet of the Jordan River. Opposite Bethsaida, on the northwestern shore about four kilometers across the water was the ancient city of Capernaum. Four kilometers north of Capernaum was the city of Chorazin. Most of Jesus’ Galilean ministry took place in the region of these three cities; hence the term “Evangelical Triangle.” Of the three cities, Capernaum, with its fishing suburb Tabgha, was the very center of Jesus’ activities. From Capernaum he traveled to other towns and villages in Galilee, and from Capernaum’s harbor he sailed to cities on the other side of the lake.

Capernaum is mentioned thirteen times in the Gospels. Jesus stayed there with Simon Peter, who lived with his family in the house of his mother-in-law (Matt. 8:14-15; Mark 1:29-31; Luke 4:38-39). From this we may understand that because of the sons’ marriages, the family had moved from Bethsaida to Capernaum. Thus we see that family and fishing relations connected the two cities of Bethsaida and Capernaum.

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Comment from James W. Fox (Houston, Texas, U.S.A.) that was published in the “Readers’ Perspective” column of Jerusalem Perspective 55 (April-June 1999): 9. Fox was commenting on Mendel Nun’s article, “Has Bethsaida Finally Been Found?”

Mendel Nun asserts that in 30 C.E. Bethsaida was renamed Julias in honor of the wife of Augustus, the mother of Tiberius. Josephus, however, said it was renamed after Julia, the daughter of Augustus.

Viewers of the PBS series “I Claudius” will be certain that Josephus was correct and Nun is wrong. They will know that years earlier Tiberius wanted to marry Augustus’ daughter Julia in order to guarantee he would succeed Augustus. (Julia, however, was eventually banished by her father for extreme immorality, and she never married Tiberius.) Viewers of the series also will know that Augustus’ second wife, the mother of Tiberius, was the scheming Livia, not Julia. They, however, will be wrong!

It is the incomparable Mendel Nun, not Josephus, who got the story straight.

Encyclopaedia Britannica notes, “Livia Drusilla (58 B.C.–A.D. 29), wife of the Roman emperor Augustus and after his death called Julia Augusta….” Thus, later in life, Livia was also called Julia. She died in 29 A.D., and one year later Bethsaida was renamed after the emperor Tiberius’ just deceased mother.

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    1. David N. Bivin

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