BETHSAIDA - a lost city rediscovered


Soon after the Arik bridge a left turn onto Route 888 takes us to the Jordan River Park and the north-south mound (tell) of Bethsaida. At the time of Jesus, Bethsaida was part of the pagan territory of Gaulanitis (Golan Heights), ruled by the tetrarch Herod Philip. Bethsaida is best known to Christians as the hometown of three of Jesus' disciples: Philip and the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew.


Looking toward the Bethsaida plain from the area of Korazin       

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, Bethsaida was destroyed by two earthquakes and never rebuilt. The town simply disappeared and for years its exact location was even questioned. Researchers have uncovered 27 pilgrim accounts from the Middle Ages describing their attempts to find the city but, they simply had no idea where it had been. With no consensus reached as to its location, it simply slept, forgotten, for 1700 years. Happily, however, it has again been found, but not on the shore of the Sea of Galilee as expected.

et-Tel ('the mound')

In the early 1980's, Benedictine monk and archaeologist, Father Bargil Pixner, began his search for Bethsaida. Combing the scriptures and other historical records (1st century AD Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, for example) for clues, he determined that the city lay on a 100-foot rise simply called et-Tel ("the mound") (above), one and a half miles north of the Sea of Galilee, just east of where the Jordan River flows into the lake. In 1985 he published a landmark article in Biblical Archaeological Review, but many experts disagreed with his conclusion, stating that the site was too far from the lake. Excavations began at et-Tel in 1987. Meanwhile, investigations confirmed that the Sea of Galilee may have included a series of estuaries leading off a large lagoon just north of the present day coast (today it is the Bethsaida plain), and that the flow of the Jordan River, along with a series of earthquakes, caused the north shore of the Sea of Galilee to recede. As a result, Bethsaida, which had originally been built on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, came to be situated to the north. Furthermore, of all the candidates for Bethsaida, only et-Tel was occupied in the Roman period (37 BC-324 AD).

Beginning in 1989, the State of Israel recognized et-Tel as the official location of Bethsaida on Israeli maps and, in 1991, the Bethsaida Excavation Project, housed at the University of Omaha, was formed to supervise recovery of the site, which is one of the largest artificial mounds ever discovered on the Sea of Galilee. Excavations are ongoing and it is assumed that further finds await the archeologists' spades. In 1998, after ten years of excavation, Bethsaida was opened to the public for the first time, and it is the only place where one can actually see the remains of an entire city of the Biblical era which was not rebuilt in intervening centuries. Building material wasn't removed for use in later structures, and no churches were constructed over the ruins (as in other Galilee cities like Capernaum and Nazareth). The ruins of the town that Jesus knew can be studied in the same condition as when it was abandoned. No major restorations have been done; the dirt has simply been cleaned up so ruins remain in much the same condition that they were during Jesus' lifetime. Thus, Bethsaida provides scholars and pilgrims with a first hand look at life at the time of Jesus and his disciples. At Bethsaida Christian pilgrims can literally walk on streets that Jesus walked.

The Jordan River as it nears the Sea of Galilee in the Jordan River Park at the site of Bethsaida

Bethsaida means "house of the hunter" or "house of the fisherman" (the latter is preferable because of its location). It was already an ancient place when Jesus visited it. During the time of King David, the thriving city served as the capitol of the kingdom of Geshur, but it was destroyed in 732 BC by the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser III. Soon after the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 BC, new life was infused into the town. New markets were opened to the Phoenician coastal cities to the west. New settlers came to Bethsaida and to other places in Galilee and developed merchandise such as wine, olive oil, linen and dried fish. In 90 BC the Seleucid dynasty, which ruled over Syria and Mesopotamia, collapsed and never recovered. A few years later, the Hasmonean ruler Alexander Jannaeus invaded the former Seleucid territories and conquered Galilee and Gaulanitis. Mimicking his father's earlier actions in Idumea he forcibly converted the local Phoenician population and brought in Jewish settlers.

House of the Fisherman

At the time of Jesus Bethsaida was a large village covering an area of about 20 acres. The ancient city walls could still be seen so that it looked like a fortified village. Still, it was a working-class settlement populated by hard working people living a simple, no frills way of life nothing too fancy about the homes or public buildings in this seaside town. This was a fishing village, most of the families living there were supported by the "fish of the sea." From this period, several private houses in a residential quarter were excavated. Constructed of basalt and probably two stories high, they included a paved, open courtyard surrounded by several rooms. In one of the houses, dubbed the "House of the Fisherman" (above), lead fishing net weights, anchors, needles and fishhooks were found, attesting to a fishing-based economy. It is impossible to know if this house was ever home to the fishermen disciples Peter, Andrew or Philip. But, it is a perfect example of the type of house in which the apostles would have hosted their rabbi*, Jesus.

*Rabbi, from Greek rhabbi, meaning "my great one, my honorable sir," a title used by the Jews to address their teachers.

House of the Winegrower

In another structure, dubbed the "House of the Winegrower", excavators discovered a wine cellar with wine jars and hooks for pruning vines. Here, too, they found three bent nails (probably from the door hinges) and an iron key (a symbol of Peter), a replica of which was given to Pope John Paul II while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the spring of 2000. In yet another house, which archaeologists named "Salome's House" after the mother of Apostles James and John, was found a wine cellar, wine jars, an oven and two basalt stones used for grinding grain. There is, however, no known connection between this house and Salome.

Contemporary Jewish historian Josephus Flavius related (Antiquities of the Jews, book 18, chapter 2:1) that the tetrarch Herod Philip, one of the sons of Herod the Great, whose territory included the northern part of the country (the Golan Heights), elevated the city to the status of a Greek city-state (polis) and renamed it Bethsaida-Julias, in honor of Julia, the rebellious and morally-lax daughter of the former Roman emperor, Augustus, and wife of the current emperor, Tiberius. (As Julia was exiled in 2 BC, this must have taken place before that date). Philip also built a lavishly decorated temple on the highest spot of the town. In recent years cult objects were found in and around the temple, including a pair of bronze incense shovels, pottery jugs used for ritual practices, figurines, amulets and votive objects. The building had particularly thick walls; stones decorated with meander and floral motifs suggest its elegance. The temple did not serve for more than a century, however. The excavations reveal that during the 2nd century AD it went out of use and a private house was built over it. Bethsaida's status as a polis, together with this temple, suggest that it was one of the centers of the Roman emperor-worship cult.


View from Bethsaida towards the Jordan River

Apparently Bethsaida was an important city in the Galilee-Golan area at this time for, according to Josephus, Philip died in the city after a reign of 37 years and was buried there with great ceremony. He had lived out his life quietly with his own domain, enjoying his final years with his wife, Salome the same Salome who had danced for Antipas and requested the head of John the Baptist.
Bethsaida is mentioned in the Gospels more often than any other town except Jerusalem and Capernaum. It is known as the birthplace of three of Jesus' disciples: Peter, Andrew and Philip. Jesus himself visited Bethsaida and performed several miracles there:
"When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, but the crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing" (Luke 9:10-11).
Subsequent verses give the impression the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 took place at Bethsaida:
"Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, 'Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.' He replied, 'You give them something to eat.' They answered, 'We have only five loaves of bread and two fish unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.' (About five thousand men were there.) But he said to his disciples, 'Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.' The disciples did so, and everybody sat down. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to set before the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over" (Luke 9:12-17).

Note: The number of baskets of leftover food twelve is obviously related to the twelve tribes of Israel. Perhaps the symbolic message here is that this is a Messiah who cares for ALL of the Jewish people. Also, the type of basket used in this account is called, in Greek, kophinos, a large round basket for carrying items on the head, in the time honored Middle Eastern tradition.

Furthermore, it is now thought that the boy's "two fish" were sardines, plentiful in the Sea of Galilee. Obviously the boy could not have had them in his lunch unless they were preserved in some fashion either salted or smoked. It is even quite possible that these little fish were originally processed at Magdala, the main fish-processing center on the lake.
In Mark's Gospel, Jesus cures a blind man at Bethsaida:
"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 spat 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" (Mark 8:22-25).

Bethsaida adalah kota asal Filipus, Andreas, dan Petrus  (Markus 8:22-26)

Yesus menyembuhkan orang buta  (Yohanes 1:44)

Mark also locates one of Jesus' most famous miracles his walk on the water near Bethsaida:
"Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray. When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch* of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified. Immediately he spoke to them and said, 'Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid.' Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed" (Mark 6:45-51).
A "watch" was a period of time during which a guard detail was on duty, at the end of which others relieved them. After the Jews became subject to the Romans, they adopted the Roman custom of dividing the night into four watches. The "fourth watch" was the last time period leading up to the sunrise.
Two things to notice about this account: First, it is amazing that when one of the characteristic squalls caused by cold winds from the west, or from the north channeled down the Jordan River gorge struck the Sea of Galilee, Jesus simply sat on the mountainside for some 6 to 8 hours observing the disciples struggling against the wind to reach the shore! Second, as he is walking toward them on the water, he almost walks past them! Was this a test of faith?
Bethsaida (with nearby Korazin) was also the target of a curse by Jesus for not responding to his message:
"Woe to you, Korazin! 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" (Matthew 11:21).


Looking toward the hilltop location of Korazin from Bethsaida

With the sun low on the western horizon, we head back to the bus, exhilarated by all the images that now fill our heads. Never again will we be able read the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life and ministry along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and separate them from the smells, sounds and sights now ingrained in our imaginations.





Powered  by:  DENVINCENT.Com.Inc.