by Yael Adar
It was the birthplace of the apostles, a village frequented by Jesus (and also cursed by him) – there is literally no other example of an entire biblical era city, intact - anywhere. And it took 17 centuries to definitively establish the exact location of this Iron Age city of Bethsaida.
Known as a fishing village, it didn’t seem to make sense that it would be located almost two miles from shore. Additionally, Bethsaida is located in the Golan (i.e. east of the Jordan River). But the Gospel of John identifies the village as being in the Galilee (west of the Jordan River).
Solving the mystery of Bethsaida’s location required coming to the realization that the Sea of Galilee’s shoreline today – is not where it was in Jesus’ time. This is most likely due to a significant earthquake in 363 CE. The site of ‘modern-day’ Bethsaida was in fact, at one time, situated right on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
The city was founded in the tenth century BCE and was apparently destroyed in 734 BCE, by the Assyrian, Tiglath-pileser III and was later revived in the Hellenistic period (332-37 BCE). It was during the first century CE that Jesus’ ministry was apparently in this area.
Dr. Rami Arav, Director of Bethsaida Excavations said, “The (Bethsaida) findings have bearing on the understanding of Biblical archaeology and they help to establish the line of history in the Bible.” According to Arav the findings are important both in terms of the New Testament and the Old Testament.
Arav noted that the significance of the findings at Bethsaida to the New Testament is tremendous. It is the only site that is mentioned in the Gospels, linked to Jesus and is accessible to archaeologists today. Bethsaida is mentioned in the New Testament more than any other city aside from Jerusalem and Capernaum.
The disciples Peter, Phillip and Andrew made their home here, according to the Gospel of John.
Some of the events linked to Jesus and the Bethsaida area include:
In Matthew 11:21 Jesus cursed Bethsaida and Chorazin, ‘Woe unto thee, Chorazin! Woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” Capernaum (also located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee) was cursed by Jesus as well. “And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.” (Mathew 11:23).
It is within this 20-kilometer triangle formed by the three ancient cities of Bethsaida, Chorazin and Capernaum that most of Jesus’ teachings were said to have taken place. For this reason it is often referred to as the Evangelical Triangle.
In terms of the Old Testament the finds at Bethsaida are important because they demonstrate that this was apparently the capital city Geshur, a kingdom that neighbored the kingdom of Israel, about which very little was known outside of Biblical texts. King David married Maccah, the daughter of Talmai one of the Geshurite kings mentioned in the Bible. Maccah was also mother of Absalom and grandmother to a younger Maccah – who was married to Rehoboam.
Bethsaida is located just three miles from Chorazin (see related article). It seems that stones from Bethsaida’s temple to Julia-Livia, the Roman emperor’s wife, were used, recycled as it were, in the fifth-century CE synagogue at Chorazin.
The most significant find at Bethsaida to date, is a ninth century BCE gate. A tenth-century gate apparently lies beneath it. Excavating the gate will be the focus of the coming season’s excavations according to Arav, who said, “There is no place like Bethsaida. Come and see it.”
The Jewish National Fund maintains the site and entry fees are per vehicle, 50 NIS per car and 150 NIS per bus. One can park the car and walk roughly 16 yards (200 meters) to the entrance. The Reserve is close to the Yahudia Junction at the intersection of Routes 87 and 92.
Learn more about Bethsaida.