by Rami Arav
Dr. Rami Arav, is a Professor at the University of Nebraska, Omaha and the Director of the Bethsaida Excavations.
"The man of Galilee" and the "Sea of Galilee" are but two world renown terms which are known to so many of us. How did the places that Jesus go to look like when Jesus was there? Archaeologists think that reconstructing the ancient environment of Jesus will enhance our understanding of the historical figure of Jesus.
The New Testament Gospels tell us that Jesus left Nazareth and moved to the Sea of Galilee. There were, perhaps, a few reasons for this. “Prophets are not without honor, except in their own country and in their own house” (Matt. 13:57) was one good reason but apparently not the only one.
The execution of John the Baptist by the Tetrarch Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great and whom the Gospels call “the fox,” was a much more powerful reason to leave the Galilean heartland and to go to the periphery. John the Baptist was executed for denouncing Herod Antipas for marrying his brother’s ex-wife. Jesus, being baptized by John, feared that he would be the next to pay for challenging the authorities and fled to the east, to the Sea of Galilee, to be closer to the borders and to cross into the territory of Philip Herod in a time of adversity.
Jesus made his home among the Jewish fishermen of the northern Sea of Galilee and soon learned their lifestyle, the hardship of their livelihood, and their anxieties. He made Capernaum his hometown. Capernaum was nothing but a small hamlet of fishermen situated at the northwestern shores of the lake. It contained no more than a small cluster of simple homes constructed of the local black basalt stones and a humble synagogue. Jesus also wandered between two other locations in the vicinity, Chorazin and Bethsaida. These three places are today called “the evangelical triangle.” Jesus preformed in the evangelical triangle his “mighty works” and laid the foundation of his ministry. What did he do or where did he go first, and or what next, we will never know. But we may be able to discern what these places may have looked like.
We do not know much about Chorazin in the time of Jesus. It may have been a small hamlet comparable in size to Capernaum, or perhaps slightly larger. Unlike Capernaum and Bethsaida, Chorazin is not located near the seashore. It is situated an hour’s walk from the lake, toward the slopes that descend to the Sea of Galilee from the basalt plateau known today as the Chorazim Plateau, which was at one time part of the Naphtali tribe’s allotment. The inhabitants of the evangelical triangle, were most probably very simple, hard working people, who made their living out of fishing, agriculture, local and small trade, and serving passengers and itinerant merchants on the road leading from the Mediterranean coast to the Golan Heights and toward the Greek cities in southern Syria.
Bethsaida was the largest of these places. It was already an ancient place when Jesus visited it, evidenced in the thriving city during the time of King David —when it served as the capitol of the kingdom of Geshur. The city walls of the ancient town were still seen and used, and during the time of Jesus it looked like a fortified village. During the time of Jesus’ ministry at Bethsaida, Julia-Livia, the wife of the emperor Augustus and mother of the reigning emperor Tiberius, died. On behalf of her memory, Philip Herod elevated the status of Bethsaida to a level of a city and renamed it Julia. He also had a temple built at the site on her behalf and installed the Roman imperial cult. It is interesting to note this fact because in the next few centuries the two religions would turn against each other.
The Gospels relate that Jesus performed “mighty works” in these places. Among these, he healed sick people and preached to his audience and disciples about the Kingdom of Heaven. He told his poor and humble fishermen that success and wealth in this world do not mean the same thing in the next life, and that there is reward to righteousness and if it does not come in this world, it will surely come in the kingdom of heaven. In Capernaum, he healed a paralyzed man. In order to get him to the house, the audience had to remove the roof of the building and get him through the roof.
In another episode a Roman military commander, known as a centurion, who dwelt in the village, approached him. The centurion asked him to heal a boy who was lying sick at his home. The centurion also knew that Jesus would not go to his home to heal him because a Halakhah (Jewish law) that was earlier decreed by Jewish Rabbis forbade Jews to enter gentiles’ homes. Jesus was thrilled; he did not find such belief among his Jewish fellowmen (he preached to Jews but found followers in non-Jews). “Go home and the boy will be healed,” he said.
In the evangelical triangle Jesus met his first disciples. They were Simon-Petrus, the fisherman from Bethsaida, and his brother Andrew. Jesus told them to stop being fishers of fish and become fishers of men. Philip, another disciple, was also from Bethsaida, as well, and perhaps two more fishermen, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, the wealthy fisherman who hired workers to fish for him, came from this town. In addition to healing individuals, Jesus performed miracles to the multitude. On a plain not far from Bethsaida, he was followed by a crowd of 5,000 people, and when there was nothing for the crowd to eat, Jesus managed to feed the crowd with just two fish and five loaves of bread. On two occasions he preached the famous sermons in which he laid the foundation of the Christian faith. One sermon was made from the top of a mound and the other was made out of a boat to a crowd that had gathered on the seashore.
Jesus did not stay only in the evangelical triangle. He sailed to the other side of the Sea of Galilee and near the city of Hippos, healed a man plagued by demons. The man had a legion of demons in him; Jesus cast them to pigs, which leaped to the lake and drowned. Jesus feared that his miracles would provoke the inhabitants and told the man not to talk about it.
After the healing of a blind man in Bethsaida, Jesus once again prepared to travel, heading north. He took the road to the capital city of the Gaulanitis (Golan) region and arrived at the area of Caesarea Philippi. There his disciples questioned him whether he was the Messiah or not. Jesus refused to answer. Then he probably traveled to the city of Tyre, situated on the Mediterranean coast, where he performed several miracles. He probably returned to the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee and then went back again to the region of the Decapolis to feed by a miracle a multitude of 4,000 people. The Decapolis was a league of ten cities, which were founded by Greek veterans and local Hellenized Syrians. The crowd that followed him to this site was apparently thoroughly gentile.
Jesus probably had the feeling that not all were convinced they should repent and he left in anger, rebuking the three places saying: “Woe to you, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, for if I had done these mighty works in the sinful cities of Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented in cloth and ashes.”