In Israel’s Jordan Park, a team of archaeologists are hard at work. The sounds of tools sparking against stone fills the air as they continue painstakingly investigating the area in Golan Heights. And the researchers are a relatively common sight for any locals passing by, too, as they’ve been excavating this particular site – called et-Tell – for decades. On this particular day, however, the group unearth a truly incredible find. Furthermore, they will come to realize that the approximately 3,000-year-old artifact may have formed part of the backdrop for one of Jesus Christ’s most iconic miracles.
The archaeologists found this astonishing object on the banks of the Jordan River, to the north of the Sea of Galilee. And according to the New Testament’s Book of John, three of Jesus’ disciples actually hailed from a fishing village called Bethsaida, which is said to have been located by this very seashore. Experts believe, moreover, that they have identified the site of this ancient settlement in the et-Tell area.
In fact, the 20-strong international team of archaeologists – led by the University of Nebraska’s Professor Rami Arav – have claimed that the site’s history long precedes the appearance of Jesus some 2,000 years ago. Arav believes, for example, that the location existed at the time of the Old Testament’s King David – so, around 3,000 years ago or so.
And in Arav’s view, Bethsaida may be the same place as the city of Zer that’s mentioned in the Old Testament. He explained the situation in a July 2019 interview with The Jerusalem Post, saying, “Bethsaida was the name of the city during the Second Temple period, but during the First Temple period it was the city of Zer.” And to lend further weight to his words, he pointed out that the Old Testament’s Book of Joshua mentions that very settlement.
So, if the site that Arav and his colleagues have been exploring is indeed the New Testament’s Bethsaida – as well as the Old Testament’s Zer – then it’s a location of great significance to those who belong to both the Christian and Jewish faiths. But there’s a problem. You see, another team of archaeologists has been excavating a different site nearby – and claim that they have discovered Bethsaida.
We’ll come back to that controversy about the true location of Bethsaida later, but for now, let’s find out more about the famous biblical city. As we’ve seen, Arav’s team believes that the location they’ve identified could be the same site upon which Zer once stood. And the archaeological remains that they’ve found so far indicate that substantial fortifications once protected this earlier city from potential invaders.
What’s more, Arav believes that Zer was standing at the time of King David, who the Old Testament claims was Israel’s second king after Saul. The future ruler started from humble beginnings, although he transformed from a simple shepherd into a hero when he slayed the giant Philistine Goliath. Then, according to the Bible, after Saul had passed away, David ascended to the throne some 3,000 years ago.
In fact, Arav theorizes that Zer may not even have been an Israeli city at all when David was Israel’s ruler. Instead, the scholar – along with others – has put forward the idea that the settlement was in fact Aramean. And perhaps this notion isn’t too far-fetched. After all, the Arameans were a successful people who ruled various kingdoms in the Middle East while David was on the throne. A piece of evidence found at et-Tell seemingly supports this theory, too. Specifically, a pair of tombstones that are believed to be Aramean in origin have been unearthed there.
These gravestones – or stele – are each carved with a moon deity in the shape of a bull. Similar stones have been found in other parts of the ancient world, too, including Egypt and modern-day Turkey. But the two uncovered in Bethsaida likely date from around 3,100 years ago. And this in turn may mean that the city was part of Geshur – an Aramean kingdom also mentioned in the Old Testament.
Yet we still don’t know for sure whether Zer was Israelite or Aramean territory. Whoever controlled the city, though, seemingly lost power over the settlement at some point over the next millennia. According to the New Testament, by 2,000 B.C. the city had a new name: Bethsaida. And Bethsaida is described in the Bible as a place where Jesus lived, recruited disciples and even performed one of of his most famous miracles.
According to the New Testament, Jesus journeyed to the shores of Galilee and found three of his 12 disciples: Philip, Andrew and Peter. The Gospel of John says, “The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.” And while this fact alone would have no doubt been enough to establish Bethsaida as an important part of the messiah’s story, the city actually takes on a far more central role.
You see, Bethsaida was not only a fertile recruiting ground for Jesus, but it was also the scene of some of his most startling miracles. First of all, there is the parable of the Blind Man of Bethsaida, although an account of this episode only appears in the Gospel of Mark. The relevant passages set the scene by first describing how the messiah arrived in town with some of his followers.
The text continues, “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?’” The blind man replies, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”
Mark’s gospel goes on, “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 even go into the village.’” And while this last phrase is somewhat enigmatic, Mark’s words nevertheless make an astonishing claim: the messiah had miraculously restored the blind man’s sight.
But Bethsaida is also said to be the site of one of Jesus’ better-known miracles: the feeding of the 5,000. All four gospels – Matthew, Mark, John and Luke – mention this episode. A second miraculous meal – the feeding of the 4,000 – was also recorded by Mark and Matthew, but this apparently took place somewhere close to Gerasenes.
When it comes to the feeding of the 5,000, though, the Gospel of Luke specifies that Bethsaida was the backdrop. This version of the story starts off by saying, “Then [Jesus] took [the disciples] with him, and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida.” At this point, a throng of people apparently followed the messiah and the disciples. Jesus then addressed the crowd, it’s said, and told them all about God’s kingdom.
Luke’s gospel continues by describing how the disciples subsequently asked Jesus to send his audience home, as there was neither food nor shelter for them at the spot where they’d gathered. And Jesus’ reply puzzled his 12 disciples. “You give them something to eat,” he said. As there were around 5,000 people in attendance, this response quite understandably flummoxed the 12 at first.
The dozen disciples then protested to Jesus, “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish – unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.” The gospel claims that the messiah seemed unfazed by this, however, and he went on to instruct his followers to organize the crowd into separate groups of around 50. And then, or so the story goes, the miracle happened. According to Luke’s gospel, “Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, [Jesus] gave thanks and broke them.”
Next, Jesus gave the loaves and fishes to the disciples to share among the people. And although you would expect these scant supplies to leave thousands hungry, that was apparently far from the case. “They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up 12 basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over,” Luke’s gospel states. Somehow, two fish and five loaves of bread had been enough to sate a crowd of 5,000 people.
So, as three of Jesus’ disciples hailed from Bethsaida and two of his miracles also reportedly happened there, it’s easy to see why Christians regard the city as a key Holy Land location. And, in fact, today the purported site of Bethsaida has become something of a pilgrimage destination, with thousands apparently flocking daily to et-Tell in the Golan Heights to see it for themselves.
In light of Arav’s 2019 discovery at et-Tell, then, the city may perhaps become an even more appealing destination for pilgrims. You see, at the location, the archaeological team unearthed an ancient city gate – a rare find indeed. “There are not many gates from capital cities in this country from this period,” Arav told The Jerusalem Post in July 2019. And this was the second historic gate that the team had discovered, as it turns out.
Arav and his colleagues had uncovered the first gate in 2018, and he believes that this artifact may date from the time known as the First Temple Period. That era is named for the Temple of Solomon and is generally said to have lasted from around 1,000 B.C. to 586 B.C. This was succeeded by the Second Temple era, which is generally believed to have been heralded by the destruction by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II of King Solomon’s Temple in 587 B.C.
And Arav told The Jerusalem Post that the second gate may have been constructed during the time of the Old Testament’s King David. If this is true, then this ancient object would come from the Second Temple Period. By this point, of course, the city would no longer have been called Zer. Instead, it would have gone by the moniker of Bethsaida – the city that Jesus knew so well.
Arav’s assertion that this et-Tell site is indeed the biblical city of Bethsaida has had a dramatic impact in the last few years, too, as hordes of visitors have subsequently flocked to the site in Jordan Park. Even the park’s director, Avi Lieberman, was stunned by this turn of events. According to a 2018 article by The Jerusalem Post, he said, “I am amazed each time by the arrival of thousands of Evangelical visitors to Bethsaida.”
But, as we mentioned earlier, there is one key problem with Arav’s discovery: not everyone agrees that the archaeologist has really found the site of Bethsaida. In fact, there are two other experts who believe that honor actually belongs to them. The competing sites also lie to the north of the Sea of Galilee, with each boasting their own archaeological discoveries. One is at el-Araj; the other can be found at el-Mesydiah. And out of the two locations, the former appears to have the more convincing claim.
A team of archaeologists has been working at the el-Araj site – located in the Bethsaida Valley Nature Reserve – since 2014. And the researchers have seemingly convinced at least one news outlet that they’ve discovered the true Bethsaida. Yes, in 2017 the Israeli newspaper Haaretz headlined an article with “The Lost City of Jesus’ Apostles Has Just Been Found, Archaeologists Say.” But the piece in question referred to the dig at el-Araj – not et-Tell.
The team at el-Araj was led by Dina Shalem, Mordechai Aviam and Dr. Steven Notley – with Notley hailing from Nyack College in New York. In 2016 they uncovered a bathhouse and other evidence of a Roman settlement that’s believed to have spanned from the first century A.D. to the third. Other finds at el-Araj include a coin made of silver and imprinted with the head of the emperor Nero.
And this assorted evidence of a Roman presence at the site proved enough to prompt the researchers to declare that the settlement at el-Araj was a possible site for Bethsaida; after all, the biblical city was believed to have been Roman. Archaeologists have made this assumption after studying the works of a Jewish historian known as Josephus, who was writing as the first century A.D came to an end.
You see, Josephus related how Philip the Tetrarch – Herod the Great’s son – awarded Bethsaida the status of “polis” in 30 A.D. This classification then meant that the settlement was officially recognized as a Greco-Roman city. And it stands to reason that any archaeologist who believes that they could have uncovered the site of Bethsaida would need evidence of Roman occupation from the early first century A.D. – if they want their claim to be taken seriously, that is.
Taking these conditions into consideration, then, the respective sites at el-Araj and et-Tell seem to be prime contenders for the ruins of Bethsaida. Yes, archaeologists have also found evidence of Roman influence at the et-Tell dig. Researchers there discovered a coin from the era of the aforementioned ruler, Phillip the Tetrarch – as well as even further treasures.
Indeed, in 2018 Arav’s team discovered what seemed to be the remains of the floor of a Roman-era temple that may have been built by Phillip the Tetrarch. And the researchers also found further materials from the same period beneath this floor, including keys, beads and even a Roman centurion’s shield. They also came across an extremely rare coin that had been struck to honor the Roman Emperor Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.
However, a year before this discovery was announced, Dr. Mordechai Aviam – a scholar of Israel’s Kinneret College – was quoted by Haaretz about the Roman bathhouse find at el-Araj. “Josephus reported that the king had upgraded Bethsaida from a village into a polis – a proper city. He didn’t say [that the bathhouse] had been built on or beside or underneath it. And indeed, all this time, we have not known where it was. But [it] attests to the existence of urban culture,” he said.
So it seems that both sites have convincing evidence of a Roman presence dating from the first century A.D and beyond. But Notley – one of those working at the el-Araj site – has cast doubt over the et-Tell site on the grounds that Bethsaida was supposed to have been a fishing village. As he points out, the et-Tell site lies more than a mile away from the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Consequently, then, the location is hardly ideal for a settlement dependent on marine life.
Another archaeologist, Jodi Magness, told National Geographic in 2017, “While the Iron Age remains at [et-Tell] are monumental and impressive, the Roman-period remains are very poor, and therefore the site does not look like an urban center.” But Arav has not been dissuaded by these criticisms; he still seemingly remains convinced that the site he’s been excavating is indeed Bethsaida.
However, it’s probably fair to say that Arav has a vested interest in defending the et-Tell site as the true location of the biblical city. After all, the Bethsaida Excavations Project – of which Arav is in charge – has been operating there since 1987. But the archaeologist isn’t alone in asserting that et-Tell is a viable site, mind you. In fact, it was first identified as a possible location of Bethsaida as long ago as 1839.
What’s more, Arav has also pointed out that his team has discovered evidence showing both a Greek and Roman presence at et-Tell – exactly as you would expect at the genuine Bethsaida location. And perhaps more tellingly still, researchers working at the site have also found ship’s anchors and fishing hooks. These items lend credence to the idea that, before the Romans expanded it into a city, the settlement was once a humble fishing village.
And Arav seemed unconvinced by the discoveries at the rival dig site. When interviewed by The Times of Israel in August 2017, he said that the discovery of some Roman artifacts at el-Araj “is not enough to identify a place with Bethsaida. There are some more requirements which the dig [there] thus far failed to provide.” The researcher had his own idea, too, of what the finds at that site may represent.
“I suggested long ago that el-Araj became Bethsaida in the first to fourth centuries A.D., after a geological disaster pushed the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee further south,” Arav continued. “In this period, the fishermen at et-Tell abandoned their site because it became too far from the lake and moved further south to the sea shore.”
“So the great-great-grandchildren of the first-century Bethsaida moved 300 years later to their new location at el-Araj. Perhaps they called it New Bethsaida,” Arav concluded. So, it seems that the archaeologist favors an interesting solution to the conundrum of the biblical city’s location: it simply existed in two places at different times.
Regardless of wherever Bethsaida once stood, then, there is no doubt that the two excavations at et-Tell and el-Araj are unearthing important historical artifacts and evidence. That said, we still don’t know which site is truly where Jesus both recruited some of his disciples and performed one of his most well-known miracles. And we can only hope that, with further research, new finds will continue to be uncovered. One day, the truth may even finally come to light.