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Text and Tell: The Excavations at Bethsaida

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EXCERPT This article outlines the debate over the location of Bethsaida.

Where is Bethsaida?

Bethsaida is mentioned more times in the gospels than any other city with the exception of Jerusalem and Capernaum, yet scholars still are debating the exact location of this site.

The name “Bethsaida” means either “house of the fisherman” or “house of the hunter.”  Both names fit well the geographical context.  Bethsaida was the birthplace of at least three of Jesus’ early disciples – Peter, Andrew and Philip – and Philip apparently still lived there while a disciple (John 1:44; 12:21).  Bethsaida was one point of what Bargil Pixner calls the “Evangelical Triangle” (1992: 34-35).  Korazin and Tabgha were the other two points of the triangle and Capernaum was the midpoint of the triangle’s base.  Jesus did most of His mighty works and miracles of His Galilean ministry within these three points (Matt. 11:21; Luke 9:10).  Two recorded miracles are the healing of the blind man outside the city of Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26) and the feeding of the 5,000 men, plus women and children in a “deserted place” within the region of Bethsaida (Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:11-17; John 6:1-13).  Prior to this miracle, Jesus turned to Philip and asked him where they should buy bread.  Philip, whose hometown was just down the hill, would have known where all the bakeries were.

Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, recounts three incidents relating to Bethsaida.  First, Herod Philip expanded the city to a polis and named it after Julia, the daughter of Caesar [Augustus] (Antiquities 18:28; LCL 9:25).  However, the excavator of Et-Tell, Rami Arav, has suggested, based on some coins, that it was “the wife of Caesar Augustus and mother of Tiberias Caesar [who was] … accepted into the Julian family is 14 CE and then officially took on the name Julia Augusta …”  M. Avi-Yonah concurred (Kuhn and Arav 1991: 88).  Josephus’ second point regarding Bethsaida is that Herod Philip died in Julias and was buried in a sepulcher there after a costly funeral (Antiquities 18: 108; LCL 9: 77).  Josephus also relates his own experience during the First Jewish Revolt.  A battle took place between the Jewish forces under Josephus and the Roman legion commanded by Sulla in the fall of AD 66 (Life 398-406; LCL 1:147-149).  Josephus includes a geographical reference when he says that the Jordan River flows into the Sea of Galilee “after passing the city of Julias” (Wars 3: 515; LCL 2: 721)….

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