The lost city of Bethsaida now found?

The excavation site (Photo credit courtesy of Zachary Wong)

Unlike Plato’s mythical city of Atlantis that will never be found, the location of the biblical city of Bethsaida — which is quite real — has remained a secret of time, begging to be found.

A city of prominence, it is mentioned in the gospels more often than any other besides Jerusalem and Capernaum. But to where did it disappear? Using biblical, historical and archaeological clues, along with significant and exciting discoveries from a recent dig, the puzzle pieces may finally be coming together.

It is always a challenge for historians and archaeologists to piece together things that seem to have vanished without a trace. A few locales for Bethsaida have been suggested by archaeologists over the centuries, and since 1987 one city has even held the title. Experts, however, were not satisfied beyond a shadow of a doubt, and so the search continued.

Bethsaida, its name meaning house of hunting or fishing, and two neighboring towns – Capernaum and Chorazin – were cursed by Yeshua for their stubborn refusal to repent. Capernaum was found and excavated in the late 1700s and identified in the early 1800s. Chorazin was found in the late 1800s but only identified and excavated in the 1960s. Yet, Bethsaida’s whereabouts remained elusive.

Yeshua performed various miracles in Bethsaida and some of his closest students — Peter, Andrew, and Philip — hailed from there, according to John 1:44. The gospels relate the healing of a blind man as occurring at Bethsaida and, in the book of Luke, the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 occurred there.

Regarding a specific geographical location, Mark and Luke speak of the city as being east of the Jordan River. Other clues to pinpoint Bethsaida’s whereabouts come from Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian and scribe from the first century. He provided the only other source of that era giving credence to the city’s existence. He wrote that King Herod Philip II, the son of Herod the Great, transformed Bethsaida, which had been a Jewish fishing village, into a Greco-Roman city state or polis. It was renamed Julias in the early part of the first century. The historian didn’t clarify whether Julias was next to or on top of Bethsaida, the original town.

Another clue from hundreds of years later is in the form of a written record from the eighth century of a bishop from Eichstätt, Bavaria who came to the region in the year 725 and reported that a church at Bethsaida had been built over the house of the disciple Peter and his brother Andrew.

Armed with these clues, archaeologists hypothesized that if ruins of that church could be found, it could confirm the identity of the city of Bethsaida-turned-Julias.

The site that has been called Bethsaida/Julias since the 1980s is Khirbet et-Tel. Almost 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the water, it is quite a distance away from the Sea of Galilee, which was always troublesome for a supposed fishing village. Even at the time of the first century, the Sea of Galilee did not reach that far.

Another factor which led experts to doubt that it was the possible location of Bethsaida, is that it is situated 20 feet (or 7 meters) above the estimated water level of the time. In addition, there was a serious lack of significant archaeological evidence such as artifacts and very little evidence of dwellings or other structures indicating a thriving city at the time of the Roman Empire.

In 2014, after copious evidence of Roman habitation turned up in a survey dig, a different site, always been discussed as a possibility for being Bethsaida, was proposed — el-Araj, situated right by the Jordan River estuary northeast of the Sea of Galilee.

In 2016, under the supervision of the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology, the Center for Holy Lands Studies and the NYACK Study Center for Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins, the first season of excavating began at el-Araj. What the scientists found confirmed to them that they had found the ruins of a very significant city, possibly even a polis.

This year excavators dug through layers of history until they reached the Byzantine era which came after the time of the Roman Empire. They found evidence for fifth-century walls and gilded-glass mosaics, which suggest the existence of a significant church there during the later Byzantine period. The archaeologists would like to determine definitively if it is indeed the church written about in the eighth-century account from the Bavarian cleric.

Below the Byzantine level, they discovered pottery from the first to third centuries as well as coins from the second century and even a silver denarius coin of Emperor Nero minted in 65 and 66 A.D.. Also below the Byzantine layer, they discovered a wall with a mosaic floor, as well as remains of a Roman-style bathhouse — all indicative of an urban establishment of a significant size.

A KNI reader from the North, who is familiar with the project, told us:

For years we have felt uncomfortable taking people to the national park that was labeled Bethsaida, at Park HaYarden, as it just did not make logical sense. It was too far from the lake to be a first-century fishing village, and none of the possible explanations were satisfying. If the lake had been higher, in ancient times, then Capernaum, for example (which no reasonable person doubts is actually Capernaum) would have been underwater. There had to be another site vying to be the biblical Bethsaida.

“When my wife started telling me that her professor had a site in his sights, I was intrigued, and practically begged her to take me there. After two years we had the chance when two friends from the U.S. came to volunteer on the dig at the proposed site. We arranged to go on the wrap-up day of the season, and our friends were surprised to see that the archaeologist in charge knew my wife, and in fact was one of her instructors. We were able to tour the dig before it was fenced off for the year to preserve it until the next scheduled dig.

“While much was accomplished this digging season, it is only the beginning. There should be significant discoveries next year as they dig down to first century CE (common era, or A.D.) levels. Thanks to the writings of an eighth-century pilgrim/clergyman, there is an exact target — a basilica he described as marking the location of Peter and Andrews’ home. Josephus also wrote about the village, which became a Roman polis.

“I believe that this dig will prove to be the most significant find in the Galilee since the discovery of the first-century synagogue at Magdala in 2009, and has the potential to far surpass it.”

At the conclusion of this year’s excavation, only a very small area of el-Araj has been uncovered. Excavators hope more to be revealed in future digs and that discoveries confirm the history and identity of the city that has remained hidden for so long. The 2018 dig will run from June 17 to July 12.