Has Bethsaida-Julias Been Found?

While our efforts at el-Araj are young, we have been struck by how closely the archaeological finds at el-Araj follow the contours of history recorded by those who walked the streets of Bethsaida-Julias in the Roman and Byzantine periods. No one on our team has suggested that the matter is settled with finality, but we are of the opinion that in light of this season’s discoveries, el-Araj must now be considered the leading candidate for the location of Bethsaida-Julias.

See Also: Bethsaida Controversy

By Mordechai Aviam
Senior Lecturer
Institute for Galilean Archaeology
Kinneret College, Israel

R. Steven Notley
Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins
Nyack College
New York City, New York
October 2017

Click here for article.

Comments (3)

The excavation of el-Araj is very important and, so far as the evidence goes as yet, the case you make for identifying the settlement there as Bethsaida is persuasive.

I wonder about just one point: whether the fact that Eusebius seems to know nothing about the site that he didn’t get from John’s Gospel and Josephus must mean that there was no longer any local knowledge of the location of Bethsaida. We do not know that he visited the area. If he got his information from someone else, he may just not have received any information about Bethsaida that was worth recording. He says in his Commentary on Isaiah: “Capernaum and Bethsaida and Chorazin and the rest of the villages, which the evangelical writing refers to as around the Lake of Tiberias, are still now pointed out.” Admittedly this is vague, but it suggests to me that there was already a pilgrim trail and local people pointed out the various Gospel sites. After all, there was a Christian community continuously through this period and one would expect them to have retained a knowledge of the location of Bethsaida.

#1 - Richard Bauckham - 10/07/2017 - 20:10

Richard, thank you for your comments. The silence regarding Bethsaida in the Onomasticon has interested me for years. When I was working with Ze’ev Safrai on our edition (2005), we had two different opinions about his silence on Bethsaida. Ze’ev felt it was because Eusebius does not seem to have been as familiar with the interior of the country. Of course, this is a reasonable explanation and is the one that appears in our volume. On the other hand, I was of the opinion (which I stated in my NEA article) that his silence is an indication that Bethsaida no longer existed in his day (at the end of the 3rd century CE). Note for comparison, his entry regarding Chorazin (174:23): “A village in the Galilee. Christ cursed it according to the Gospel. Now it is a deserted place two miles from Capernaum.” So, even a known village that no longer had a population gets a description. For Bethsaida, he doesn’t even give us that. Yes, it could all be a coincidence that all of his information and wording come from John’s Gospel and Josephus, but I don’t think so. I think he is doing what he does on other occasions and simply presents a descriptive entry drawn from known literary sources. What is even more remarkable, during our excavations we came upon a layer of alluvial soil about 40 cm (between the Byzantine and Roman levels) with no archaeological remains whatsoever. Above it were Byzantine coins and pottery; below it were only Roman pottery and coins. Motti found the gap of about 100-200 years beginning in the late Roman period intriguing. I mentioned to him that this gap in material finds corresponds precisely to the silence in Eusebius and the additional fact that the rabbis don’t seem to know Bethsaida after the 3rd century CE. Why the sudden silence and absence of archaeological finds? We had to wait for the geologists to test the soil. We told them nothing about our findings or our questions. We wanted to see their analysis of the data without any other considerations. They discovered that the 40 cm layer is the results of flooding from the Jordan River. As best we can tell, it seems that the site suffered flooding and was abandoned for a century or two. When it was resettled, it seems to have been primarily a Christian Byzantine site. To my mind this is one of the uncanny characteristics of our work at el-Araj. When the historical sources say that there should be something at Bethsaida-Julias, there is at el-Araj. When the historical sources go silent with the possibility that this is an indication Bethsaida-Julias was abandoned, we lack any material remains. So, to answer your original query, it is always possible that the reason Euesebius’ entry about Bethsaida is devoid of real details is simply that, “he may just not have received any information about Bethsaida that was worth recording.” But the lack of material finds for settlement at el-Araj beginning from some time prior to Eusebius for the next century or so, in my opinion tips the scale in the direction that for a while the site was abandoned. As you point out, the place of Bethsaida may have been abandoned but this does not mean it was completely forgotten. Indeed, we find the Byzantine Christians building on the same location as Roman Bethsaida-Julias.

#2 - R. Steven Notley - 10/07/2017 - 23:27

Thanks, Steven. I wasn't meaning to suggest that there was actually a settlement there in Eusebius's time. But the absence of a settlement need not mean that local people forgot where Bethsaida had been located. If Eusebius himself had been there, one might expect him to say something like he says of Chorazin, especially since Jesus cursed Bethsaida as well as Chorazin. But if he had not been there he could have just had no information. I find it hard to believe that when the Gospels were read in Capernaum in that period, people would say to each other: "There used to be place called Bethsaida but we don't know where it was." Then, when Christians did resettle the site, they weren't just guessing that it was the site of Bethsaida. And presumably there would still have been some visible remains that a memory of the place's identity would have been attached to?

#3 - Richard Bauckham - 10/08/2017 - 14:45

Bethsaida-Julias (2).pdf157.48 KB

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