The Mystery of Bethsaida

By Elizabeth McNamer
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Department of Philosophy and Religion
Rocky Mountain College
Billings, Montana
July 2010

Bethsaida (“house of the fishermen”) is mentioned frequently in the Gospels. Here Jesus cured the blind man in Mark’s gospel. According to Luke, it was the place of the feeding of the five thousand. The synoptic writers attest that he performed “mighty works.” It was the home of Peter, Andrew, and Philip, according to John. It probably also was home to James and John who were partners in the fishing business with Peter and Andrew. It was situated by the Jordan River on the Sea of Galilee.

At the time of Jesus, Bethsaida was under the rule of Philip Herod (son of Herod the Great) who was Tetrarch of Gaulanitis. In 67 CE, Josephus tells that it was destroyed along with many of the other towns in Galilee in the war with the Romans. Later an earthquake disrupted the topography and changed the course of the Jordan River and the length of the Sea of Galilee. Pliny the Elder, an amateur geographer, says the sea was fourteen miles long. After the quake it was eleven. Bethsaida was now one and a half miles removed, so the sea was no longer accessible for fishing. The city faded into oblivion. Other towns associated with Jesus were rebuilt and continued in existence. Many attempts were made to locate Bethsaida over the centuries. Medieval pilgrims attempted to find it, but none succeeded. Edward Robinson, an enterprising biblical archaeologist in the 19th century, suggested the present site as the possible original Bethsaida. Only in 1967 was it identified by Benedictine monk, Father Bargil Pixner, and in 1988, Rami Arav began excavations.

We now know that Robinson was right. The numerous fishing implements, (over one hundred) lead weights, hooks, bronze and iron needles, basalt weights, and anchors found leave no doubt that fishing was a major occupation of the people of this town. A clay seal, which was probably used to stamp jar handles, depict two fishermen in a small boat. The pottery shards date to the Roman period. Fishing was the largest industry in Galilee, and Bethsaida was exporting its fish to far away places, including Rome, according to Cato the Elder. It may also have supported a linen industry as indicated by the preponderance of flax spores and loom weights. The presence of numerous limestone vessels tell that its population was predominately Jewish, although there also was a Greek influence.

Philip Herod, like all the royal children, had received his education in Rome in the palace of Augustus between the age of eight to eighteen. He would certainly have come in contact with Livia Julia (wife of Augustus and close friend of his aunt) as he attended classes in Latin with Drusus, Germanicus, and Claudius, the grandchildren of the Emperor. The glories of Rome were being touted by its writers and poets. The whole literature of the period was inspired with a growing spirit of patriotism and of Rome as the eternal city and ruler of the world. Here, the future leader was imbued with Roman ideology before he assumed the position of Tetrarch in 4 BCE.

At Bethsaida in the 1996 season of excavation was uncovered a Roman temple. Along side it there were incense shovels, the statue of a woman (Livia Julia), and coins depicting Philip and Livia. The temple is dated to the year 30 CE. ( Livia had died the previous year). That same year, we learn from Josephus, Philip raised Bethsaida to the status of “polis,” a city, and renamed it Julia. By doing so he was promoting the observance of the Imperial cult and the embracing of all things Roman in this Jewish community. (He had already established Caesarea Philippi as a city dominated by the Imperial cult). It was a political act intended to curry favor with the Emperor.

The year 30 CE was also the year of the death of Jesus. His followers returned to their hometowns to continue their trades. Here was the cradle of Christianity. The Book of the Bee tells that James, brother of John was “spreading the gospel” in Bethsaida. Were these Jewish followers of Jesus outraged at the idea of their hometown now being dedicated to a Roman goddess when their master had so recently been executed by the Roman authorities!

In the corner of the courtyard of one of the fishing houses was found a shard on which someone had engraved a cross. Perhaps it was to counter the desecration of the city by the Roman temple or was a Bethsaida fisherman prophesying which would win out.

Archaeology asks more questions than it answers. It is one of the mysteries of Bethsaida.

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