Like Bethlehem, Bethsaida was a town with a long history before the light of Jesus shone in its streets. Unlike Bethlehem, it is an uninhabited ruin today. In fact, it took until 1987 to locate the town with confidence, so completely had it disappeared from history. It is not even mentioned in the visits of early Western pilgrims to the Holy Land in the fourth century despite being the third most mentioned town in the gospels after Jerusalem and Capernaum.
What archaeologists have discovered is fascinating and brings light to both the New and Old Testaments. I got the chance to visit the site during the British Commonwealth Staff Tour of Israel in September 1999, and so was very interested in the article on the town that came out recently in Biblical Archaeology Review. This article will be of most benefit if read alongside a map of Galilee.
Bethsaida first comes to our notice in the pages of the New Testament. Luke tells us that Bethsaida was the setting for the feeding of the 5,000. Mark tells us it was where Jesus performed the partial healing of a blind man and also the destination of the disciples in the boat when Jesus caught up with them, walking on the water. And who can forget Jesus' curse on the three cities that formed the evangelical triangle of his Galilean ministry? 'Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths.' The judgment on the inhabitants of these towns will be completed on judgment day, but is it not remarkable that while many of the towns of the New Testament are still thriving towns today (e.g Bethlehem or Nazareth), all three towns Jesus cursed are ruins? Surely none of Jesus' promises or curses are to be taken lightly.
John's gospel adds that Bethsaida was the home town of several apostles, namely Philip, Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. I enjoyed walking over the ruins of the town mainly for this reason. While the town they knew had gone, the views I could see'the hills, the Sea , the flora and fauna ' all were the same as would have been seen by the pre-school apostles as they ran around playing their young boys' games and as they returned from their first teenage fishing trips with Dad. What had the city done to deserve the distinction of being hometown to such spiritual heroes? Nothing. Had it not been for Jesus' interaction in these boys lives, the name of Bethsaida would have perished in the dust of history with its stones. In a similar way today, people from many nations only know of names like Duke, Gainesville and Lexington because of what Jesus has done in those places by his Spirit in the 20th century.
But what of Bethsaida's history? In short, Bethsaida was not always a poor fishing town like Capernaum. Of the three towns of the evangelical triangle, Bethsaida had the greatest political and historical status.
In OT times Bethsaida was at the heart of the kingdom of Geshur and it may even have been the capital. The Geshurites were never conquered by Joshua and it may therefore have been for political reasons that David married the Geshurite princess Maachah . The rebel Absalom was her son, and this explains why he fled to Geshur (maybe even Bethsaida?) after the revenge killing of his brother Amnon. He would have been safe among his mother's family there.
Although strong, the city of Bethsaida lived in fear of attack from Assyria. Its huge 25 ft thick walls (the largest and best preserved of the region) were designed to counter the most dreaded military weapon of the Iron Age'the Assyrian battering ram. It was in vain. Tiglath-Pileser III eventually took the city around the 730s BC.
Excavations of the city gate, dating from the 900s BC, revealed several interesting finds. Each of its two towers contained two chambers. One contained a ton of burnt barley and another a thick layer of ash and an abundance of Assyrian arrowheads, evidence of an archery attack by the Assyrians followed by burning of the city. After its fall, the city remained occupied but it never regained its previous stature. In its heyday a palace stood within the walls. A pot-handle found in the palace bears the inscription Machy, short for Michyahu , which means 'Who is like Yahweh?' Another handle was stamped with the word Zechario, meaning 'Remembered of Yahweh'. The same stamp has been found at Dan, a city 50 miles to the North. Together, they give evidence of the extent of David and Solomon's kingdom and firmly rebut notions of a pygmy kingdom glorified by exaggerated accounts in later post-exilic Hebrew literature.
The Old Testament city would have had two levels: the higher fortified citadel with gateway built on a rocky outcrop which archaeologists are able to uncover today, and a lower collection of homes where the poorer people would have lived. These dwellings would not have used dressed stone, so generally are not found by archaeologists. O.T. Bethsaida had a ravine to the East side and water on the South and Western sides, although these may have been inlets rather than the Sea proper. Even though today the Sea is 1'miles away (one reason it took so long to identify the town), lake clays containing crustacean microorganisms (water creatures like shellfish) have been found right up to the edge of the mound, confirming its waterside setting. Gravel and boulders lie on top of the lake clays, suggesting silting and an earthquake blocked inlets and cut the town off from the main Sea as it is to this day.
Excavators made several finds from the intertestamental period, confirming this was indeed a fishing town. The Wine-Maker's house contained four large wine jars and some pruning hooks. Another house, known as the Fisherman's house yielded anchors, fishhooks , needles and lead net weights as well as a seal showing two figures flinging a net from a boat into the lake. How exciting to get so close to the lifestyle of the early disciples in their home town!
After the disciples had left to become fishers of men, Josephus records the city enjoying a brief period of special patronage by Philip, son of Herod the Great and ruler of the north-eastern province of Iturea and Traconitis. He gave the town city status, renaming it Julias in honour of Julia-Livia, wife of Emperor Augustus and mother of the then emperor Tiberius. A Roman temple found on the site may also have been erected at the same time.
Finds like this serve to strengthen our faith, add colour to our study of the Bible and increase appreciation of the world of the apostles. I hope that a report like this will help us bring the faith of the men of Bethsaida to our own districts. We don't need to go there to get inspired ' the Spirit that inspired Peter, Philip and Andrew is no longer there in those deserted ruins. Instead, he is active in the modern Bethsaidas of our own countries. You name them!
James Greig, Oxford, 10th April 2000