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Biblical Archaeology Review 46:2, Spring 2020

Searching for Bethsaida: The Case for Et-Tell

By Rami Arav

About 25 years ago, the Government Naming Committee for State of Israel renamed a large mound on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, which in the past had been known by the name et-Tell, as Bethsaida. The following is why they did so.

In 333 B.C.E., after a long siege, and after connecting the island to the mainland in an impressive rampart, Alexander the Great managed to conquer the Phoenician city of Tyre. Ironically, after Alexander’s conquest, the city began to thrive more than ever before. This is because, despite the Phoenicians’ earlier maritime successes, Tyre and all the Phoenician littoral cities were now incorporated into the culture and economy of Alexander’s great Hellenistic world (Greek: oikumene, meaning “the inhabited or civilized world”).

The prosperity of the oikumene, perhaps the first period of true globalization, stimulated the purple-dyeing garment industry of the Phoenician coastal cities. The process of dyeing these garments was costly, making them extremely expensive and thus creating a symbol for upper-class society. Because of the competition for these Phoenician textiles, the purple garment industry became an even more lucrative business. To supply the increasing demand, the Phoenicians established flax-growing colonies in Galilee and along the Mediterranean coast. Settlement remains at et-Tell indicate that it was among the new Phoenician colonies established on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

The question that has puzzled scholars, historical geographers, and archaeologists for centuries is where, precisely, is Bethsaida? The main reason for the confusion has been the different historical testimonies offered regarding its location. Two prominent but contradictory testimonies were those of the Jewish Roman historian Flavius Josephus and that of the Gospel of John. On the one hand, Josephus places Bethsaida in the Lower Golan—on the eastern side of the Jordan Rift Valley—near the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee (Wars 2.168; Antiquities 18.28). On the other hand, the Gospel of John places Bethsaida simply in the Galilee, presumably on the western side of the Jordan Rift Valley (John 12:21).

Josephus reports that later, in the first century C.E., Herod’s son Philip transformed Bethsaida into a Greek city (polis), increased the population, reinforced the city, and renamed it Julias. The question is: Which site did Philip expand and develop?

At the turn of the 19th century, German traveler Ulrich Jasper Seetzen suggested that we identify Bethsaida with a large mound on the eastern bank of the Jordan River in the Lower Golan, called et-Tell. The prominent American scholar Edward Robinson accepted his identification, as did nearly every researcher who followed him.

Still, to solve the problem of the location of Bethsaida, scholars in the 19th century suggested there might be two Bethsaidas: They identified the one mentioned by Josephus with et-Tell and suggested a second Bethsaida existed at some still unidentified location in the Galilee. For the second Bethsaida, Robinson suggested the site of Tabgha, which turned out to be a Byzantine site. The French scholar Victor Guèrin suggested Khirbet el-Minia, which was later determined to be an Umayyad palace (eighth century C.E.). Contrary to the testimony of Josephus, the German explorer Gottlieb Schumacher suggested that Bethsaida was separate from Julias, proposing that Bethsaida is on the large mound known as et-Tell, while Julias is perhaps at el-Araj on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Mordechai Aviam and Steven Notley currently conduct an archaeological excavation at el-Araj.a At a level of 692 feet below sea level—and perhaps more significantly 10 feet below the next upper (Byzantine) level—they discovered the remains of a settlement, which they date from the middle of the first century C.E. They identify it with the city of Bethsaida-Julias.

This deep level of the lake did not surprise some geologists.1 Several years ago, they discovered that due to a severe draught and climate change in the mid-first century C.E., the level of the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea dropped to unprecedented levels. It took a century and a half to restore the level of the lakes to the level prior to the climate change. This meant that it was possible for there to have been a city on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in the middle of the first century C.E. beneath the higher surface of the lake two centuries later.

Interestingly, Josephus helps us understand the settlement pattern of this area. In his autobiographical book, Life (390–406), he discusses skirmishes between the mercenaries of King Agrippa II headed by a Roman named Sulla in the plain of Bethsaida. Sulla pitched a fortified camp in the marshes about a mile from Bethsaida-Julias. Josephus’s comrade, Jeremiah, pitched a camp east of Bethsaida-Julias, and Josephus’s forces were hidden from Sulla in a ravine on the slopes of the Jordan River. However, during a maneuver the next day, Josephus stated that his horse collapsed in the marshes while attacking Sulla. He was evacuated, and the battle was over.

The next day, Sulla attempted to attack Josephus’s forces, but was forced to withdraw to his fortified camp because “they heard that some armed men were sailed from Taricheae to Julias,” and “they were afraid and retired to their camp” (Life 406). This narrative reinforces the assumption that the camp was between the seashore and the city. If the camp had been elsewhere, why would they have been forced to retreat? Furthermore, sailing to a place does not necessarily mean that the place is situated precisely on the shore. In the past, people sailed to Hippos (Life 153), which is quite a climb from the seashore. People sailed to Athens but actually landed in Piraeus. Josephus records many people as sailing to Rome (Life 422; Antiquities 16.90, 322; 17.224; 18.241; War 1.625; 2.103), but they actually landed in Ostia, as Rome is not situated on the shore. Thus, Josephus stating that men sailed from Taricheae to Julias does not mean that Julias-Bethsaida was situated on the shore.

Matching this description with the archaeological sites in this area led me to conclude that the camp of Sulla is the one recently found at el-Araj. This marks the first military camp of any of the Herodians to be found. However, this does not make el-Araj the ancient city of Bethsaida. That designation belongs to et-Tell, as the archaeological remains better fit the historical description of Bethsaida-Julias than do those of el-Araj.

Archaeological excavations at et-Tell reveal a continuity of importance over the centuries. First, we uncovered large courtyard houses on top of a ruined Iron Age city. Pollen research revealed that flax and linen were the major industry of the colonists living there. Thus, the site thrived as the colonists received, in return for their garments, silver coins, glass vessels, gold and silver jewelry, wine amphorae from the island of Rhodes, oil lamps from Egypt, and high-quality ceramic vases, including Megarian bowls from the Anatolian coast. One rare example shows two females seated on a bench, most likely inspired by the statues of Aphrodite and Dione from the Parthenon in Athens. Another rare black-figure style potsherd presents the famous game called kottabos that was popular in Greek symposia drinking parties. In this game, the participants, reclining on their couches, competed by throwing wine at a plate situated on a pole and causing it to fall and break. In addition to Greek pottery, we also uncovered potsherds imported from as far as Apulia in southern Italy.

This thriving colony came to an end with the conquest by the Hasmonean dynasty c. 100 B.C.E. Most of the Phoenician inhabitants deserted the city, and semi-nomadic tribesmen, the Ithureans, filled in the vacancy. During the next decades, the area became home to pirates who raided caravans loaded with frankincense and myrrh traveling on the international trade routes.

During the third decade of the first century B.C.E., and following the power change in the region, the Romans, who had controlled Syria since 90 B.C.E., asked King Herod to deal with the pirates. Herod addressed this problem by encouraging Jewish residents of Judea to settle the Galilee and the Golan. Archaeological surveys have shown that about 250 new settlements were built almost everywhere in these northern regions. These new settlements began small, but grew larger over time. Thus, Bethsaida was rebuilt, and Capernaum, Nazareth, Chorazin, and many other nearby places were either rebuilt or founded soon after.

These Jewish settlers made some significant changes to the settlement pattern of the region. High-quality pottery and luxury goods—ubiquitous in the earlier Phoenician cities—ceased almost completely. Instead, Jews traded with other Jewish villages and towns in Galilee, such as Kfar Hanania and Shikhin. Chopped beak oil lamps, commonly dubbed “Herodian Oil Lamps,” made in Jerusalem comprised 93 percent of the first-century C.E. oil lamps discovered at Bethsaida/et-Tell. This type of oil lamp was not produced during the time of Herod the Great, but of his successors. It ceased to be produced in the area of Jerusalem around 70 C.E. (with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple), but it continued to be manufactured in Galilee for a few decades after that. However, the type does not necessarily indicate the time of Jesus; it might be a generation or two after that.

Some of the Jewish settlers lived on the mound’s summit in vacant Phoenician homes. Some new houses were built abutting the old Iron Age city wall of which large segments are still visible.

The main occupation of the new settlers was agriculture and fishing. Our excavation revealed a large number of fishing implements, such as lead net weights, fishing hooks, line sinkers, and anchors. Since trade with the Phoenician coast ceased, the flow of Phoenician coins nearly ceased, with Hasmonean and Herodian coins taking their place. One of the rare coins found at et-Tell was a Cleopatra bronze coin, which bears on the reverse a bust of Cleopatra and on the obverse the bust of her husband, Mark Anthony. The coin was minted in the city of Akko in the year 34/5 B.C.E. on occasion of the royal visit to the city.

Sixty years later, in 29 C.E., Livia/Julia, the widow of the emperor Augustus and the mother of the incumbent emperor, Tiberius, died. Similar to his father, Herod, and other rulers in the eastern empire, Philip took part in the imperial cult. A few months after Livia’s demise, he granted to Bethsaida the status of a Greek city (polis), added population, reinforced the fortification, and renamed it Julias in her honor.

We also discovered segments of the city walls built by Philip on top of the Iron Age city walls and on the ruined Iron Age city gate. The walls were 5 feet wide and preserved to a few courses. Buttresses, protruding on both sides of the walls, had been added to reinforce the walls.

The excavation of Bethsaida/et-Tell revealed that renaming a city to honor the imperial cult did not involve mere words but was accompanied by building of a temple dedicated to the Roman imperial cult. The old and deserted Phoenician temple on the summit of the mound, which had been dedicated to Astarte, was remodeled and converted to a Roman temple. The northern entrance to the temple was blocked and an opening with two antae (posts or pillars on either side of the doorway that terminate the walls of the temple) were built at the east of the temple. One column was placed in the antae.

Philip minted coins to commemorate the event, five of which have been found at et-Tell. This is the largest number of coins of this mint ever found anywhere, and it may well be that this issue was minted at Bethsaida and not Caesarea Philippi (modern Banias) as previously assumed. Two denominations of these series of coins portray a temple on their reverse. The legend accompanying the temple in the largest denomination says, “Philip the Tetrarch, the Founder.” A smaller denomination of this series bears the name of the city he founded, Julias. Since most coins of this mint were discovered at Bethsaida/et-Tell, it is reasonable to assume that the coins were minted in the newly-founded Julias and that the temple on the coin is a schematic rendering of the temple he had built, or planned to build.

Although Philip’s temple (66 by 15 ft) was not as large as the temples built by his father, Herod, in Caesarea Maritima and Samaria for the imperial cult, the temple was still lavishly decorated with reliefs, a few of which we have uncovered. The lintel over the eastern entrance was ornate with meander and rosettes, similar to the decorations Herod had built on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. A fragment of grapes and a few other decorations were strikingly similar to the decorative stones in the Byzantine (fourth–seventh-centuries C.E.) synagogue of Chorazin. It is plausible that when Philip’s temple went out of use, the ornamented stones were taken to construct the Chorazin synagogue. Reliefs there show scenes from Greco-Roman mythology and characteristic to the Roman imperial cult, such as the abduction of Ganymede by Zeus in the form of an eagle. Among the other architectural decorative elements at Chorazin is a three-dimensional eagle on the gable of the pediment. These fragments were perhaps looted and deliberately mutilated to fit the synagogue.2

Despite the upgrades and a temple to the imperial cult, Bethsaida-Julias never thrived as a Greco-Roman city. Four years after its upgrading, Philip died. With his death, his initiative died as well. The fact that Bethsaida-Julias never prospered is indicated by its lack of power to mint coins. Out of 30 cities granted the rights to mint coins, two never did. One is Anthedon near Ashdod, and the other is Bethsaida-Julias (except, perhaps, for the coins minted to commemorate the foundation of the city). Minting coins indicates a high economic capability for a city and its ruler, and the fact that Bethsaida-Julias never minted coins indicates a fledgling economy that could not support the minting of currency.

The inhabitants of et-Tell did not take part in the First Jewish Revolt (66–73 C.E.). Instead of revolt coins, we discovered coins of King Agrippa II, the last Herodian king, from the year 84/5 C.E. Nor did they take part in the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (132–135 C.E.), as we found no rebel Bar-Kokhba coins, but instead coins of Trajan and Hadrian, as well as—to our surprise—a rare gold coin of Antoninus Pius from 138 C.E. Interestingly enough, from the vast Roman Empire that stretched from Scotland to Mesopotamia, only three coins from this mint have ever been discovered, and none, except for our coin, was found in an archaeological dig.

In the fourth century C.E., an earthquake of high magnitude shook the Sea of Galilee area and caused the steep slopes of the Jordan banks to slide into the river and block it. The temporary earthen dam created a small lake behind it that rose about 200 feet. Sometime later, when the water filled the dam to the brim, it broke, and enormous amounts of water and silt flashed the plain and filled the lagoons that were there. Only two small lagoons at the eastern end of the plain are still preserved. When the water subsided, the inhabitants of et-Tell realized that the lagoons in the plain had disappeared and that the seashore had withdrawn about a mile from them. They deserted their city and built a new settlement closer to the new shoreline, which may have been at el-Araj or Masudiyeh about a mile to the east. This marked the end of et-Tell.

It is for these reasons that we believe that et-Tell is the best candidate for the ancient city of Bethsaida. The archaeological evidence we have uncovered best matches the literary description of the site: a Jewish village transformed into a Greek city. Et-Tell is Bethsaida-Julias.