On the northeastern slopes of the Sea of Galilee (or Lake Kinneret as Israelis call it) lies the Majrase–Betiha (Bethsaida Valley) Nature Reserve. This beautiful hiker’s wonderland is infused by the Daliyot, Yehudaya, and Meshushim streams flowing down from the Golan and feeding into the Sea of Galilee just south of the Jordan River inlet. This verdant recreational paradise today once was the location of vast agricultural, industrial, and civic settlements dating from the Iron Age well through the Byzantine period.
It is no wonder that the signs designating Tel Beit Tsaida, or Bethsaida, a little more than a mile northeast of the Sea of Galilee’s shoreline, highlight such an attractive site. Known as et-Tell, the mound was first excavated by the Golan Research Institute, between 1987 and 1989. In 1994, et-Tell was declared as the biblical town of Bethsaida by the Israeli Government Naming Committee. From 2008 until 2016, Rami Arav conducted archaeological excavations at the site on behalf of the University of Nebraska of Omaha. Since 2016, Arav has continued excavations there under the auspices of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.
Et-Tell produced a number of finds, and for decades this identification as biblical Bethsaida went largely unchallenged. Sure, there were some who thought Bethsaida might lay elsewhere, but the official state signage deterred any real dissension. Besides, the licensed archaeological dig at et-Tell is called the Bethsaida Excavations Project and is directed by a competent archaeologist.
Case closed, right?
But what if et-Tell is not biblical Bethsaida? What if the hometown of the apostles Peter, Andrew, and Philip (John 1:44) lay elsewhere? What if this ancient fishing village was actually on the shore of the Sea of Galilee?
This was the hunch of many biblical scholars and archaeologists, including Steve Notley of Nyack College in New York. Building on the scholarship of earlier dissenters, Notley hypothesized that biblical Bethsaida lay at a site called el-Araj, right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Notley felt this made more sense for a fishing village than a town more than a mile away from shore. So, in 2014, archaeologists conducted a survey of el-Araj, which produced pottery from the late Hellenistic period (second century B.C.E.). In 2016, Notley and Mordechai Aviam of Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee organized an excavation of el-Araj, which has continued annually.
The excavation at el-Araj has not only produced many objects dating to the New Testament period, but during the most recent (2019) season, it discovered a Byzantine basilica. Notley and Aviam believe this basilica to be the Church of the Apostles, which an early pilgrim source described as being built over the home of the apostles Peter, Andrew, and Philip. Whether or not this pilgrim’s claim is historical, the fact that a Byzantine church was built at el-Araj certainly suggests that Byzantine Christians understood this site to be the traditional site of Bethsaida, and not et-Tell or some other site.
And so, we have ourselves a good old-fashioned archaeological controversy. Where exactly was biblical Bethsaida? This issue of Biblical Archaeology Review explores that very question.
I invited Steve Notley and Rami Arav to write separate articles and make their best cases for why their sites—el-Araj and et-Tell—are the real biblical Bethsaida. The author(s) of each article discusses the literary record—including the relevant biblical texts and the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus—surveys the topography, discusses archaeological finds, and then synthesizes the data to defend his claims. I’ve asked each excavation to provide as many photographs of their evidence as they will allow.
We will leave it up to you, the readers, to decide which site is the real Bethsaida. We welcome your feedback with letters, written or via email, some of which we will publish in print and online in our Queries & Comments section.
Perhaps through this exercise we can finally know precisely what location the author of Mark 6:45 was referring to when he wrote, “Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd.”—Bob Cargill, Editor