The biblical city where the Gospels tell of Jesus performing some of his most famous miracles is now a source of debate among archaeologists.
The New Testament mentions the town, called Bethsaida, as the location where Jesus, who is thought to have been born around 4 B.C., restored the sight of a blind man and that it existed near the Sea of Galilee, where the Gospels famously tell of Jesus walking on water.
Today, two archaeological sites, located about 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) apart — et-Tell and el-Araj — are considered the leading candidates for Bethsaida, but archaeologists don't agree on which site is the biblical city.
Since 1987, a team led by Rami Arav, a professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha, has been excavating at et-Tell, a site that his team is convinced is Bethsaida.
For decades, they have been gradually unearthing a city that dates back over 3,000 years and was inhabited for millennia. The case for et-Tell being Bethsaida seemed so compelling that the government of Israel recognized the site as Bethsaida around 1995. The site's location and size were both factors in the decision.
However, as more finds from the other contending site, el-Araj, have been uncovered in recent years, the government has loosened its support, instead declaring the general area comprising both et-Tell and el-Araj the Bethsaida Valley Nature Reserve.
Some archaeologists have expressed concerns that et-Tell doesn't appear to have been particularly large at the time Jesus lived; that's a problem, as ancient accounts suggest that Bethsaida was sizable.
Jodi Magness, a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill who is not affiliated with excavations at either site, noted that the Iron Age (1200 B.C. to 550 B.C.) remains at et-Tell are "very substantial," indicating that it was a sizable city at that time; but importantly, the remains from the early Roman period, when Jesus lived, are "relatively scanty," suggesting that it had become a relatively small settlement, Magness added. However, she cautioned that no conclusions should be made until the remains from both sites have been fully described.
Arav disagrees, saying the Roman finds at et-Tell are considerable and include a Roman temple, which he thinks was built after Bethsaida was upgraded to a city and had its name changed to Julias in honor of Julia (also called Livia), the wife of Roman emperor Augustus.
"We have discovered figurines demonstrating that the temple was dedicated to Julia/Livia, the wife of Augustus," Arav told Live Science in an email. A city wall that was built by Philip, son of King Herod, was also found surrounding et-Tell, he noted. The fact that Philip went to the trouble of building a wall around the site suggests that it was sizable and significant at the time that Jesus lived.
Settlement at el-Araj dates to at least the first century A.D. in ancient Israel, Mordechai Aviam, director of the Institute for Galilean Archaeology at Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee, told Live Science in an email. He co-directs excavations at el-Araj along with Steven Notley, a professor of biblical studies at Nyack College in New York.
One of the most impressive finds at el-Araj is a large church with mosaic floors that dates back about 1,500 years. Researchers believe a text written by a Bavarian bishop named Willibald in A.D. 724 references the church. Willibald describes a pilgrimage to the church, saying "and thence they went to Bethsaida, the residence of Peter and Andrew [apostles of Jesus], where there is now a church on the site of their house." Archaeologists at el-Araj have also found the remains of a Roman bathhouse that dates back to earlier times.
One problem with the identification of el-Araj as Bethsaida is that geological studies of the area indicate that much of el-Araj would have been underwater during the first century A.D., when Jesus lived, according to John Shroder, an emeritus professor of geography and geology at the University of Omaha. At that time, "el-Araj would not be a large enough or stable enough site at the water's edge to accommodate more than a few structures," Shroder wrote in a paper published in "A Festschrift in Honor of Rami Arav: 'And They Came to Bethsaida'" (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019).
Scholars with the el-Araj team dispute these findings and claim that enough of the site would have been above water for a substantial settlement to have flourished in Jesus' time.
In a 2020 article published in the magazine Biblical Archaeology Review, Arav suggested that part of el-Araj might have been used as a temporary military camp during the first century A.D. He noted that the ancient writer Josephus referred to a camp being built in the area by a Roman force during a Jewish revolt against the Romans between A.D. 66 and 73.
Robert Cargill, an archaeologist and professor of Judaism and Christianity at the University of Iowa, said he is confident that el-Araj is Bethsaida. "The case for el-Araj isn't just convincing; it's overwhelming and becoming more compelling with each excavation season," Cargill told Live Science in an email. Jonathan Reed, a professor of religion at the University of La Verne in California, agreed, saying el-Araj is "very likely" Bethsaida.
Could both sites be Bethsaida?
Scholars not affiliated with either excavation had a variety of viewpoints on which site is the real Bethsaida. One possibility is that both sites are the biblical city, said David Graves, who holds a doctorate in archaeology from the University of Aberdeen in the U.K. and specializes in biblical archaeology. "I believe that et-Tell is Bethsaida and that [Bethsaida's] harbor was located at el-Araj," Graves, an independent researcher, told Live Science in an email.
Aviam said the el-Araj researchers don't think both sites could be Bethsaida, because historical records say that Bethsaida was upgraded to a city during the first century A.D., and they think that el-Araj was a more sizable site than et-Tell at this time.
Arav agreed that both sites can't be Bethsaida, but he said that after et-Tell was devastated by an earthquake during the fourth century A.D., people could have moved to the area encompassing el-Araj and retained the named Bethsaida.
Other scholars said they want to wait until more excavations are done and more information is published before taking a position. "It's difficult on the present state of knowledge and at this distance to plant one's feet down with anything approaching absolute confidence," said Robert Gordon, emeritus professor of Hebrew at Cambridge University.
Excavations at both sites are ongoing.
Originally published on Live Science.
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Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.