The northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee is a fertile plain where the feeding of the 5,000 likely took place. Israeli maps and excavators currently locate the New Testament city of Bethsaida at an ancient ruin known as “et-Tell.” The excavation team, headed by Rami Arav, is insistent that this site be identified with ancient Bethsaida. Others suggest that Bethsaida may be better located at el-Araj near the lakeshore.
Plain of Bethsaida
There are many problems with the identification of et-Tell with Bethsaida, including:
- Distance from the Sea of Galilee
- Elevation of the site, about 20 feet (7 m) above the level of the lake in ancient times
- Lack of ancient remains from the 1st century A.D., including significant pottery and coins
- Lack of buildings from the New Testament period. After 30 years of digging, excavators have identified only one Roman period house and another building they identify as a Roman temple. This latter identification is dubious.
In short, there is little to commend this site as being the Bethsaida mentioned by Josephus and the Bible. For more of the excavators’ perspective, see the links below. For more evidence against this identification, see Rainey and Notley, The Sacred Bridge, pp. 356–59.
House of the Fisherman
The most impressive remains at this site are the Iron Age gate and two large Hellenistic houses. The House of the Fisherman measures 4,300 sq. feet (400 sq m), and is believed to be a fisherman’s home based on the discovery of two types of lead net weights, a round lead weight of the so-called musket type, and a long, crooked needle. Among the coins discovered in the house were two silver didrachmae of Demetrius II.
House of Winemaker
This house (2,700 sq ft; 250 sq m) included an undisturbed wine cellar with four complete Hellenistic jars. In addition, a gold earring with the picture of an animal was found, as well as numerous examples of expensive imported vessels. A hook and some anchors were found in the house, as were three iron sickles.
Feeding of the 5,000
The feeding of the 5,000 most likely took place on the Plain of Bethsaida. Mark 6:30 says the feeding took place at a “solitary place” and verse 39 says that the people sat down on “the green grass.” After this, however, Jesus made his disciples “go over to Bethsaida.” About 5 square miles (8 sq km) in area, the Plain of Bethsaida is very spacious and is crisscrossed by streams, aqueducts and irrigation canals. There are many flat hills on which it would be possible to seat large numbers of people.
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Bethsaida Excavations Project (The Consortium of the Bethsaida Excavations Project-CBEP) The official site. Offers concise descriptions of the history and location of the site as well as excellent photographs and descriptions of artifacts found during excavation.
The Story of Bethsaida (University of Nebraska, Omaha) Relays the story of the search for, and the discovery of the historical city, highlighting the archaeological importance of the discoveries made there.
Bethsaida (Jewish Virtual Library) Highlights Bethsaida’s history during the biblical period and the Hellenistic/Roman periods.
Pilgrims’ Crossing – Bethsaida (Gems in Israel) Interesting and informative, this article harmonizes the biblical and archaeological facts.
Bethsaida (Into His Own) Brief encyclopedia-type article with internal links to articles on pertinent people and places.
Bethsaida-Julias and Bethsaida of Galilee (Interface International) An article about whether there are two sites known as Bethsaida.
Bethsaida: An Ancient Fishing Village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Israel MFA) Contains sections highlighting the Biblical Period and the Hellenistic/Roman Periods in the history of the site.
Has Bethsaida Finally Been Found? (JerusalemPerspective) Excellent and lengthy article by Mendel Nun detailing the history of the debate concerning Bethsaida’s location. Requires membership. See also Nun’s article, The Desert of Bethsaida.
The Lost Home of Jesus’ Apostles Has Just Been Found, Archaeologists Say (Haaretz) Recent report of excavations at el-Araj, including the discovery of a Roman bathhouse.