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A city east of the Jordan River, in a “desert place” (that is, uncultivated ground used for grazing) possibly the site at which Jesus miraculously fed the multitude with five loaves and two fish (Mark 6:32; Luke 9:10). It may be possible to identify this site with the village of Bethsaida in Lower Gaulanitis which the tetrarch Herod Philip I raised to the rank of a polis in the year 30/31, and renamed it Julias, in honor of Livia, the wife of Augustus. It lay near the place where the Jordan enters the Sea of Gennesaret (Ant., XVIII, ii, 1; BJ, II, ix, 1; III, x, 7; Vita, 72). This city was most likely located at et-Tell, a ruined site on the east side of the Jordan on rising ground, 2 km from the sea. This distance poses a problem however. Why would a fishing village be so far from the water? During Biblical times the water level of the Sea of Galilee was higher and came up to the base of et-Tell. A combination of three hypothesises can explain this:-
- Tectonic rifting has uplifted et-Tell ( the site is located on the Great African-Syrian Rift fault)
- the water level has dropped from increased population usage, land irrigation, and
- the Jordan delta has been extended by sedimentation.
Dissenters suggest two other sites as possible locations for Bethsaida: el-Araj and El-Mesydiah. Both of these sites are located on the present shoreline, however, preliminary excavations have revealed only a small number of ruins not dating from before the Byzantine Period. Schumacher is however inclined to favor el-Mes‛adīyeh (a ruin and winter village of Arab et-Tellawīyeh) which stands on an artificial mound about a mile and a half from the mouth of the Jordan. However, the name is in origin radically different from Bethsaida. The substitution of sin for cad is easy; but the insertion of the guttural ‛ain is impossible. No trace of the name Bethsaida has been found in the district; but any one of the sites named would meet the requirements. To this neighborhood Jesus retired by boat  with His disciples to rest a while. The multitude following on foot along the northern shore of the lake would cross the Jordan by the ford at its mouth which is used by foot travelers to this day. The “desert” of the narrative is just the barrīyeh of the Arabs where the animals are driven out for pasture. The “green grass” of Mark 6:39, and the “much grass” of John 6:10, point to some place in the plain of el-Baṭeiḥah, on the rich soil of which the grass is green and plentiful compared with the scanty herbage on the higher slopes.
Bethsaida of Galilee
Here dwelt Philip, Andrew, Peter (John 1:44; John 12:21), and perhaps also James and John. The house of Andrew and Peter seems to have been not far from the synagogue in Capernaum (Matthew 8:14; Mark 1:29, etc.). Unless they had moved their residence from Bethsaida to Capernaum, of which there is no record, and which for fishermen was unlikely, Bethsaida must have lain close to Capernaum. It may have been the fishing town adjoining the larger city. As in the case of the other Bethsaida, no name has been recovered to guide us to the site. On the rocky promontory, however, east of Khān Minyeh we find Sheikh ‛Aly eṣ-Ṣaiyādīn, “Sheikh Aly of the Fishermen,” as the name of a ruined weley, in which the second element in the name Bethsaida is represented (see also Al Minya). Nearby is the site at ‛Ain et-Ṭābigha, which many have identified with Bethsaida of Galilee. The warm water from copious springs runs into a little bay of the sea in which fishes congregate in great numbers. This has therefore always been a favorite haunt of fishermen. If Capernaum were at Khān Minyeh, then the two lay close together. The names of many ancient places have been lost, and others have strayed from their original localities. The absence of any name resembling Bethsaida need not concern us. Bethsaida was the birth place of Saint Peter.
Were there two Bethsaidas?
Many scholars maintain that all the New Testament references to Bethsaida apply to one place, namely, Bethsaida Julias. The arguments for and against this view may be summarized as follows:
- Galilee ran right round the lake, including most of the level coastland on the east. Thus Gamala, on the eastern shore, was within the jurisdiction of Josephus, who commanded in Galilee (BJ, II, xx, 4). Judas of Gamala (Ant., XVIII, i, l) is also called Judas of Galilee (ibid., i, 6). If Gamala, far down the eastern shore of the sea, were in Galilee, a fortiori Bethsaida, a town which lay on the very edge of the Jordan, may be described as in Galilee.
- But Josephus makes it plain that Gamala, while added to his jurisdiction, was not in Galilee, but in Gaulanitis (BJ, II, xx, 6). Even if Judas were born in Gamala, and so might properly be called a Gaulanite, he may, like others, have come to be known as belonging to the province in which his active life was spent. “Jesus of Nazareth” was born in Bethlehem. Then Josephus explicitly says that Bethsaida was in Lower Gaulanitis (BJ, II, ix, 1). Further, Luke places the country of the Gerasenes on the other side of the sea from Galilee (Luke 8:26) - antípera tḗs Galilaias (“over against Galilee”).
- To go to the other side - eis tó péran (Mark 6:45) - does not of necessity imply passing from the east to the west coast of the lake, since Josephus uses the verb diaperaióō of a passage from Tiberias to Tarichaeae (Vita, 59). But
- this involved a passage from a point on the west to a point on the south shore, “crossing over” two considerable bays; whereas if the boat started from any point in el-Baṭeiḥah, to which we seem to be limited by the “much grass,” and by the definition of the district as belonging to Bethsaida, to sail to et-Tell, it was a matter of coasting not more than a couple of miles, with no bay to cross.
- No case can be cited where the phrase eis to peran certainly means anything else than “to the other side.”
- Mark says that the boat started to go unto the other side to Bethsaida, while John, gives the direction “over the sea unto Capernaum” (Mark 6:17). The two towns were therefore practically in the same line. Now there is no question that Capernaum was on “the other side,” nor is there any suggestion that the boat was driven out of its course; and it is quite obvious that, sailing toward Capernaum, whether at Tell Ḥūm or at Khān Minyeh, it would never reach Bethsaida Julius.
- The present writer is familiar with these waters in both storm and calm. If the boat was taken from any point in el-Baṭeiḥah towards et-Tell, no east wind would have distressed the rowers, protected as that part is by the mountains. Therefore it was no contrary wind that carried them toward Capernaum and the “land of Gennesaret.” On the other hand, with a wind from the west, such as is often experienced, eight or nine hours might easily be occupied in covering the four or five miles (8 km) from el-Baṭeiḥah to the neighborhood of Capernaum.
- The words of Mark (Mark 6:45), it is suggested, have been too strictly interpreted: as the Gospel was written probably at Rome, its author being a native, not of Galilee, but of Jerusalem. Want of precision on topographical points, therefore, need not surprise us. But as we have seen above, the “want of precision” must also be attributed to the writer of John 6:17. The agreement of these two favors the strict interpretation. Further, if the Gospel of Mark embodies the recollections of Peter, it would be difficult to find a more reliable authority for topographical details connected with the sea on which his fisher life was spent.
- In support of the single-city theory it is further argued that
- Jesus withdrew to Bethsaida as being in the jurisdiction of Philip, when he heard of the murder of John the Baptist by Antipas, and would not have sought again the territories of the latter so soon after leaving them.
- Medieval works of travel notice only one Bethsaida.
- The east coast of the sea was definitely attached to Galilee in AD 84, and Ptolemy (circa 140) places Julius in Galilee. It is therefore significant that only the Fourth Gospel speaks of “Bethsaida of Galilee.”
- There could hardly have been two Bethsaidas so close together.
- It is not said that Jesus came hither that he might leave the territory of Antipas for that of Philip; and in view of Mark 6:30, and Luke 9:10, the inference from Matthew 14:13 that he did so, is not warranted.
- The Bethsaida of medieval writers was evidently on the west of the Jordan River. If it lay on the east, it is inconceivable that none of them should have mentioned the river in this connection.
- If the 4th Gospel was not written until well into the 2nd century, then the apostle was not the author; but this is a very precarious assumption. John, writing after AD 84, would hardly have used the phrase “Bethsaida of Galilee” of a place only recently attached to that province, writing, as he was, at a distance from the scene, and recalling the former familiar conditions.
- In view of the frequent repetition of names in Palestine the nearness of the two Bethsaidas raises no difficulty. The abundance of fish at each place furnished a good reason for the recurrence of the name.
- Arav R and RA Freund (2004) Bethsaida: A City by the North Shore of the Sea of Galilee Truman State University. ISBN 9781931112390.
- Bethsaida: An Ancient Fishing Village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee , 2001, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
- International Standard Bible Encyclopedia