Bethsaida Then and Now
This page is part of the Bethsaida Then and Now project.
"... Rami Arav and his team of distinguished archaeologists ... certainly have found the remains of a tenth century city, which is probably the Geshurite city of Tzer. It is notable that the walls and gates of this Iron Age city are exposed, but no wall or gate of the contemporary City of David (Jerusalem) has yet been discovered."— James H. Charlesworth, "Foreword" in BEP3, xiii.
Bethsaida in the Bible
Bethsaida is mentioned several times in the NT:
Gospel of Mark
- Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. [Mark 6:45]
- They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. [Mark 8:22]
Sayings Gospel Q
- Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. [Luke 10:13 = Matt 11:21]
Gospel of Luke
- On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida. [Luke 9:10]
Gospel of John
- Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. [John 1:44]
- They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” [John 12:21]
Bethsaida/Julias in Josephus
Josephus describes a significant transition in the history of Bethsaida:
When Philip, also, had built Paneas, a city, at the fountains of Jordan, he named it Cesarea. He also advanced the village Bethsaida, situate at the lake of Gennesareth, unto the dignity of a city, both by the number of inhabitants it contained, and its other grandeur, and called it by the name of Julias, the same name with Caesar’s daughter. [Antiq. 18:28 (18.104.22.168)]
Coin minted by Herod Philip in the year 30/31 CE.
Laureate head of Tiberius r.; laurel branch in field r.; TIBEPIOY CEBACTOC KAICAP
Tetrastyle temple on low platform, dot in pediment, date between columns (Year 34 = 30/31 C.E.)
inscription (in the time of the founder Philip the tetrarch). Source
On the basis of Josephus associating the city of Julias in his own day with the earlier village of Bethsaida, the following references to Juias must also be noted:
- At the same time also there came forces, both horsemen and footmen, from the king, and Sylla their commander, who was the captain of his guard; this Sylla pitched his camp at five furlongs distance from Julias, and set a guard upon the the roads, both that which led to Cana, and that which led to the fortress Gamala, that he might hinder their inhabitants from getting provisions out of Galilee. [Life 398 (71.398)]
- As soon as I had got intelligence of this, I sent two thousand armed men, and a captain over them, whose name was Jeremiah, who raised a bank a furlong off Julias, near to the river Jordan, and did no more than skirmish with the enemy; till I took three thousand soldiers myself, and came to them. [Life 399 (72.399)]
- and as we did not refuse it, but came into the plain, their horsemen appeared out of that ambush in which they had lain and put our men into disorder, and made them run away; so they slew six men on our side. Yet did they not go off with the victory at last; for when they heard that some armed men were sailed from Taricheae to Julias, they were afraid, and retired. [Life 406 (73.406)]
- while Herod and Philip had each of them received their own tetrarchy, and settled the affairs thereof. Herod also built a wall about Sepphoris (which is the security of all Galilee), and made it the metropolis of the country. He also built a wall round Betharanphtha, which was itself a city also, and called it Julias, from the name of the emperor’s wife. [Antiq. 18:27 (22.214.171.124)]
- When Philip, also, had built Paneas, a city, at the fountains of Jordan, he named it Cesarea. He also advanced the village Bethsaida, situate at the lake of Gennesareth, unto the dignity of a city, both by the number of inhabitants it contained, and its other grandeur, and called it by the name of Julias, the same name with Caesar’s daughter. [Antiq. 18:28 (126.96.36.199)]
- He died at Julias; and when he was carried to that monument which he had already erected for himself beforehand, he was buried with great pomp. His principality Tiberius took (for he left no sons behind him) and added it to the province of Syria, but gave order that the tributes which arose from it should be collected, and laid up in his tetrarchy. [Antiq. 18:108 (188.8.131.52)]
- But when the Roman empire was translated to Tiberius, the son of Julia, upon the death of Augustus, who had reigned fifty-seven years, six months, and two days, both Herod and Philip continued in their tetrarchies; and the latter of them built the city Caesarea, at the fountains of Jordan, and in the region of Paneas; as also the city Julias, in the Lower Gaulonitis. Herod also built the city Tiberias in Galilee, and in Perea [beyond Jordan] another that was also called Julias. [War 2:168 (184.108.40.206)]
- This [last] country begins at Mount Libanus, and the fountains of Jordan, and reaches breadthways to the lake of Tiberias; and in length is extended from a village called Arpha, as far as Julias. Its inhabitants are a mixture of Jews and Syrians. — [War 3:57 (220.127.116.11)]
- Now Jordan’s visible stream arises from this cavern, and divides the marshes and fens of the lake Semechonitis; when it hath run another hundred and twenty furlongs, it first passes by the city Julias, and then passes through the middle of the lake Gennesareth; after which it runs a long way over a desert, and then makes its exit into the lake Asphaltitis. [War 3:515 (18.104.22.1685)]
Geshur in the Bible
These ancient city gates are thought to have been destroyed by Assyrian ruler, Tiglath-Pileser III around 732 BCE
as he extended his influence to the west and reduced both Syria and Israel to vassal status. These gates are from
level 5 of the site (Iron Age IIB, 925-732 BCE) and sit atop an even earlier set of gates from level 6 (Iron Age IIA, 1000-925 BCE).
Ancient traditions about Geshur are preserved in the Hebrew Bible, but it is not entirely clear just where this city was located:
- all the kingdom of Og in Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth and in Edrei (he alone was left of the survivors of the Rephaim); these Moses had defeated and driven out. 13 Yet the Israelites did not drive out the Geshurites or the Maacathites; but Geshur and Maacath live within Israel to this day. [Josh 13:12-13]
Maacah, daughter of Talmai king of Geshur, is married to David. She seems to have been the first of the "diplomatic wives" acquired as David came to power, and this would suggest that Geshur was a significant neighbouring power with whom such a familial relationship could be formed rather than a power within the boundaries of Canaan to be conquered and incorporated into the kingdom:
- Sons were born to David at Hebron: his firstborn was Amnon, of Ahinoam of Jezreel; 3 his second, Chileab, of Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel; the third, Absalom son of Maacah, daughter of King Talmai of Geshur; [2 Sam 3:2-3 = 1Chr 3:1-2]
The tradition of Absalom's exile in Geshur provides several references to the city, and also suggests a location in the sphere of Aram (Syria):
- But Absalom fled, and went to Talmai son of Ammihud, king of Geshur. David mourned for his son day after day. 38 Absalom, having fled to Geshur, stayed there three years. 39 And the heart of the king went out, yearning for Absalom; for he was now consoled over the death of Amnon. [2 Sam 13:37-39]
- Joab prostrated himself with his face to the ground and did obeisance, and blessed the king; and Joab said, “Today your servant knows that I have found favor in your sight, my lord the king, in that the king has granted the request of his servant.” 23 So Joab set off, went to Geshur, and brought Absalom to Jerusalem. 24 The king said, “Let him go to his own house; he is not to come into my presence.” So Absalom went to his own house, and did not come into the king’s presence. [2 Sam 14:22-24]
- Then Joab rose and went to Absalom at his house, and said to him, “Why have your servants set my field on fire?” 32 Absalom answered Joab, “Look, I sent word to you: Come here, that I may send you to the king with the question, ‘Why have I come from Geshur? It would be better for me to be there still.’ Now let me go into the king’s presence; if there is guilt in me, let him kill me!” 33 Then Joab went to the king and told him; and he summoned Absalom. So he came to the king and prostrated himself with his face to the ground before the king; and the king kissed Absalom. [2 Sam 14:31-33]
- At the end of four years Absalom said to the king, “Please let me go to Hebron and pay the vow that I have made to the LORD. 8 For your servant made a vow while I lived at Geshur in Aram: If the LORD will indeed bring me back to Jerusalem, then I will worship the LORD in Hebron.” 9 The king said to him, “Go in peace.” So he got up, and went to Hebron. [2 Sam 15:7-9]
The late revision of Israel's sacred history in Chronicles includes a tradition about Geshur that also associates it with Aram (Syria):
- and Segub became the father of Jair, who had twenty-three towns in the land of Gilead. 23 But Geshur and Aram took from them Havvoth-jair, Kenath and its villages, sixty towns. All these were descendants of Machir, father of Gilead. [1 Chr 2:22 -23]
Tzer, a fortified city of the fishermen
In Joshua we find a description of the allocation of the land to various Israelite tribes, using a series of lots. The "sixth lot" was for the tribe of Naphtali:
The sixth lot came out for the tribe of Naphtali, for the tribe of Naphtali, according to its families. ... 35The fortified towns are Ziddim, Zer, Hammath, Rakkath, Chinnereth, 36Adamah, Ramah, Hazor, 37Kedesh, Edrei, En-hazor, 38Iron, Migdal-el, Horem, Beth-anath, and Beth-shemesh—nineteen towns with their villages. 39This is the inheritance of the tribe of Naphtali according to its families—the towns with their villages. [Josh 19:32-39]
The Hebrew text at v 35 is severely corrupted, but it seems clear that we have a list of cities on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The list seems to proceed in a clockwise direction, beginning at the north and going down the eastern side before returning up the western shore. The first of these cities is translated as "Ziddim" in the NRSV, but the LXX reflects a different tradition: "And the walled cities of the Tyrians: Tyre and Homatha, Daketh and Kenereth." The verse is better rendered: "The fortified cities of the fishermen were: Tzer, Hammath, Rakat, and Kinnereth." (see Rami Arav, "Bethsaida, Tzer and the Fortified Cities of Naphtali." In Arav & Freund, BEP1 1995:193-201) In later usage the earlier Tzer has modified in Tzed, and then Beth-Tzed, Bethsaida. If this is a correct interpretation of the badly preserved text of Josh 19:35, it may be significant that the list begins with Tzer - suggesting its preeminence among the other Galilean cities.
Geshur in the Amarna Letters
Letter #254, dates to the first half of the fourteenth century BCE. It contains a possible reference to Geshur - misspelt as "Ga-ri" rather than "Ga-shu-ri" (see Mazar on scribal errors in the Amarna texts, cited in Arav 2004:3). If this is a reference to Geshur, it suggests that the Geshurite territory included a number of cities:
...when all the ciites of the land of Gari were hostile, (namely) Udumu, Aduru, Aruru, Meshqu, Magdalu, Eni-anabu and Zarqu ..."
The Consortium of the Bethsaida Excavations Project (BEP) was created in 1990 and is hosted within the International Studies and Programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The consortium's mission is:
- to excavate the ancient city of Bethsaida,
- to research the data discernible from the remains, and
- to disseminate the conclusions of this research to academic and popular audiences.
During the 1996 season, the remains of an Iron Age City Gate complex were uncovered, which has led the scholars on a new quest-to find out more about the Iron Age city that no one expected to find underneath the Hellenistic-Roman remains. One explanation is that the Iron Age Bethsaida was the capital of the kingdom of Geshur. Geshur is notable in the Hebrew Bible for a visit by King David, and his subsequent marriage to Ma'achah, the daughter of the king.
SFC Bethsaida Experience
Interested in working on an archaeological dig exploring the biblical town of Bethsaida?
Each year St Francis Theological College, Brisbane, takes a group of people to work as volunteers on the dig at Bethsaida. Numbers are limited to 25 persons each year. Early registration is strongly recommended. Academic credit and OS-HELP funding is available for eligible CSU Theology students. The program is open to other interested people, but preference is given to students from CSU School of Theology if places are over-subscribed.
Further details are available on the dedicated page for the annual SFC Bethsaida Experience.
NB: This is part of the Moodle site at SFC, but visitors are welcome to browse this area with "guest access." For a user account, please email the College Registrar.
Other web links of interest include:
- Virtual World Project - Bethsaida - enter site and follow links to Table of Contents
- Digging Bethsaida - personal description of the experience
- Join the Bethsaida Dig - Official Volunteers Page
- Bethsaida 2010 - Brief travel diary with selected photos
- Bethsaida 2012 - 2012 Tour Information
- Bethsaida 2013 - 2013 Tour Information
If you would like to be part of this experience, you can register an expression of interest now by contacting MISSION TRAVEL GROUP:
Email via the message form at: www.pilgrimage.com.au/contact.html
Freecall: 1300 554 654
605 Camberwell Rd, Camberwell VIC 3124
Please direct all enquiries about the tour, travel arrangements, etc to the friendly and experienced staff at Mission Travel Group.
- Bethsaida Excavations Project
- Bethsaida Photos & Site News
- Bethsaida 2009 - The Photos
- Bible Places: Bethsaida
- Ken Hanson - Galilean Fishing Economy
- Jewish Virtual Library
- Philip the Tetrarch
- Wikipedia article