Holy Land dig identifies biblical city of Bethsaida. Archaeologists find shards that date site to Jesus' era

THE makeshift dirt path, scratched through the underbrush only days ago, leads toward the crest of the mound that for years has been known only by its archaeological name, et-Tell. Off to the right the babble of the Jordan River is barely audible as it cuts the last of its southward path to the Sea of Galilee two miles away.

At the crest of et-Tell, Rami Arav surveys the scene and quietly announces one of the most significant recent archaeological discoveries in the Holy Land. ``This is Bethsaida,'' says the University of Haifa archaeologist, indicating the biblical Jewish town he says became one of the ``springboards'' of Christianity.

Near here, perhaps on the broad plain that slopes down to the Galilean Sea, explains Dr. Arav, Jesus fed the multitude of 5,000 who came to hear him preach.

From its shore - ``20 to 30 furlongs'' off the coast, according to the Gospel of John - Jesus was seen walking on the sea.

Later, in 67, the region around Bethsaida was used by Roman soldiers to cut supply lines to the only two Jewish towns in Galilee still in revolt against the Roman Empire. Their defeat paved the way for the destruction of Jerusalem three years later and for the conquest of Massada, the last Jewish stronghold in Palestine.

Actually, Bethsaida was more a confirmation than a discovery for Arav, who works at the university's Golan Research Institute at Qazrin.

Despite Bethsaida's importance - after Jerusalem and Capernaum, it is the most frequently mentioned city in the Gospels - its exact location has been debated by archaeologists and religious pilgrims for centuries.

One clear possibility was the 20-acre mound at et-Tell, two miles from the sea, or Lake Kinneret, as it is known locally. But some Bible scholars, thinking it unlikely that the fishing village referred to in the New Testament would be so far from the water, championed the archaeological site at el-Araj, nestled at the confluence of the Jordan River and the lake two miles away.

Last March, Arav and a team of assistants resolved the debate using easily datable pottery shards, or fragments, unearthed during four test digs at the two sites.

His findings: ``This was the only site where we found shards from Jesus' time, which means this is certainly the real Bethsaida.'' Arav stoops down at one of the two 12-foot-deep excavations dug at et-Tell and points to the stone walls that outline a residential dwelling.

``Who knows, this may have been the very house Peter lived in,'' he says, referring to one of three apostles of Jesus (Andrew and Philip were the two others) said to have been from Bethsaida.

In fact, the excavation reveals that the biblical Bethsaida is only one of five cities piled up, layer-cake style, beneath the 20-acre mound at et-Tell.

In the Early Bronze Age (3000 BC) there was already a thriving city on the site. ``There was more history made here before Peter was born here than there has been since,'' says Arav.

A second city flourished on the site between 1550 and 1200 BC, and a third between 1100 and 600 BC. No one knows why they died out.

The fourth city - the first to be called Bethsaida - emerged in the 3rd century BC and lasted until Roman legions destroyed it during the Jewish revolt in the 1st century. After a final settlement between the 2nd and 5th centuries, the hillside overlooking Galilee never again bore a city.

Arav says it is the city's fourth incarnation - the biblical Bethsaida - that has held the most interest for Christian and Jewish scholars.

Sometime during the first decade of the Christian era, the Roman governor Philip upgraded what the New Testament writer Mark refers to as a ``village'' to the status of a city of perhaps 15,000, comparable in size to the better-known lakeside cities of Capernaum and Tiberius.

So taken was Philip with Bethsaida, which he renamed ``Julias'' after the daughter of the Roman emperor, that he designated the spot as his future burial site. His sepulcher has not been found.

But despite Philip's imperial intentions, Bethsaida-Julias remained a fairly typical Jewish town and never became Roman or Hellenistic in its architecture and political institutions.

``It confirms the tradition that Jesus only went to Jewish and not pagan cities,'' says Arav of Bethsaida, where the Gospels say Jesus also healed a blind man.

Although Arav is confident that he has finally resolved the question of Bethsaida's location, he says two mysteries concerning the site may never be solved.

One is the reference in the Gospel of John to ``Bethsaida in Galilee.'' The site at et-Tell, east of the Jordan River, is actually in Golan. The Rev. Bargil Pixner, a Roman Catholic priest and local Bethsaida expert, offers one explanation: The river may have changed course during the last two millennia. Then again, says Arav, it may be that John did not know his geography very well.

The other mystery is why a fishing village would be situated so far from the water.

``That's a question archaeology can't answer,'' says Arav, pointing to the sea. ``We just have to live with the fact, and the fact is that Bethsaida is here and not down there.''

Arav says if support can be found for the project, much of his career may be devoted to excavating the tract at et-Tell, starting with two major digs next year.

``I would hope that five years from now we'll be able to meander through the streets and alleys in Bethsaida, past houses restored to their full size.''

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