Findings unearthed at the ancient city of Bethsaida

By Vered Levy-Barzilai


Wed 19 May

Findings unearthed at the ancient city of Bethsaida near the Sea of Galilee - where Jesus and his apostles ostensibly lived, and where the grand capital of a First Temple period kingdom was located - have excited tremendous attention all over the world for 17 years. Everywhere, that is, except in Israel.

The Polish priest stood opposite archaeologist Prof. Rami Arav at the heart of the excavation site of the ancient city of Bethsaida, on the north shore of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). It was the summer of 2000, recalls Arav, director of the dig.

"Could it be that we are now standing in the house of the apostle St. Peter?" the priest asked him.

"It could be, but it's also possible that we're not," replied Arav. "We don't know exactly who lived in every home here ..."

Visibly thrilled, the Catholic priest said, "So you say that it's possible!" He turned around and exchanged a few words with the dozens of pilgrims he was leading on a tour. A murmur went through the group. Turning back to Arav, the priest said, "And now tell me, please, is it possible that in this kitchen in which we are standing, St. Peter's mother cooked food for the apostles?"

Arav fidgeted uncomfortably and replied cautiously, "It's possible, but it's also possible that that wasn't the case. This is a residential neighborhood of a fishing village from the Hellenistic period. We know that Jesus and the disciples likely lived here, but there is no certainty."

The priest was on the verge of ecstasy. He stared piercingly at one of the findings from the kitchen: a basalt grinding stone on which wheat kernels were placed and then crushed by an additional weight above it. "Could it be that the mother of St. Peter prepared bread on this stone?" the priest whispered. The professor could only repeat the mantra: "Possibly yes and possibly no."

But the priest was already on his knees, followed by the whole group. He recited a prayer and kissed the stone. One after the other, the pilgrims did likewise. For some time they sat silent, tears streaming from their eyes, opposite the stone, which was - or was not - the grinding stone from the kitchen of a woman who was - or was not - the mother of St. Peter, in a house which was - or was not - his.

The site

Bethsaida is situated on a tel (a large mound formed by the accumulated remains of ancient communities) 1.5 kilometers away from the northern shore of Lake Kinneret, in an area that is today part of the Jordan River Park. The city that Arav and his expeditions have worked to uncover since 1987 lays on a basalt outcrop that descends from the Golan Heights. The tel is also known by its Arabic name, Et-Tell ("the mound"). It is 400 meters long, 200 meters wide and 25 meters high. Deep down in the earth, at least two different cities lie on top of each other, after having existed at different periods in history.

One of the periods represented at the tel is the Hellenistic-Roman era (Second Temple) - from the fourth century B.C.E. to the fourth century C.E. At the outset of this period, the experts say, Bethsaida was a large, bustling fishing village. Toward the end, it was abandoned by its inhabitants. Says Arav: "The waters of the lake reached the shores of Bethsaida until the third century C.E.," but subsequently receded about 1.5 kilometers southward due to geological changes in the region. The fishing village had found itself without water.

The tremendous excitement of the Christian pilgrims who visited the site stems from the fact that, according to the historical sources, at least three of Jesus' apostles were born here: Peter, Andrew and Philip. Jesus himself probably visited Bethsaida in the second decade of the first century C.E. According to the New Testament, it was here that he performed several of his most famous miracles - healing the blind man and feeding the multitudes (the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes) - and it was from Bethsaida that he was seen walking on water.

According to the official Web site of the dig that is headed by Prof. Arav, who teaches at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian of the Roman era, recounts that in the year 30 C.E., Phillip, the son of Herod the Great, raised the village of Bethsaida to the status of a Greek city and renamed it Julias, after Livia-Julia, the wife of the late Emperor Augustus.

In the Talmud, Bethsaida is called "Saydan" and is described as a flourishing area teeming with hundreds of types of fish. Bethsaida is the third-most frequently mentioned place in the New Testament, after Jerusalem and Capernaum. Scholars are agreed that Jesus was at Nazareth, Capernaum, Korazin and Bethsaida. And of all of them, Bethsaida is the only place where the visitor today can see a well-preserved settlement - only partial, it's true, but in archaeological terms, that's a great deal.

With no little emotion, Rami Arav leads me around the site: "We are now walking on a street where Jesus probably walked. Where are there other authentic places like this in Israel? We have good reason to suppose that three of the disciples - Peter, Andrew and Philip, who grew up here - ran and played on this very street as children, and that it was from here that they later set out on their mission. You are now at the only place from that era that exists and is accessible to archaeology and research."

Arav calls the scholars who continue to cast doubt on Jesus' existence "a very marginal minority," and says that "99 percent of researchers in the world operate under the assumption that Jesus existed. There is no serious dispute in historical research concerning the issue of his existence. Those who argue otherwise ... don't deserve serious consideration."

However, he notes, "even for the doubters Bethsaida constitutes a breakthrough in the study of Jesus. This is an archaeological approach to resolving the dispute over Jesus. We have uncovered an authentic source, a new option - reaching a decision in the age-old dispute not on the basis of texts, but on the basis of the material culture that is being uncovered here."

He adds that, as with Jesus, the overwhelming majority of researchers in the world believe in the existence of the apostles, and notes: "Anyone who claims that the apostles did not exist can by the same token arrive at the conclusion that Christianity didn't exist."

Among the findings that have been unearthed at the site are remnants of structures from a residential neighborhood, as well as a small Roman temple that Phillip the son of Herod apparently dedicated to Livia, a goddess in her own right. This Hellenist structure is quite similar in style and size to a temple built for Livia in Athens. Many small artifacts have also been found at the local site, including fishing rods, lead weights for fishing nets, various household items, silver and bronze coins, and jewelry. Some of the findings are in the storerooms of the Israel Antiquities Authority, some are in laboratories awaiting publication of research, and others are part of a roving exhibition in the United States.

Proof of a Jewish presence at the site was found in the discovery there of, among other items, limestone tools from the Hellenistic period that were used in Jewish purification rituals, says Arav: "The Jews used to use these tools. According to the Jewish faith, as opposed to ceramic tools to which impurities adhered, the stone didn't absorb them. Their existence at Bethsaida is evidence of the Jewishness of the place."

The pope

The Vatican has long since recognized the discovery of the historic Bethsaida and in 1998 donated $30,000 to build a place of communion and prayer for believers there. Ahead of the visit to Israel in March 2000 by Pope John Paul II, it was made clear that he was determined to visit the important place whose name appears time and again in the New Testament. However, he was prevented from walking along the ancient city's paths for two reasons: his inability to negotiate the rocky area safely because of his age and infirm health; and the fact that the site is located across the 1967 Green Line, in what the Vatican calls "the annexed Golan area."

A compromise was worked out: The pope would be flown at a low altitude over the site in a helicopter. And so it was. Between the mass in Jerusalem and a meeting with the prime minister, Ehud Barak, the pope flew over Bethsaida. When the signal was given all the spotlights at the site were turned on simultaneously and the team of excavators waved to the pope.

Before leaving Israel, John Paul II met with the Bethsaida team - Rami Arav and the presidents of the universities that are taking part in the project. The pope received a gift in the form of a copy of a key to one of the houses from the period in which Jesus and the apostles were in Bethsaida. The researchers conferred on the present the symbolic name "Peter's key." Deeply moved, the pope thanked the group and said, "This is the key of St. Peter, this is Peter's key."

The dispute

Despite Bethsaida's popularity as a place of pilgrimage for Christians, the site is unknown to Israelis. Rami Arav, a graduate of Tel Aviv University, completed his doctorate in the ancient Middle East at New York University. He returned to Israel in 1986 and began to work as a researcher at an institute involved in studying the Golan Heights and to teach at the University of Haifa. As he scouted around for something interesting to research in the north, his eye caught the name Bethsaida.

"Until then it was known that there was an ancient city near Lake Kinneret that had never been found," he says. "A city that is mentioned often in the New Testament, that has an interesting history during the Second Temple period and that should be connected with fishing."

Only a meager amount of research existed on the site when Arav came on the scene. Christian pilgrims had been trying to find Bethsaida since the fourth century, but to no avail. A more serious search began in the 19th century. In 1838 the renowned American scholar Edward Robinson arrived at the nameless tel, known only as "Et-Tell," located 1.5 kilometers from the shore of Lake Kinneret in Bethsaida Valley, and declared that this was the site of the historic city. In the late 1870s, Gottlieb Schumacher, a scholar from the German Colony in Haifa, maintained that it was implausible that a fisherman's village could be located so far from the sea. He cited Al-Araj, which lies on the Kinneret shoreline, as the likely site of Bethsaida.

In 1987, Rami Arav carried out probes at the two sites. The proof was unequivocal: a settlement layer from the Roman period existed only at Et-Tell. Arav thus confirmed the conjecture of Edward Robinson that Et-Tell is Bethsaida.

Skeptics and opponents said that as long as the site's distance from the lake could not be explained, the identification would remain uncertain. Two researchers who were involved in the project, Dr. John Shroder, Jr., the chief geologist at the University of Nebraska, and Dr. Moshe Inbar, from the University of Haifa, carried out a geological study of the area. They found that about 5,000 years ago, the area of Lake Kinneret was far larger than it is today and that it covered all of Bethsaida Valley. Earthquakes that occurred along the Syrian-African rift caused large landslides in the area and brought about the formation of a dam at the mouth of the Jordan, which created the valley. As a result, the shoreline receded. The conclusions of the study, together with findings in the field, basically put an end to the dispute.

Prof. Dan Bahat, a veteran archaeologist who now teaches at Bar-Ilan University, admits: "I had doubts about Rami Arav's thesis. I found it difficult to accept that a fishing village could be so far from the sea. I visited him in Nebraska, read his research findings and saw the fishing implements with my own eyes - the rods, the lead weights of the nets and the other findings. I was completely persuaded that this is Bethsaida."

From the very first days of the excavations Arav informed the world about his discoveries and released a communique to the media with the headline: "Site of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes discovered."

The only paper that published the story, he recalls, was Haaretz. The next day, the Jerusalem Post did a follow-up and since then, in the course of 17 years, one can count on the fingers of one hand the number of reports in the Israeli media about Bethsaida.

Arav has no explanation for this phenomenon - possibly bad public relations on his part, or perhaps it's because "the Israeli Jewish public is apparently interested in only one thing: politics. Apart from that, nothing attracts it. I put out press releases and approach all kinds of places, but no one takes an interest. However, I no longer have any expectations. It doesn't really bother me - I'm used to it."

In contrast to the indifference in Israel, elsewhere Bethsaida is arousing tremendous interest. The site has been the subject of reports on television, documentary series and films broadcast on the Discovery Channel and the History Channel in the United States, and Arav himself is much sought after as an interview subject.

The money

From the outset, Arav realized that it would be impossible to excavate the site without aid. He contacted colleagues all over the States and Europe, and enlisted 20 universities in the Consortium of the Bethsaida Excavations Project. They placed the subject on their curricula and share in the research and funding, as well as sending students to help with the excavations every summer.

The official Web site notes that the project is headed by Arav and Prof. Richard Freund, from the University of Hartford, Connecticut. Among the central colleagues involved are Dr. Heinz-Wolfgang Kuhn, from the University of Munich; Dr. Monika Bernett, also from the Munich institution; Dr. John Greene, from Michigan State University; and Dr. Nicolae Roddy, from Creighton University, in Omaha. The students who take part in the summer excavations also engage in laboratory research, lectures and tours, receiving academic credit. Their tuition fees constitute the backbone of the project's budget, though there are also wealthy private donors abroad, both Christians and Jews.

The State of Israel invested about NIS 2 million in the first years of the project. The Tourism Ministry, then headed by Moshe Katsav, the Government Tourist Corporation, the Jewish National Fund and the Golan Regional Council promoted the dig. The money was allocated to the tourism infrastructure at the site. Arav says it wasn't enough. Visitors to the site pay NIS 35 per private vehicle and can access only the area dating back to the Hellenistic-Roman period. The rest of the site is closed to the public. Over the years another NIS 1 million was injected to preserve it, but, according to Arav, the amount of funding is insufficient. "Today it's not on the agenda of any person or any body - there's no one to talk to," he says.

The excavations take place for about six weeks every summer, when Arav takes time off from his other academic pursuits and comes to Israel with his team. There are generally about 300 American students, who stay at Kibbutz Ginossar on the shores of Lake Kinneret. The Yigal Allon House Museum of the kibbutz is a partner in the project and permanently stores hundreds of artifacts (relatively small ones) in its basement.

However, since the eruption of the intifada at the end of September 2000, the entire project has been almost on hold. Not only did the number of pilgrims who visit Bethsaida plummet from 25,000 in the first nine months of 2000 to a tiny fraction of that number in the following years, but the U.S. State Department issued an advisory barring universities from sending students to Israel because of the security situation.

Arav is at his wits' end. Only 50 excavators will arrive at the site in the first week of June - all of them volunteers who are accompanying the project, whether for the love of archaeology or the love of Jesus.