Bethsaida

BETHSAIDA (bĕth’sā'ĭ-da, Gr. Bēthsaida, house of fishing)



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BETHSAIDA, BETH-SAIDA bĕth sā’ ə də (Βηθσαι̂δα, house of hunting or fishing from the Heb. root צדה, or צוד). A town on the N shore of the Sea of Galilee.

The Biblical record.

It is clearly stated in John 1:44 that Philip the disciple was from Beth-saida, the city (πόλις, G4484) of Andrew and Peter. Apparently Jesus was in the town at this early point in His ministry since this is implied by v. 43. Later (12:21) John called Philip’s home “Beth-saida in Galilee.” It is noteworthy that Peter also had a home in Capernaum which on any suggested location cannot be far away. Jesus was in Capernaum to heal the centurion’s servant and He entered Peter’s house to touch his mother-in-law (Matt 8:13, 14).

Beth-saida was the scene of the feeding of the 5,000 (Luke 9:10-17). Both Matthew (14:13) and Mark (6:30ff.) wrote of the scene of this feeding as a “lonely place” without naming it. Confusion arises from first reading about the event and then reading, “Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida...” (Mark 6:45). Furthermore, John states (6:1) that “Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee” (presumably the E side), and then he reported the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. Elsewhere John speaks of “Bethsaida in Galilee” (12:21). Tradition places the feeding of the 5,000 at ’Ain et-Tabghah, a m. and a half W of Capernaum, but there are serious problems with this identification despite the presence of the Chapel of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. It is generally agreed from the texts that Beth-saida is some-where near the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, but which side of the Jordan’s mouth it was on is still uncertain.

After Jesus’ trip toward Tyre and Sidon He returned to the Galilee area where He healed a deaf mute, fed the 4,000, argued with the Pharisees, and then came to Beth-saida (Mark 8:22). He healed the blind man brought to Him and from there went N to Caesarea Philippi with His disciples. Jesus called Beth-saida a “village” (κώμη, G3267) in Mark 8:26. Some MSS (D, 262*, OL, and Gothic) render this “Bethany.”

Apparently Jesus’ ministry was less than successful in Beth-saida in spite of the feeding of the 5,000 because that town and Chorazin were cursed (Matt 11:21f.; Luke 10:13).

The only other reference to Beth-saida in the Bible, which is clearly a text. aberration and not a reference to the town under consideration at all, is in John 5:2. In Jerusalem Jesus healed an invalid at the Pool of Bethesda. In the Lat. Vul. and other MSS (B, Freerianus, Harclean Syr. and Ethiopic) this is tr. “Bethsaida.” The Confraternity tr. so renders it. The RSV has “Beth-zatha” which is the Gr. of MS Aleph, et al. “Bethesda” is supported by A, C, 1, etc., and many other VSS and fathers.

The problem of locating Beth-saida.

The lack of clarity in the NT as to the location of Beth-saida, whether E or W of the Jordan, is compounded by the several references to the town (or towns) made by Josephus. Beth-saida, being a fitting description of a fishing village, could be the name of several towns on this productive lake. Josephus recorded that Herod Philip “advanced the village Beth-saida, situated at the lake of Gennesareth, unto the dignity of a city...and called it by the name of Julias, the same name with Caesar’s daughter” (Antiq. XVIII, ii. 1). Other references in Josephus indicate that it was E of the Jordan and N of the lake. In his Wars II. ix. 1 he locates it in Lower Gaulonitis, the political division N and E of the Sea of Galilee. In Wars IV. vii. 2 Josephus states that Julias was E of the Jordan and at the beginning of the mountains which extend S to Arabia. In his Life (72) he relates that Julias was c. a furlong from the Jordan.

Two cities may be considered as the most likely location of Beth-saida. El-’Araj is right on the lake and near the Jordan’s mouth. It has a harbor and thus meets most of the specifications. It is, however, very small and therefore does not fit the descriptions by Josephus of Julias as a city. He also records that Herod Philip chose it as his burial place (Antiq. XVIII, iv. 6). North of el-’Araj c. two m. and connected by what was a fine road is another site bearing the simple name of et-Tell (“the mound”). This is near the Jordan and has evidence of being a larger city complete with wall, aqueduct, and fine buildings. Perhaps the fishing settlement first occupied the shore position, whereas the city that Herod Philip built was located at a more advantageous site to the N. This identification would solve most of the questions presented in the gospel accounts as well as those of the ancient secular historians.

The expression “Beth-saida in Galilee” (John 12:21) is clear if one understands Galilee in the more general sense of extending E of the Jordan and N of the Sea (which in a technical, political sense it did not). Other problems concern the expressions about crossing the Sea or going to the other side. Although some insist that these terms mean going in a relatively straight line through the middle, the problem is eliminated if all it means is that they went from one point on the shore to another not so far away.

Finding a site for the feeding of the 5,000 still remains a problem, for the description of that event fits better with the more fertile area to the W, although there is nothing to rule out completely the possibility that the miracle took place somewhere in the vicinity of the now tentatively located Beth-saida.

Bibliography

W. Ewing, “Bethsaida” in ISBE, I (1929); G. Dalman, Sacred Sites and Ways (1935), 161-168; G. A. Smith, Historical Geography of the Holy Land (1935), 457; C. Kopp, “Christian Sites Around the Sea of Galilee,” Dominican Studies, III (1950), 10-40; E. G. Kraeling, Rand McNally Bible Atlas (1956), 376 f., 386ff.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(Bethsaida, "house of fishing"):

(1) A city East of the Jordan, in a "desert place" (that is, uncultivated ground used for grazing) at which Jesus miraculously fed the multitude with five loaves and two fishes (Mr 6:32 ff; Lu 9:10). This is doubtless to be identified with the village of Bethsaida in Lower Gaulonitis which the Tetrarch Philip raised to the rank of a city, and called Julias, in honor of Julia, the daughter 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 may be located at et-Tell, a ruined site on the East side of the Jordan on rising ground, fully a mile from the sea. As this is too far from the sea for a fishing village, Schumacher (The Jaulan, 246) suggests that el-`Araj, "a large, completely destroyed site close to the lake," connected in ancient times with et-Tell "by the beautiful roads still visible," may have been the fishing village, and et- Tell the princely residence. He is however inclined to favor el-Mes`adiyeh , a ruin and winter village of Arab et- Tellawiyeh, which stands on an artificial mound, about a mile and a half from the mouth of the Jordan. It should be noted, however, that 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 awhile. 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 barriyeh of the Arabs where the animals are driven out for pasture. The "green grass" of Mr 6:39, and the "much grass" of Joh 6:10, point to some place in the plain of el-BaTeichah, on the rich soil of which the grass is green and plentiful compared with the scanty herbage on the higher slopes.

(2) Bethsaida of Galilee, where dwelt Philip, Andrew, Peter (Joh 1:44; 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 (Mt 8:14; Mr 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 Khan Minyeh we find Sheikh `Aly ec-Caiyadin, "Sheikh Aly of the Fishermen," as the name of a ruined weley, in which the second element in the name Bethsaida is represented. Near by is the site at `Ain et-Tabigha, 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 Khan 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.

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:

(a) 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 Gaulonitis (BJ, II, xx, 6). Even if Judas were born in Gamala, and so might properly be called a Gaulonite, 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 Gaulonitis (BJ, II, ix, 1). Further, Luke places the country of the Gerasenes on the other side of the sea from Galilee (Lu 8:26)--antipera tes Galilaias ("over against Galilee").

(b) To go to the other side--eis to peran (Mr 6:45)--does not of necessity imply passing from the East to the West coast of the lake, since Josephus uses the verb diaperaioo of a passage from Tiberias to Tarichea (Vita, 59). But (i) 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-BaTeichah, 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. (ii) No case can be cited where the phrase eis to peran certainly means anything else than "to the other side." (iii) Mark says that the boat started to go unto the other side to Bethsaida, while John, gives the direction "over the sea unto Capernaum" (Mr 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 Chum or at Khan Minyeh, it would never reach Bethsaida Julius. (iv) The present writer is familiar with these waters in both storm and calm. If the boat was taken from any point in el-BaTeichah 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 from el-BaTeichah to the neighborhood of Capernaum.

(c) The words of Mark (Mr 6:45), it is suggested (Sanday, Sacred Sites of the Gospels, 42), 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 Joh 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.

(d) In support of the single-city theory it is further argued that

(i) Jesus withdrew to Bethsaida as being in the jurisdiction of Philip, when he heard of the murder of John by Antipas, and would not have sought again the territories of the latter so soon after leaving them.

(ii) Medieval works of travel notice only one Bethsaida.

(iii) 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."

(iv) There could hardly have been two Bethsaidas so close together.

But:

(i) It is not said that Jesus came hither that he might leave the territory of Antipas for that of Philip; and in view of Mr 6:30 ff, and Lu 9:10 ff, the inference from Mt 14:13 that he did so, is not warranted.

(ii) The Bethsaida of medieval writers was evidently on the West of the Jordan. If it lay on the East it is inconceivable that none of them should have mentioned the river in this connection.

(iii) 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 84 AD, 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.

(iv) 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.