Bethsaida, Beth-Saida

See also Bethsaida

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

1. 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.

2. 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.