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Bethsaida Controversy

Archaeologists should be led by the evidence, and not force the evidence into their theories.

By Rami Arav
University of Nebraska at Omaha
August 2017

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Comments (7)

To me as a non-archaeologist it might seem that a mosaic floor, something of a luxury item surely, would have been put in place in the washing facilities of a mercenary unit on a temporary mission - though I have heard that some modern mercenaries expect that sort of thing in their contracts. On the other hand, might that floor indicate no more than that
one desirable villa or one small settlement existed in that place
around the end of C1?
#1 - Martin Hughes - 08/25/2017 - 18:21

"No Roman bath house of this period was found in a Jewish town." Really? There was a rather large Roman bath house, with mosaic floors, just across the lake in Magdala/Taricheae.
#2 - Richard Bauckham - 08/26/2017 - 22:11

Rami, I have been to el-Araj with Motti (after the symposium you and I attended last summer at Kinneret College), and I have seen the pictures from this year. I want to make 3 points. First, we know Motti is not responsible for the exuberance one sees and hears in popular media reports. Exciting media reports generate media subscriptions (i.e., profits). Second, Motti has said to me, and to others, before, during, and after each dig, he wants to learn more about the site. He has given reasons why he is not convinced by your identification of Bethsaida. But, to my knowledge, he has not given his “final answer” about el-Araj. Third, when I was there, I canvassed the area and wondered what could be underneath the surface of this large area. Surely, new discoveries at el-Araj (assuming the excavations can continue) will increase everyone’s knowledge of the Galilee in the Roman period! And, who knows how this will turn out — it might somehow make your identification of Bethsaida more firm. In closing, I would like to suggest it is too early to dispute el-Araj!
#3 - Jim Joyner - 08/27/2017 - 10:08

Greetings,Rami! I worked with you and Carl at et-Tell in 2012 and have followed with interest the discussion since then.
Does this really have to be an either/or situation of e-Tell and el-Araj? If Herod Philip wanted to elevate Bethsaida to πολις status, I'm thinking good parallels would be Hippos/Susita and Gadara. Both of these had ports on the Sea connected with the cities at some distance and elevation away. Isn't it possible that Bethsaida was similar to them, especially once access to the Sea had become more difficult?
#4 - Mark Hoffman - 08/28/2017 - 00:15


Identifying Bethsaida: In order to identify Bethsaida, it is imperative to have finds from at least the last half of the first century BCE and finds from the first half of the first century CE. El Araj did not yield these finds thus far. Archaeologists are divided into two, those who research what there was discovered, and those who research what will be (or will not be) discovered in the future. I do not belong to the space-age archaeologists.
By and large, bathhouses were introduced from top to bottom in the Judean society and not the otherwise direction. This is a short evolution of Bathhouses.
Stage one: Bathhouses were first introduced to Judea by Herod the Great. A great example of Herod’s bathhouse is preserved on Masada.
Stage two: Arguably, inspired by Herod the Great, the aristocracy and the wealthy upper classes of the country, Jews and none Jews alike, emulated Herod and built bathhouses in their villas, or their wealthy residential quarters.
Stage three: During the early second century CE bathhouses were built in Roman military camps stationed in the Province of Palestine.
Stage four: During the end of the second century CE and in particular in the following third and fourth centuries, public bathhouses were built in cities.
Stage five: Bathhouses became very common during the Byzantine period, 4th – 6th centuries and continued to be in practice during the Early Muslim occupation.
The case of Magdala: The archaeologist of Magdala, Stefano De Luca, called the bathhouse he excavated, “A Thermal Bathing Complex”, because it was somewhat different from a typical bathhouse. Stefano dates his finds to the second half of the first century CE. The bathing complex continue to exist during the second century CE. Some suggested that this complex was built by the Roman garrison at Magdala, after the conquest of Vespasian in the second half of the first century CE. Whether it was built as a military installation or not, it was built in a wealthy neighborhood.
When attempting to identify Bethsaida, and when considering that three Apostles were born in Bethsaida, it must be deliberated as well, that the Apostles’ parents must have been there sometime before they were born. Which means, it is essential to have finds from the late first century BCE and the first few decades of the first century CE. Finds from the mid-first century CE are too late to identify it as Bethsaida. Moreover, archaeology tells us that there were more than 250 new foundations built by Herod the Great, in Galilee and settled by Jewish population in the middle of the first century BCE. E-Tell, Capernaum, Chorazin, Nazareth were among these new foundations. The parents of the Apostles as well as Jesus of Nazareth’s parents, could well have been part of this settlement movement.
As for Hippos and Gadara ports. This suggestion could fly, but geological research in the plain suggest that most of the plain was covered by a great lagoon. The bathhouse at el Araj was built on a strand of beach deposits. Remains of these lagoons are preserved until today at the southeastern side of the plain, and are known as the Zaki and Majrase lagoons.
#5 - Rami Arav - 08/28/2017 - 22:38

Rami, you are out of date on Stefano's analysis of the baths at Magdala. See his account in Fiensy and Strange, Galilee, vol. 2, pp. 319-324. The first phase dates from the late Hellenistic period, the early Roman period phase from the 1st half of the 1st century CE, and the latest phase from 2nd-3rd cent. In the second phase it is a typical, quite large, Roman bath house, with a circuit of rooms beginning with a caldarium. Nothing to do with a Roman garrison. It was part of the hellenized/romanized, wealthy Roman city of Magdala, which also had a hippodrome.
By the way, how do we know that the apostles were born in Bethsaida? Peter and Andrew later lived in Capernaum. They might have been born in Capernaum, moved to Bethsaida and back to Capernaum.
#6 - Richard Bauckham - 08/28/2017 - 23:03

Correction: I meant to say: "wealthy JEWISH city of Magdala."
That's important.

Also it may be worth noting that it is suggested that the structure underneath the baths at Capernaum (2nd/3rd cent CE) might have been an earlier bath house.
#7 - Richard Bauckham - 08/29/2017 - 12:57

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