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Bethsaida and the Ministry of Jesus around the Sea of Galilee

Scholar gives archaeological evidence of Jesus' ministry in the evangelical triangle.

By Professor Rami Arav
University of Nebraska at Omaha

    The New Testament Gospels tell us that Jesus left Nazareth and moved to region of the northern Sea of Galilee. What caused this move? There were, perhaps, a few reasons. “Prophets are not without honor, except in their own country and in their own house” (Matt. 13:57) was one good reason, but apparently not the only one.

    The execution of John the Baptist by the Tetrarch Herod Antipas, whom the Gospels call “the fox,” and who was the son of Herod the Great, was a much more powerful reason to leave the Galilean heartland and to go to the periphery. John the Baptist was executed for denouncing Herod Antipas for marrying his brother’s ex-wife. Jesus, being baptized by John, feared that he would be the next to pay for challenging the authorities and fled east to the Sea of Galilee to be closer to the borders and to cross into the territory of Philip Herod in a time of adversity.

    Jesus made his home among the Jewish fishermen of the northern Sea of Galilee and soon learned their lifestyle, the hardship of their livelihood and their anxieties. He made Capernaum his hometown. Capernaum was no more than a small hamlet of fishermen situated at the northwestern shores of the lake. It contained one cluster of simple courtyard houses constructed of the local black basalt stones. Jesus did not remain only in Capernaum, but wandered also between two other locations in the vicinity: Chorazin and Bethsaida. Scholars point out the fact that Bethsaida was under the jurisdiction of Philip Herod the brother of Herod Antipas. According to the testimony of Josephus, Philip Herod was different from his brother and much more beloved by his subjects. In case of adversity Jesus could find refuge at Bethsaida and it seems that he made quite good use of this possibility. The three places, Capernaum, Chorazin and Bethsaida are known as “the evangelical triangle” by some scholars today. Jesus preformed in the evangelical triangle his “mighty works” and laid the foundation of his ministry. What he did first and what last, where he went first, and where next, we will never know. But we may be able to find out how these places may have looked.

    We do not know much about Chorazin in the time of Jesus. It may have been a small hamlet comparable in size to Capernaum, or perhaps slightly larger. Unlike Capernaum and Bethsaida, Chorazin is not located near the seashore. It is situated an hour’s walk from the lake toward the slopes that descend to the Sea of Galilee from the basalt plateau known today as the Chorazin Plateau, which was at one time part of the Naphtali tribe’s allotment. The inhabitants of the evangelical triangle were most probably very simple, hard-working people who made their living out of fishing, agriculture, local and small trade. They probably also gleaned a living serving passengers and itinerant merchants on the roads leading from the Mediterranean coast to the Golan Heights and toward the Greek cities in southern Syria. Unlike Capernaum and Bethsaida, first century Chorazin was never excavated. The excavations at the site revealed only a Byzantine townlet. The excavators assumed that the first century town is located half a mile north of the Byzantine town and on top of the plateau.

    Bethsaida was the largest of these places. During the time of King David, the thriving city served as the capitol of the kingdom of Geshur. It was already an ancient place when Jesus visited it. At this time, the city walls of the ancient town were still seen and used making it look like a fortified village. Centuries after the Assyrian king, Tiglat Pileser III, destroyed Bethsaida (732 BCE), the site was in ruins and very few people remained in the remnants of the buildings. Very little was done to improve their standard of living, but soon after the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, it seems that new life was infused into the town. New markets in the west, which were opened up to the Phoenicians, stimulated the Phoenicians to trade and to develop a deep hinterland. New settlers came to Bethsaida and to other places in Galilee and developed merchandise such as wine, olive oil, linen and dried fresh-water fish. These products were traded to the coastal Phoenician cities for luxurious items such as fine tableware and imported wine.

    In 90 BCE the Seleucid dynasty, which ruled over Syria and Mesopotamia finally collapsed and never recovered. A few years later, the Hasmonean dynasty headed by Alexander Jannaeus, who ruled Judea invaded the former Seleucid territories and conquered Galilee and Gaulanitis. Alexander Jannaeus mimicked his father’s actions in Idumea by converting the local Phoenician population and settling Jewish veterans instead. The Jewish population stopped trading with the coastal cities and developed local trade with places in Galilee. The roads to Phoenicia were perhaps then less traveled.

    During the time of Jesus’ ministry at Bethsaida, Julia-Livia, the wife of the emperor Augustus and mother of the reigning emperor Tiberius, died. In her memory, and in an effort to establish the Roman Imperial cult, Philip Herod elevated the status of Bethsaida to the level of a city and renamed it Julia. Josephus maintained that Philip Herod made these changes by increasing the population and by strengthening the city. For a long time we wondered what else Philip Herod did and what Josephus actually meant. In the past few years we think we have discovered the answer to this riddle. It seems that he built a lavishly decorated temple on the highest spot of the town. In recent years, fragments of the decorations and the ground plan of the temple were discovered. Cult objects were also found in and around the temple. Among those objects were two bronze incense shovels, pottery jugs and juglets used for ritual practices, figurines, amulets and votive objects. The temple did not serve for more than a century. The excavations reveal that during the second century CE it went out of use and a private house was built on top of it.

    In other parts of the site, excavations reveal a domestic residential quarter. A few houses, typical of rural courtyard houses, have been excavated thus far. They consist of a spacious courtyard surrounded by several rooms. As a rule, the kitchens were built at the east, the dining room (triclinium in Latin) at the north and bedrooms on the second floor. Most of the activities were carried out in the open-air courtyard. In areas such as Galilee where most of the year the skies are blue and cloudless, a big part of a family life took place in the courtyard. It was the place where the family would convene for activities such as work, fixing and mending fishing gear, processing and preparing all kinds of food and meeting with friends and family to discuss various issues of concern: political, religious and economic.

    In one of the houses we discovered a wine cellar with wine jars still in it. In another house we discovered that the owner of the house used to drink high-quality imported wine, which was produced in the island of Rhodes.

    The Gospels relate that Jesus performed “mighty works” in these places. Here he healed the sick and preached to his audience and disciples about the Kingdom of Heaven. He told his poor and humble fishermen that success and wealth in this world do not mean the same thing in the next life. He explained that there is reward in righteous living and that if it does not come in this world, it will surely come in the Kingdom of Heaven. In Capernaum, he healed a paralyzed man. In order to get him to the house, the audience had to remove the roof of the building and lower him through it.

    In another episode a Roman military commander (a centurion), who dwelt in the village, approached him. The centurion asked him to heal a boy who was lying sick at his home. The centurion knew that Jesus would not go to his home to heal the child because a Halakhah (Jewish law), decreed by the Rabbis, forbade Jews to enter gentiles’ homes. Jesus was thrilled by the centurion’s faith because he did not find such faith among his Jewish fellowmen.

    “Go home,” he said, “and the boy will be healed.”

    In the evangelical triangle Jesus met his first disciples. They were Simon-Petrus, the fisherman from Bethsaida, and his brother Andrew. Jesus told them to stop being fishers of fish and become fishers of men. Philip, another disciple, was from Bethsaida as well. Two more fishermen, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, the wealthy fisherman who hired workers to fish for him, probably also came from this town. In addition to healing individuals, Jesus performed miracles to the multitude. On a plain not far from Bethsaida, he was followed by a crowd of 5,000 people and when there was nothing for the crowd to eat, Jesus managed to feed the crowd with just two fish and five loaves of bread (this is traditionally referred to as the Miracle of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes – Matt. 14:13-21).

    On two other occasions he preached the famous sermons in which he laid the foundation of the Christian faith. One sermon was made from the top of a mound and the other was made from a boat to a crowd who had gathered on the seashore.

    Jesus did not stay only in the evangelical triangle. He sailed to the other side of the Sea of Galilee and near the city of Hippos, where he healed a man plagued by demons. The man had a legion of demons in him; Jesus cast them to pigs, which leaped to the lake and drowned. Jesus feared that his miracles would provoke the inhabitants and told the man not to talk about it.

    After the healing of a blind man in Bethsaida, Jesus once again prepared to travel, this time heading north. He took the road to the capital city of the Gaulanitis (Golan) region and arrived at the area of Caesarea Philippi. There his disciples questioned him whether he was the Messiah. Jesus refused to answer. After leaving Caesarea Philippi, Jesus probably traveled to the city of Tyre, situated on the Mediterranean coast, where he performed several miracles. He probably then returned to the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee and went back again to the region of the Decapolis (a league of ten cities, which were founded by Greek veterans and local Hellenized Syrians) where he miraculously fed a multitude of 4,000 people. The crowd that followed him to this site was apparently thoroughly gentile.

    Jesus probably had the feeling that not all were persuaded unto repentance. Consequently, he left in anger, rebuking the three places saying: “Woe to you, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, for if I had done these mighty works in the sinful cities of Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented in sackcloth and ashes.” (Matt 11: 21)

Dr. Rami Arav is a Professor at the University of Nebraska, Omaha and the Director of the Bethsaida Excavations Project. Professor Arav is the author of Bethsaida: A City by the North Shore of the Sea of Galilee