Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes in this village, the Bible says, and it was home to as many as five of the Twelve Apostles who spread the Gospel.
Lost for nearly 2,000 years, Bethsaida is now being excavated. Archaeologists say their finds show the fishing village that played such a central role in Jesus’ life was predominantly Jewish in culture, even though gentiles lived in nearby towns.
They also have a distant hope that they will find here the “Q-Document,” a collection of Jesus’ sayings that some people speculate may have been put together by his followers after his death.
“From a Christian point of view, this is the most important town after Jerusalem,” said American theologian Elizabeth McNamer, speaking at the dig site on a hill just east of where the Jordan River enters the Sea of Galilee.
Bethsaida, one of three towns in the “evangelical triangle” of Jesus’ miracles along with Capernaum and Chorazin, is the only one associated with the life of Jesus that has remained unchanged since those days.
“This is the first time we have a chance to dig at a site that is directly associated with Jesus,” said archaeologist Rami Arav. “Most of the other sites, such as Nazareth and Capernaum, are basically out of reach because they have been rebuilt. In Nazareth, there is nothing left from the 1st century.”
Bethsaida was never rebuilt after its residents gradually abandoned it in the latter half of the 1st century, possibly because its lagoon began receding toward the Sea of Galilee’s current shoreline about two miles away. An earthquake that shook the area in A.D. 115 was a final blow.
“We find a village that is practically the same as at the time of Jesus. We see the houses as they stood; we see the roads where he passed,” said Bargil Pixner, a Benedectine monk and archaeologist who discovered Bethsaida after Israel wrested control of the area from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war.
After the dust of battle had settled, Pixner drove across a rickety Jordan River bridge into former Syrian territory, sure he would find Bethsaida on a hill two miles from the Sea of Galilee.
Ignoring “Danger, Mines” signs, Pixner trekked up the hill, which had been used during the war as a frontline Syrian outpost.
The Syrians had dug deep trenches crisscrossing the hill. On mounds of earth on the trenches’ shoulders, Pixner found pottery shards amid the spent shells and abandoned rifles.
Analysis confirmed that the shards dated to the time of Jesus. However, archaeologists did not get around to digging at the 22-acre site until 20 years later, with a team headed by Arav, an Israeli who teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
The team has unearthed remains of three houses built with the smokegray basalt rocks that cover the area, which is overgrown by thorny bushes and dotted by eucalyptus trees.
One house, dubbed the “Fisherman’s House,” yielded anchors, fishing hooks and a needle for mending nets. Another, called “Salome’s House” by the team after the mother of Apostles James and John, yielded a wine cellar with four jars, an oven and two basalt slabs on top of each other used for grinding grain.
“One of my students tried to push the upper stone and she couldn’t,” said McNamer who teaches religious studies at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana.
“Then I had two of them push it. And of course, Jesus said, ‘Two women will be grinding’ and it does take two to do this.”
All three homes have the same floor plan - a courtyard lined on two abutting sides by rooms, including a large kitchen.
Arav said there was no proof any of the apostles linked to Bethsaida - Peter, Andrew, Philip, John and James - lived in one of the three houses.
“But for us it is enough to say that if it is not Peter’s house, Peter’s house looked just the same,” he said.
Arav said the people of Bethsaida, which would have included some of Jesus’ closest followers and their families, were “basically Jewish,” with very little gentile influence.
Arav said that he found Jewish coins and Herodian oil lamps commonly used in Jewish communities and that the architecture was Middle Eastern, not Greek.”We know that these places that are mentioned in the Bible really existed. This man (Jesus) was a real human being. He was a Jew and lived like a Jew,” said Pixner, who is from Meran, Italy, and teaches archaeology at the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem.
McNamer, citing biblical accounts, said that after Jesus’ crucifixion, some of the disciples apparently returned home to Bethsaida to consider their next move, and that from here they went into the world to spread the Gospel.
“It was the launching pad of Christianity,” McNamer said.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Bethsaida history Bronze Age: Site inhabited 3000 B.C. to 2700 B.C. Remnants of city wall remain. Iron Age: Known as Tzer, capital of Geshurite kingdom, was occupied again from 1200 B.C. until leveled during Assyrian conquest in 730 B.C. Geshurite king, Talmai, married daughter, Maacah, to Israel’s King David to cement good relations; couple had son, Absalom. Remains of Geshurite palace, including palace and temple, being excavated. Jesus’ time: Fishing village of Bethsaida, population of several hundred. Lagoon then reached from Sea of Galilee to village outskirts. Lagoon later dried and shore now two miles away. Not clear when Bethsaida destroyed, but there are indications it survived Jewish revolt of A.D. 66-73 against Roman rule and was damaged in earthquake of A.D. 115.