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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Bethsaida

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BETHSAIDA (‘house of fishing’).—The supposition that there were two places on the shore of the Sea of Galilee to which this name appropriately applies has been disputed or rejected by many writers (Buhl, G. A. Smith, Sanday, et al.); but the evidence in its favour, direct and indirect, has the support of a long list of authorities on Palestinian geography from the days of Reland to the present time. There are differences of opinion with respect to the precise location of both places, but there is a general agreement that one was on the east and the other on the west side; of the Jordan or its expanse into the Galilaean Lake. Prominent on the list of those who advocate two Bethsaidas are the names of Ritter, Robinson, Caspari, Stanley, Edersheim, Wieseler, Weiss, Tristram, Thomson, van de Velde, Porter, Merrill, Maegregor, and Ewing. The facts and suggestions which bear upon the supposition itself may be summed up as follows:—

1. Bethsaida of Gaulanitis.—The historic evidence for the existence and general location of this city is not disputed. Josephus describes it as a village ‘situate’ at the Lake of Gennesaret which Philip the tetrarch advanced unto the dignity of a city, both by the number of inhabitants it contained, and its other grandeur, and called it by the name “Julias,” the same name with Caesar’s daughter’ (Ant. xviii. ii. 1). In other passages he indicates its position as in ‘Lower Gaulanitis’ (Jaulân), ‘in Peraea,’ and as near the Jordan, which ‘first passes by the city and then passes through the middle of the Lake’ (BJ ii. ix. 1, xiii. 2, also BJ iii. x. 7, and Life, 72). In every instance, except the one above quoted, which gives a reason for the change of designation, Josephus drops the old name and calls it ‘Julias.’ Pliny and Jerome give it the same appellation, and locate it on the eastern side of the Jordan (Plin. HN v. 16; Jer. Com. on Mt 16:31). The modern designation, ‘Bethsaida-Julias,’ is not to be found in ancient history, sacred or secular. The site of the city which thus became the successor, under another name, of Bethsaida of Gaulanitis, has not been identified with certainty. After careful research, Dr. Robinson came to the conclusion that a mound of ruins, known as et-Tell, was the most probable location of the long-lost city.

‘The tell extends from the foot of the northern mountains southwards, near the point where the Jordan issues from them. The ruins cover a large portion of it, and are quite extensive; but so far as could be observed, consist entirely of unhewn stones, without any distinct trace of ancient architecture’ (BRJP2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] ii. p. 413).

The site is over against one of the fording-places of the Jordan, and about 2 miles above its mouth. This tentative identification has been accepted by many recent explorers, but mainly for the reason that the location seems to be the most favourable, because of its commanding position, for such a city as Josephus describes. The objections to it are its distance from the Lake, and the absence of anything which would suggest its original name—‘the house (or place) of fishing.’

Another site, to which these objections do not apply, has been suggested by Dr. Thomson at el-Masʽadiyeh, not far from the eastern bank of the river, and near the Lake, ‘distinguished by a few palm trees, foundations of old walls, and fragments of basaltic columns’ (Land and Book, ii. 422). This writer advocates the existence of a double city, lying on both sides of the Jordan, as the true solution of the Bethsaida problem, and indicates a site over against el-Masʽadiyeh, where a few ruins have been found, as the probable location of the Galilaean portion of the city. The apparent objections to this site are the boggy and treacherous ground in the vicinity, and the absence of anything that would suggest the existence in former times of a fording-place or a connexion by means of bridges. Wilson accepts Thomson’s views; and Schumacher, the noted explorer of the Jaulân region, agrees with him in locating the eastern city at el-Masʽadiyeh. He suggests also that the royal residence of Philip may have been on the hill at et-Tell, and the fishing village at el-ʽAraj, near the mouth of the Jordan, where are ruins, and that both were connected by a good road still visible (see Jaulan Quarterly Statement, April 1888). Conder, who favours et-Tell, makes the plea on its behalf that local changes in the river delta may have increased the distance materially between this site and the head of the Lake.

Assuming this as a possibility, the place must always have been a considerable distance from the mouth of the Jordan. It is not unlikely, however, as Merrill suggests, that the landing-place of Julias was the original site of the town, and that among the local fishermen it retained the old name for some time after the building of the city of Philip, which would naturally he laid out on higher ground. In the only NT references which can with certainty be attributed to this place, the Evangelists make use of the older name (Luke 9:10, Mark 8:22). In the first, the scene of the miracle of the five loaves, it is described as ‘a desert,’ or vacant place, ‘belonging to the city called Bethsaida.’ All the Evangelists concur in the statement that it was a place apart from the town, but evidently near it, where the native grass thickly covered the fallow ground and made a comfortable resting-place for the weary multitude. The location which fulfils all the conditions of the narrative is on the eastern ridge of the Batiha plain, in the immediate vicinity of the Lake.

In the second reference it appears that Jesus, after crossing to the other side from Dalmanutha on the west coast, came to Bethsaida en route to the towns of Caesarea Philippi. While in the city a blind man was brought to Him. It is a significant fact, in keeping with His uniform attitude towards the Gentile cities of this region, that He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the town, before He restored his sight. In this, says Farrar, ‘all that we can dimly see is Christ’s dislike and avoidance of these heathenish Herodian towns, with their borrowed Hellenic architecture, their careless customs, and even their very names commemorating, as was the case with Bethsaida-Julias, some of the most contemptible of the human race’ (Life of Christ, ch. xxxv.).

2. Bethsaida of Galilee.—It has been alleged by some writers that the existence of a western Bethsaida was invented to meet a supposed difficulty in the narrative of the Evangelists. This is not a fair statement of the case. A Bethsaida belonging to the province of Galilee is designated by name as well as implied by incidental reference. Its claims are advocated mainly, if not solely, on the ground that it is in the Gospel record. The objection sometimes urged, that the existence of two towns of the same name in such close proximity is improbable, has little weight in view of the fact that these towns were in different provinces, under different rulers, and in many respects had little in common. The name itself suggests a place favourably situated for fishermen, and might be appropriately applied to more places than one by the Lake side. But see art. Capernaum.

The main points of the argument in favour of a western Bethsaida are as follows:—

(1) The direct testimony given in John’s Gospel.—In one passage it is affirmed that Philip, one of the Apostolic band, was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter (John 1:44); in another (John 12:21), that Philip was of Bethsaida of Galilee. This is the testimony of one who is noted for his accuracy in geographical details, who knew every foot of this lake-side region, and who, in common with the other Evangelists, speaks of this trio of disciples as partners in a common industry, and as ‘men of Galilee.’ ‘Cana of Galilee’ is a similar expression in the same Gospel, and the fact that the writer mentions the province at all, in this connexion, is a strong presumptive proof that he wished to distinguish it from the other Bethsaida on the eastern side. The mention of Galilee in John’s Gospel determines this place on the west of the Jordan as decidedly as that of Gaulanitis does the other Bethsaida on the east. The assertion of G. A. Smith, that the province of Galilee included most of the level coastland east of the Lake,—if it applies to Galilee in the time of Christ,—is apparently in conflict with all the evidence which the history of that time has given us. It conflicts also with the positive testimony of Josephus, who places Julias—the city which Dr. Smith associates with Bethsaida—in Gaulanitis, and under the jurisdiction of Herod Philip.

(2) The well-attested fact that all of the Apostles, except Judas Iscariot, were men of Galilee (Acts 1:11), furnishes another corroborative proof that the place of residence of the three above mentioned could not have been in the city of Philip (see also Mark 14:70). They were typical Jews, and their place of employment and all their associations were with their brethren of the same faith on or near the plain of Gennesaret.

(3) In the narrative of the return journey from the place of ‘the feeding of the multitude, it is distinctly mentioned that the disciples embarked in a ship to go before to the ‘other side’ unto Bethsaida (Mark 6:45). If the word ‘unto’ stood alone, there might he some ground for the supposition that the disciples aimed at sailing along the shore towards Julias, but in the description which follows, the Evangelist makes it plain that the ‘other side,’ as he uses the expression, meant the west shore of the Lake. ‘And when they had passed over, they came into the land of Gennesaret.’ The parallel accounts convey the same impression and are equally decisive on this point (Matthew 14:22; Matthew 14:34, John 6:16). It is true that John adds that ‘they went over the sea towards Capernaum,’ but there is no discrepancy between the several statements if Robinson is right in identifying Bethsaida with ‘Ain et-Tâbigha. The general direction would be the same, and the distance between the two points does not exceed three-quarters of a mile. In keeping with these statements is the mention of the fact that the multitude on the east side, noting the direction taken by the vessel in which the disciples sailed, took shipping the next day and came to Capernaum, seeking for Jesus (John 6:22; John 6:24). These passages, interpreted in their natural and ordinary sense, show that the disciples aimed at going to the western side of the Lake in obedience to the command of Jesus. The contrary wind retarded their progress, but it did not take them far out of their course. The mention of Bethsaida, in this connexion, with Capernaum makes it highly probable also that its site was somewhere in the same neighbourhood.

(4) There is a manifest verification and corroboration of this testimony in the close association of Bethsaida with Capernaum and Chorazin in the judgment pronounced upon them by our Lord because of their peculiar privileges (Matthew 11:21-23). There is no uncertainty with respect to the import of this denunciation. It could not apply to a Gentile city like Julias, for it is here contrasted with the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon. It is evident, also, that its significance inheres in the peculiar privileges of Bethsaida through oft-repeated manifestations of supernatural power in connexion with the ministry of Jesus. In other words, it was in the very centre of that field of wonders in Galilee, honoured above all other places in the land as the residence of Jesus, to which multitudes flocked from every quarter. We have the record of three brief visits of Jesus to the semi-heathen population on the eastern side of the Lake, mainly for rest and retirement, but there is no record of ‘many mighty works’ in any of the towns or cities of this region. This of itself seems to be an unanswerable argument against the proposed identification of the city to which Jesus refers in this connexion with the Herodian city of Julias in the province of Gaulaoitis.

The generally accepted site of Bethsaida of Galilee is ‘Ain et-Tâbigha. It is situated at the head of a charming little bay on the northern side of the spur which runs out into the Lake at Khân Minyeh. Here, by the ruins of some old mills, is a copious stream of warm, brackish water, fed by several fountains, one of which is the largest spring-head in Galilee. Its course, which now winds and descends amid a tangled mass of rank vegetation to the Lake, was formerly diverted to the plain of Gennesaret by a strongly built reservoir, still standing, which raised the water to an elevation of twenty feet or more. Thence it was carried by an aqueduct and a rock-hewn trench to the northern end of the plain. There is little to indicate the site of the city, except an occasional pier of the aqueduct and the substructures of a few ancient buildings long since overthrown and forgotten.

The natural features of ‘Ain et-Tâbigha are a safe harbour, a good anchorage, a lovely outlook over the entire lake, a shelving, shelly beach, admirably adapted to the landing of fishing boats, a coast free from débris and driftwood; and a warm bath of water, where shoals of fish ofttimes crowd together by myriads, ‘their backs gleaming above the surface as they bask and tumble in the water’ (Macgregor, Rob Roy on the Jordan, p. 337). Although surrounded by desolate wastes, this is still the chief ‘Fishertown’ on the Lake, where nets are dried and mended, and where fish are taken and sorted for the market, as in the days of Andrew, Simon, and Philip.

Literature.—Andrews, Life of our Lord2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , pp. 230–236; Robinson, BRP [Note: RP Biblical Researches in Palestine.] 2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] ii. 413, and iii. 358, 359; Tristram, Land of Israel, p. 418, also Topog. of the Holy Land, pp. 259–261; G. A. Smith, HGHL [Note: GHL Historical Geog. of Holy Land.] 457 f.; Thomson, Land and Book, ii. 423; Stewart, Mem. Places among the Holy Hills, pp. 128–138; Reland, p. 653; Macgregor, op. cit. pp. 334–343 and 360–372; Merrill Piet. Pal. i. 322; Ewiog in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible i. p. 282; Baedeker-Socin, Pal. 255 f.; Buhl, GAP [Note: AP Geographic des alten Palästina.] 241 ff.; Sanday, Sacred Sites of the Gospels, 41 f., 45, 48, 91, 95.

R. L. Stewart.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Bethsaida'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/b/bethsaida.html. 1906-1918.

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