Josephus military camp found

View towards site of Josephus military camp in distance. Photograph: Gregory C. Jenks 2014

On the weekend of 20 May 2022, the camp of Josephus’ force was discovered at the convergence of Kela Valley and the Jordan River by a team from the Bethsaida Excavations Project of the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO).  At the urgence of Dr. Carl Savage (Northwind Seminary) who had noted for many years the presence of a stone enclosure across the Jordan River from the tell of Bethsaida, Dr. Rami Arav chief archaeologist led the team that also included Ann Haverkost (UNO), Hanan Shafir (project photographer), and Itai Savage (Princeton University) to the location that was a perfect hiding place for Josephus’ Jewish fighters, who revolted against the Romans.  

The location matches the description that Josephus makes in his writings. Josephus relates that at the onset of the Jewish revolt against the Romans, (66 CE) he had a skirmish in the Bethsaida plain with forces commanded by Sulla, who led King Herod Agrippa II’s mercenaries. Sulla built a fortified camp at the junction of the roads leading to Gamla and Seleucia with the intent to cut off supplies from Galilee to those rebellious towns. In response, Josephus came with a force of about 5000 soldiers and divided them into two camps: two thousand were camped near Bethsaida and the rest in a ravine, hidden from the Sulla’s base. 

Josephus lured the mercenaries out of their fortified camp, and then signaled his forces to emerge from his two positions, thus springing the ambush. Unfortunately, Josephus’ horse fell in the swampy terrain and he was injured and had to be evacuated. His forces were dispirited and returned to their camps. The next day Sulla attacked those camps, but reinforcements sent by boat from the city of Tiberias led Sulla to withdraw to his fortified camp. However, Josephus’ forces then dispersed and Sulla continued blockading the rebels until the Roman legionnaires conquered Gamla a year later. 

The exploration conducted by the team additionally found a settlement that dated from the Iron Age, that was later occupied during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Behind this settlement were several walled enclosures that were perfect for a military encampment. 

2 thoughts on “Josephus military camp found

  1. Does this not strengthen the case that Tel Bethsaida is the “real” location of ancient Bethsaida?


    1. Hi Bill: I am not sure quite how the camp relates to the El-Araj site, but I thought that the reference to Josephus being wounded when his horse floundered in the swamp probably suggested that El-Araj would have been a tad damp at the time.


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