Bethsaida @ ASOR 2022

The Debate over the Identification of Bethsaida-Julias

A member-generated session at the 2022 annual meeting of the ASOR (formerly the American School of Oriental Research but now the American School of Overseas Research) in Boston on Friday, 18 November.

Three (3) representatives of the Et-Tell excavations will debate with 3 representatives of the El Araj excavations about the identification of their respective sites in the first century of the Common Era.

The team from Et-Tell will be Rami Arav, Carl Savage and Greg Jenks.

The abstract for their papers are as follows:

Carl Savage: The Evidence for Biblical Bethsaida at Et-Tell 

In the study of the cultural and social matrix of the first century in the Galilee, scholars have commonly prioritized written sources over archaeological evidence because written sources seem to contribute more directly to an understanding of the religious beliefs and practices of a community.  This paper instead presents archaeological evidence that demonstrates that Bethsaida (Et-Tell) clearly underwent a change of material culture in the Late Hellenistic period that indicates the new presence of a Jewish community in the first centuries BCE and CE.  While architectural elements for the first centuries do not appear to have extensively survived, the ceramic, coin, and other assemblages from the period show a change from polytheistic northern and western characteristics to one more oriented toward the Judean south.   The settlement clearly expresses its “Jewishness” with little polytheistic intrusion until later into second and third centuries when the Roman presence again forcefully intrudes into the region.  The site appears to have been abandoned before the influence of the Byzantine empire so there is no evidence of a clear later Christian presence.  These material culture elements suggest strongly that Bethsaida (Et-Tell) was the NT site mentioned in the Gospel and other early literature.

Rami Arav: Bethsaida; The Case for E-Tell

Prerequisites for identifying Bethsaida versus archaeological finds from e-Tell.  

  1. E-Tell is Zer or Zed in Josh. 19:35. Finds: Iron Age monumental city.
  2. Three Apostles were born at Bethsaida. Meaning the place must be Hellenistic. Finds at e-Tell: Hellenistic settlement.  
  3. Renamed to Julias, (Mark calls it village) meaning, participating in the Roman Imperial Cult. Finds: A Roman temple, figurines of Livia.
  4. Reinforcement. Finds:  First century city walls.
  5. Josephus: Julias did not take part in the Jewish Roman war. Finds: Agrippa II coins.  
  6. Did not reach fruition, no coins of Julias were minted.
  7. Eusebius, no new info unknown from the Gospels, meaning, Bethsaida/Julias declined. Finds: abandonment.
  8. Willibald (8th century) spent a night at Bethsaida. But Willibald’s accounts are littered with confusions. Capernaum, claimed by Corbo and Loffreda, seems more plausible for his visit. Refuting this claim is needed, not done thus far.  
  9. Notley, the church in el Araj mentioned by Willibald. A proof of existence in the 8th century is needed.

What was discovered at El Araj?

Geological research in the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee discovered a severe climate change in 50 CE leading to drop in the level of the two lakes.

Josephus speaks of a drought in the middle of the first century CE.

The first century settlement is undoubtedly the military fortified camp of the mercenaries of Agrippa II in 65 CE mentioned in Josephus Vitae 70-73.

Greg Jenks: The Hellenistic and Early Roman coins from Et-Tell

During three decades of excavations at Et-Tell more than 600 coins have been found. Around two-thirds of these coins are from the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods, including 60 Jewish coins issued by Hasmonean and Herodian authorities. The coin record from Et-Tell reveals a distinct transition from Seleucid imperial authority to Jewish coins issued by the Hasmoneans. This pattern is sustained through to the end of the first century of the Common Era and suggests that Et-Tell was the location of a Jewish community through the Hasmonean and Herodian periods. The coins also reflect the elevation of Bethsaida to city status by Philip in a gesture to Tiberius on the anniversary of his mother’s death. Due to the early death of Phillip in 34 CE this process seems not to have advanced much beyond a formal declaration, the dedication of a small temple to Julia/Livia and some minor fortifications. The coin data indicates that the elevated site of Et-Tell was abandoned towards the end of the Early Roman period, with just three Late Roman/Byzantine coins having been found. This is consistent with geological studies relating to seismic activity in the region and changes to the northwest corner of the Kinneret at the time.

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