Palestine Calling
by
W. M. Christie

Chapter VIII

Were there Two Bethsaidas or only One?


An important question in connection with the geography of the Gospels is that which we have stated, two Bethsaidas or one, and if there were two, where was the Galilean Bethsaida situated? No doubt has ever been expressed as to the existence of a city of this name in southern Gaulinitis (Golan of the O.T. and the modern Jaulan). Josephus (Ant. xviii. ii. 1) informs us that it was rebuilt by Herod Philip, the Tetrarch (Luke 3:1), and named Julias in honour of the daughter of Augustus Caesar. This we commonly designate Bethsaida-Julias, and we locate its site at et-Tell, on the east side of the Jordan, about one mile from the present coast line at the north end of the Sea of Galilee (see "The Delta of the Jordan"). All doubt concerns what would then be the western Bethsaida, and the chief argument against its existence, is the improbability of two places just a little over four miles apart bearing the same name. All references in the Gospels are then associated with this eastern site.

But the designation "Bethsaida of Galilee" (John 12:21) in itself suggests the existence of another place of the same name. We have "Bethlehem of Judea," "Cana of Galilee," "Kadesh of Naphtali," and in the Jerusalem Talmud, "Bethlehem of Nazareth," and in every case the added designation clearly indicates one or more places of a like name. Besides the eastern site was not in Galilee. The whole of that province belonged to the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas, while Julias was the southern capital of that of Herod Philip.

Several references in Josephus have been adduced to show that Julias may have been reckoned to Galilee, but every one of them, carefully examined, breaks down in the matter of proof. In J. Ant. ii. xx. 4, we learn that Josephus was appointed to the command of both Upper and Lower Galilee (66 A.D.), and that Gamala was attached to his command. Now it makes no difference whether we identify Gamala, with the Kal'at et Husn, opposite Tiberias, or the Jamle, further east, as both of these sites were in the Jaulan, and it is clearly indicated that the addition was something beyond the Galilees. In the following section, too, which tells of the places in Galilee which Josephus fortified, there is added Gamala as a site outwith these provinces.

Connected with this same Gamala we have one of the heroes of the Jewish War (66-70 A.D.), named Judas. He was evidently born at Gamala, and he is designated Judas of Gamala in Gaulinitis, but he is more frequently named Judas of Galilee (Ant. xviii. i. 1 and 6; xx. v. 2; Bella ii. viii. 1). The natural explanation however, is that though born in Gamala, his residence and all his activities were connected with Galilee. What shall we say of "Jesus of Nazareth"?

It is stated on the authority of Ptolemy, the geographer, in 140 A.D., that about the year 84 A.D., geographical changes were made and thereby Bethsaida-Julias was attached to Galilee. Supposing this statement to be accurate, we may well concede that had John been writing in the district, and familiar with such changes, he might very well have spoken of Julias as being in Galilee, but we doubt his ever knowing of any change of frontiers.

Besides, the various Gospel narratives require, in the movements recorded, a western as well as an eastern Bethsaida, otherwise all is confused and unintelligible. All accounts of the feeding of the five thousand state or imply that this occurred on the other side of the lake from Capernaum, that is on the eastern side. "Jesus went over the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias" (John 6:14); "and He took them, and went aside privately into a desert place belonging to the city called Bethsaida" (Luke 9:10). The Bethsaida here mentioned is Julias, and when we understand the conformation of the land at that time, we can easily determine the exact situation where the multitude was fed as at the point where mountain, plain, and sea all meet at the present time. It was in the lands of Bethsaida Julias, but about two and a half miles distant from the city, and might well be described as a desert or uninhabited place.

It was from this place, while He dismissed the multitude, that the Lord Jesus "constrained His disciples to get into a ship and to go before Him unto the other side" (Matt. 14:22), while the parallel Gospel (Mark 6:45) reads, "to go to the other side unto Bethsaida," and John states (6:17) that the disciples "entered into a ship, and went over the sea toward Capernaum." These passages give us a Bethsaida on the other side from Julias, in the neighbourhood of Capernaum. In perfect harmony with these passages is the statement of both Matthew and Mark (Matt. 14:34; Mark 6:53) that they came to the "land of Gennesaret," which was certainly on the west side, while "land" may embrace more than the "plain," and evidently included Capernaum. Had the destination of the disciples been the eastern Bethsaida no boat would have been necessary.

And so far as the duplication of the name is concerned, we must remember that Bethsaida might very well be translated "Fisher Row," and we should not consider it at all peculiar that two places a few miles apart should in such a case bear the same name. Here, too, each one was in a different province. On the Mediterranean coast we have Haifa and Jaffa, both modifications of the same original word for "haven," while in Sennacherib's record of his conquests we are told that he took two Sidons (Hexag. Prism ii. 38) which he designates the "great" and the "little," and which must have been in close proximity, though we cannot now differentiate the sites.

Where then was the Western Bethsaida? Somewhere near Capernaum, but sufficiently separated from it to allow of its being known by a different name. Here tradition, in the mistakes it has made, comes to our help. Just to the east of the inflow of the waters from the Seven Springs (Heptapegon), at et-Tabigha, there is on the sea shore a knoll bearing the name of Mensa Christi, and here there was built in the sixth century a church in memory of the feeding of the five thousand. The remains of that church still exist, and just on the edge of the water we find five heart-shaped stones said to represent the five loaves. A second site on the hill side a few hundred yards distant claims the same honour, and is named Locus Tabulae. Then three years ago, close beside the uppermost of the seven fountains, another church has been excavated, which dates from pre-Islamic times, and on the still very complete tesselated pavement we find depicted in the eastern recess, or place of honour, a basket containing four loaves, the whole pointing to a further claim to be the site of the miracle. To us the matter now becomes very clear. In the early Christian centuries, when the true site at the eastern Bethsaida was inaccessible by, or dangerous to visitors, the sites were conveniently transferred to the Western Bethsaida. The similarity of name was the connecting link.

We may accordingly, with the fullest assurance, fix Bethsaida of Galilee at et-Tabigha, and understand it to have consisted of a number of houses forming a small village along the sea shore, where the waters from the warm fountains flow into the sea. That it should be given a name from "fishing," too, is quite natural, for while the eastern Bethsaida had in its waters the finest fishing ground in the lake, the waters of et-Tabigha were the most productive on the western shore. The distance, too, from Capernaum, a mile and a half, also meets all demands.

And when these sites are accepted, all the references in the Gospel narratives become quite clear. It was on the lands of the eastern Bethsaida that the feeding of the five thousand took place (Luke 9:10, etc.), and thence the disciples set out for the western Bethsaida, struggling against the storm wind which blew violently down the Wady Hamam, and kept them back for hours. It was at this same Bethsaida that the blind man was healed as recorded in Mark 8:22-26.

The western Bethsaida was the home of Peter, Andrew and Philip (John 1:44), and probably of James and John (Matt. 4:21; Mark 1:19), and it is not at all unlikely that the breakfast after the Resurrection also took place here (John 21:12) at Mensa Christi, the confusion of sites having taken place as already indicated.

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