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Why the fishing town Bethsaida is not found along the shore of the Sea of Galilee

There is one common misconception. When people stand on the Tell and look out over the Beteiha Plain toward the lake, their immediate response is, “You mean the water level was higher then?” The answer must be a clear and unequivocal, “No.” Silt filled in the northern portion of the lake. It is not a case of receding water levels.

For more information see: Philip’s City: From Bethsaida to Julias (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2011)

By Fred Strickert
Professor Emeritus of Wartburg College
Pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer
Old City Jerusalem
March 2011

So how is it that a New Testament fishing village might today find itself about three kilometers from the shore line of the Sea of Galilee? Surely you can’t be serious in identifying ancient Bethsaida with the mound called et-Tell1 at such a distance from the water? How would the fishermen have access to their boats?

For nearly a quarter of a century, visitors to the Bethsaida Excavation Project atop et-Tell have raised such objections. The questions come from one-time visitors who bring with them a common sense approach, and, as they often admit, an untrained eye. The questions also come occasionally from more experienced archaeologists and biblical scholars.2

The answer very simply put is that ancient cities don’t move, but shorelines do. Stand at the top of the fortress Masada and look out at the Dead Sea and what you see hardly resembles the Dead Sea of biblical maps. Take a seat in the theatre of Ephesus and gaze out to the Aegean Sea now ten miles away; at one time it came right up to the city.

Josephus measured the length of the Sea of Galilee as 140 stades or furlongs or about 28 kilometers (17 miles), while today it is closer to 21 kilometers (13 miles) in length (Josephus, War 3.506). Even in recent years the northern lake shore shows signs of great fluctuation. Currently, the water has receded to record lows due to several years of drought and liberal pumping out of water for human need. In 1969, when there was unprecedented rainfall, the shoreline also moved out. The upper Jordan River was discharging nearly six thousand cubic feet of water per second—and with it tons of silt. While the water level rose, the shoreline extended out 500 meters in just a single year.

This is the phenomenon that affects cities built at the mouth of great rivers. The upper Jordan River flows into the Sea of Galilee just 250 meters to the west of Bethsaida and the Meshoshim River flows into the lake just to the east. Josephus confirms that the Jordan River entered the lake just “below the town” (Josephus, War 3.515). In his eyewitness report of the 67 CE battle fought just below the town—the land between the town and the river is described as quite marshy, so much that Josephus’ own horse stumbled and Josephus was injured (Josephus, Life 398-406). Today that silted Beteiha Plain along the northeast portion of the lake measures about three kilometers in width.

The important question is at what time in Bethsaida’s history was the plain created by the deposits of silt. Before we answer that question, there is a second factor that has affected the changing landscape of Bethsaida.

The Jordan Valley is one of the earth’s major fault lines. To the east, the Asia plate is gradually moving northward, and to the west, the European plate is moving southward. Occasionally these plates move against one another creating dramatic uplifting. Major earthquakes have been documented for the past two millennia at a rate of one per century. The last occurred in 1927. In ancient times, there were significant earthquakes in 31 BCE, 115 CE, 303 CE, 363 CE, among others. Records are left in written documents and in the destruction layers of cities such as Bethsaida.

When surveying the Jordan River gorge north of et-Tell, geologists identified several landslides that occurred as the result of earthquakes and subterranean movements. They labeled one as Tuba 1, located seven kilometers to the north and another as Tuba 2, six kilometers to the north. Extensive rains and earthquakes caused these landslides to extend across the gorge and dam up the Jordan River. The Tuba 1 landslide is estimated to have occurred over eight thousand years ago and helped shape the peninsula that once was et-Tell.

The smaller Tuba 2 landslide occurred shortly after the New Testament period—perhaps related to the major earthquake of 363 CE (within the range of Carbon-14 dating). The size of the land mass of Tuba 2 is almost beyond comprehension—50 meters high, 200 meters wide, and 25 meters thick. The water buildup over several days increased pressure that eventually broke through the dam at a rate estimated between 15,000 and 30,000 cubic meters per second. With such a great force, massive debris was carried down river, including huge boulders now positioned 40 meters above the present river level.3 So, in addition to regular, gradual silting, there were a number of massive flows of silt.

Boreholes dug in the plain paint an interesting picture of change. Just twenty meters south of et-Tell, there is a dramatic change in soil composition several feet into the ground. Flood gravel covers a black organic-rich mud characteristic of lakes and lagoons. Deposited in this mud are bones and shells, including ostracods found only in quiet waters. Carbon-14 dating of these organic deposits points to the presence of quiet waters below Bethsaida about 2,700 to 1,700 years ago. In other words, Bethsaida had ready access to the sea, whether the shores of the lake itself extended from the base of et-Tell or estuaries made their way from the sea.

There is one common misconception. When people stand on the Tell and look out over the Beteiha Plain toward the lake, their immediate response is, “You mean the water level was higher then?” The answer must be a clear and unequivocal, “No.” Silt filled in the northern portion of the lake. It is not a case of receding water levels.

Today’s water level of the lake is about 209 meters below sea level.4 The late Mendel Nun, professional fisherman and amateur archaeologist, identified the ports of Tiberias and Kursi and measured their elevations as -208.3 meters and -209.25 meters respectively and the promenade at Capernaum at -209.25 meters. This is a fairly consistent picture.

Nun and a number of others have argued that the premise of the lake reaching et-Tell would mean higher water levels and the inundation of first-century settlements around the lake.5 This is a misunderstanding of the geological reports. Geologists agree that during a period from 10,000 to 80,000 years ago a much larger Lake Lisan extended from the Galilee to the Dead Sea. By the biblical era, the surface water level reached a relatively consistent state that continues to today.

There’s another reason for misunderstanding. At the beginning of the excavations of et-Tell, archaeologists noticed a substantial stone wall in a pool of water near the spring at the southwest of the Tell and tentatively speculated that this could be a docking facility. Any conclusions are premature until the wall is excavated. The elevation of the wall is -204 meters or five meters higher than installations at Capernaum, Tiberias, and Kursi—which might point to a completely different function.

However, geologists have offered a different suggestion. Because of instability due to the position on the fault line, one should be open to the possibility of uplifts in sections of land. Geologists have documented this sort of activity ten kilometers to the north near the Benot Ya’akov Bridge at the Ateret Crusader Castle built in 1178 CE. The 1202 CE earthquake led to an uplifting of 2.1 meters that altered the castle’s water system dramatically.6 The Bethsaida team of geologists has concluded that similar seismic activity—possibly in 363 CE¬—brought about the change in elevation of the wall at the base of et-Tell.7 Probes near the wall yielded black lake mud at an elevation of 205 meters below sea level.8 The matter will not be settled until stratographic archaeological excavation is carried out at the base of et-Tell.

What is the archaeological evidence up until this point? Twenty-four years of excavations on the acropolis of et-Tell demonstate significant occupation in the Iron, Hellenistic, and Roman eras. Most importantly, there is evidence for a town at the time of the New Testament consistent with the literary descriptions of Bethsaida.

Artifacts include hundreds of fishing implements as fish hooks, needles, lead weights, stone weights, and heavy stone anchors.9 This collection provides the best selection of fishing equipment from any one site around the Sea of Galilee, providing a window into ancient fishing practices and demonstrating conclusively that fishing played an important role at et-Tell. The fact that residents carried such fishing implements, including heavy anchors, forty meters to the top of the Tell is striking. This Tell was clearly a fishing village.

How about the role of archaeology within the silted Plain of Beteiha, below et-Tell and toward the lake? Ever since Edward Robinson and Gottlieb Schumacher began exploring the lower Golan, there have been reports of architectural fragments and Roman era pottery at a small lakeside settlement called el-Araj and, to a lesser degree, at el-Mesadiye. To the untrained eye, the surface finds are impressive. Could not this be the location of biblical Bethsaida?

In archaeology, one must be open to all possibilities. However, surveys and surface observations are no substitute for scientific analysis based on stratographic excavation. In a carefully plotted square, layer by layer is removed as one moves backwards through various eras identified by pottery and other artifacts.

One of the first lessons in Archeology 101 is how to recognize an interruption that intrudes into such consistent patterns of layers, in other words a “pit.” For example, on the acropolis of et-Tell, in the middle of the courtyard of the Hellenistic structure dubbed “The Winemaker’s House,” a later pit was dug where various debris were deposited. So underneath the level of the paved ourtyard was found a sixth-century CE coin of Justinian, obviously a fluke. All the other evidence showed the occupation of the house from the third to the first centuries BCE. Yet the pit was easily delineated, and its contents included various eras of artifacts all mixed together.

This is what is found in the Beteiha plain below et-Tell—in a sense one gigantic pit. However, the pit was not created by humans, but by the forces of nature. When the dramatic rush of waters flowed down the upper Jordan, not only was silt deposited, but also an assortment of pottery accumulated along the banks over the centuries.

Archaeologists and geologists must work in tandem. Geological fieldwork in 1999 in the section of the plain between et-Tell and el-Araj included twenty-six deep back-hoe trenches and two five-meter deep boreholes. Particularly significant was the discovery of pottery at various locations, though often turned “upside-down” with Iron Age pottery at higher levels than Roman era pottery—a not unexpected result when alluvial soils are washed out toward the lake.10 This finding underscores the dubious role of coins or pottery as evidence when found in the alluvial plain. As mentioned before, it is like excavating one large pit.

This is not to say that archaeology cannot be done in such a context. Over time, normalization occurs and a settlement such el-Araj is built. However, the situation is totally different from et-Tell where the building materials are available right on the Tell with ample basalt stone scattered everywhere. One immediately notices in the alluvial plain, however, the absence of such stone. So building materials must be imported into the plain. Theoretically, this can be either rough stone or already dressed stones from an abandoned settlement. In the case of el-Araj, the latter seems to be the most reasonable explanation. The presence of finely dressed stone typical of the Roman era does not necessarily mean the site had actually been occupied in the first century.

Here is where systematic archaeological excavation is necessary. In 1987, Rami Arav excavated one of the el-Araj buildings with a four-by-four meter square that yielded Byzantine era pottery among the foundations of the walls.11 A follow-up study employing ground penetrating radar analyzed a fifty-meter section to a depth of ten meters. The study showed no evidence of earlier layers or other structures. The conclusion of the Bethsaida Excavations Project is that no further research at el-Araj is necessary. There was no settlement during the New Testament era. Architectural fragments had been transported from et-Tell.

This is consistent with the evidence on the top of et-Tell where coins from the second and third centuries CE are prominent, and then there is a dramatic decrease suggesting that the city was virtually abandoned. The 363 CE earthquake is well documented throughout the area. Usually the residents would later rebuild after such destruction. However, in the case of Bethsaida, it would appear that the Tuba 2 landslide led to a massive flow of water, silt, and debris into the plain so that access to the sea had come to an end. Without a port, Bethsaida’s economy would have been devastated and residents would have chosen to relocate, many closer to the lake.12

What was once a fishing town found itself located inland and separated from the lake.


1 The archaeological site et-Tell was identified with the New Testament town Bethsaida on Israeli maps in the early 1990s. This is the conclusion of the Bethsaida Excavations Project with Rami Arav as chief archaeologist beginning in 1987. Josephus notes that the town was renamed Julias in the first century. However, the name Bethsaida will be used in this essay.

2 R. S. Notley, “Et-Tell is Not Bethsaida,” Near Eastern Archaeology 70:4 (2007), 220-30.

3 John F. Shroder Jr., M. P. Bishop, K. J. Cornwell, and Moshe Inbar, “Catastrophic Geomorphic Processes and Bethsaida Archaeology, Israel,” in Bethsaida: A City by the North Shore of the Sea of Galilee, volume 2 (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 1999), 115-74.

4 See International Lake Environment Committee database at

5 Mendel Nun, The Sea of Galilee: Water Levels, Past and Present (Kibbutz Ein Gev, Israel: HaKibbutz Ein Gev, 1991); “Cast your Net upon the Water: Fish and Fishermen in Jesus’ Time,” BAR 19 (Nov/Dec, 1993), 46-56, 70.

6 R. Ellenblum, S, Marco, A. Agnon, T. Rockwell, and A. Boas, “Crusader Castle Torn Apart by Earthquake at Dawn, 20 May, 1202,” Geology 26 (1998), 303-6.

7 S. Marco, A. Heimann, A. Agnon, T. Rockwell, and U. Frieslander, Paleoseismicity of the Jordan Fault, the Beteiha Valley. Geological Survey of Israel, Report-ES/ 55/ 97 (Jerusalem: Geological Survey of Israel, 1997).

8 John F. Shroder Jr., Harry D. Jol, and Philip P. Reeder, “El Araj as Bethsaida: Spatial and Temporal Improbabilities,” in Bethsaida, volume 4 (2009) 293-309, especially 299-300.

9 Sandra Fortner, “The Fishing Implements and Maritime Activities of Bethsaida-Julias (et-Tell),” in Bethsaida (1999), 2:269-80; Sandra Fortner, Der Keramik und Kleinfunde von Bethsaida-Iulias am See Genezareth, Israel, (München: Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, 2008), 47-55, tables 73-79, catalog numbers 1333-1413.

10 Laura Banker, John F. Shroder Jr., and Moshe Inbar, “Sedimentologic and Paleogeomorphologic Character of the Bethsaida (Beteiha) Plain of the Sea of Galilee,” in Bethsaida, volume 4 (2009), 310-25.

11 Rami Arav, “Et-Tell and El-Araj,” IEJ 38 (1988), 187-8.

12 Likewise, other residents of Bethsaida appear to have moved several kilometers to the north where a Roman road crossed the Jordan to establish the community of ed-Dikke with its own synagogue.

Comments (1)

A minor quibble. It's my understanding (and Wikipedia agrees) that the 2 plates involved are the Arabian and the African.
#1 - William Loughner - 03/18/2011 - 18:21

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