Ancient City of Bethsaida - Supposed Home of Jesus and the Apostles - Discovered in Golan
Bethsaida is one of the most frequently mentioned places in the New Testament, famous for being the city from where Jesus’ apostles Philip, Andrew, and Peter came. It was here Jesus is said to have performed some of his most famous miracles - restoring sight to a blind man (Mark 8:22-25).
A statue of Jesus restoring sight to a blind man (public domain)
Being one of the most important places for Christians, archaeologist and scholars have long since tried to identify the city that is said to be of “the Galilee” (John 12:21).
Archaeologist Dr. Rami Arav from University of Nebraska, Omaha is convinced that Bethsaida should be identified with Et-tell, which sits on an outcrop that descends from the Golan Heights, 1,5 km from the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee.
Ancient ruins at Golan Heights (public domain)
Dr. Rami Arav from University of Nebraska, Omaha, has been excavating the site for some thirty years. Many findings from this period have been uncovered, fishing rods, lead weights for fishing nets, various household items, silver and bronze coins, and jewelry that all fits well in with the biblical description of a fishing village.
Voices have been raised against Dr. Aravs identification of Bethsaida. Skeptics maintain it is implausible for a fishing village to be situated in the Golan, distant from the sea. However geological studies carried out by Haifa University in the area shows that the Sea of Galilee was far larger then it is today and that it covered all of Bethsaida valley 5000 years ago.
If the rods, the leads weights, the nets and other fishing implements is not sufficient evidence to silence opponents, Arav gains support from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus who speaks of the city as in “lower Golan” ( The Jewish War, II, 168 [ix, 1])
Biblical scene of a fishing village (public domain)
Although the apostle John tells us Bethsaida is “of Galilee” (Joh 12:21), the region of Galilee does not seem to have always been so precisely defined, Josephus even referring to one Judas of Golan as “a Galilaean.” ( Jewish Antiquities, XVIII, 4 [i, 1]; The Jewish War, II, 118 [viii, 1])
The Cleopatra coin
Among the finds unearthed at the site are remnants of structures from a residential neighborhood, as well as a small Roman temple that Phillip the son of Herod apparently dedicated to Livia, a goddess in her own right. This Hellenist structure is quite similar in style and size to a temple built for Livia in Athens.
Many small artifacts have also been found at the local site, including a lance head, a dagger, a sickle blade as well several bronze coins.
One of the discovered bronze coins is minted with Mark Antony, the roman warlord on one side and the femme fatale Cleopatra on the other. On her side are the Greek words “of the people of Ptolemais”, the Greek name for Akko.
A bronze coin depicting Cleopatra, representational image only (public domain)
Most of the discovered coins in Bethsaida were minted in Akko, which testify to the trade connections between the port city and the regional harbor.
Coins with the portraits of Antony and Cleopatra are extremely rare. Only six have been found anywhere in the world.
The coin was minted in the last half of the year 35 or the first half of 34 BC, a time when both Mark Antony and his bitter rival Octavian were jostling for world power and the cities of the ancient Middle East had a habit of minting coins bearing the portraits of whoever was in power.
The minting of the coin may have had to do with Marc Antony's victory over the Parthians, rulers of a land in what is now northeastern Iran and Armenia, in 35 BCE. After the victory he granted Armenia to Cleopatra’s sons and gave Cyprus to her daughter Selene.
Top image: Sea of Galilee and southern Golan Heights, from Umm Qais, Jordan (public domain)
By Sam Bostrom