Tabletalk Subscription
You have {{ remainingArticles }} free {{ counterWords }} remaining.You've accessed all your free articles.
Unlock the Archives for Free

Request your free, three-month trial to Tabletalk magazine. You’ll receive the print issue monthly and gain immediate digital access to decades of archives. This trial is risk-free. No credit card required.

Try Tabletalk Now

Already receive Tabletalk magazine every month?

Verify your email address to gain unlimited access.

{{ error }}Need help?

The Bible tells us that Peter was a fisherman from the village of Bethsaida in Galilee. The village was the hometown of at least two other disciples, Andrew and Philip (John 1:44). Apart from Jerusalem and Capernaum, Bethsaida is mentioned in the New Testament gospel accounts more than any other city. They indicate that it was a port city on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 6:45); sometimes it was called “Bethsaida of Galilee” (John 12:21). Above all, it was known as a fishing village during the New Testament period. The name “Bethsaida,” in fact, means “House of the Fisherman.”

Bethsaida played a significant role in Jesus’ Galilean ministry. He healed a blind man there (Mark 8:22–26) and performed numerous other miracles (Matt. 11:21). The feeding of the five thousand may have occurred near the city (Luke 9:10). Alongside Chorazin, Jesus cursed Bethsaida as a city of unbelief and unrepentance (Luke 10:13–14).

We know that Bethsaida was a place of pilgrimage for the early church. In A.D. 530, Theodosius commented: “From Seven Springs (Tabgha) it is two miles to Capernaum. From Capernaum it is six miles to Bethsaida, where the Apostles Peter, Andrew, Philip, and the sons of Zebedee were born.” And the pilgrim Willibald describes his visit to Bethsaida in A.D. 725: “From there (Capernaum) they went to Bethsaida, the city of Peter and Andrew: there is now a church there in the place where originally their house stood.” But for centuries after that time, the location of the ancient site was a matter of speculation and debate. Only with the rise of modern archaeological research has a consensus been reached on where ancient Bethsaida lay.

During the twentieth century, attention was focused on two sites, el-Araj and et-Tell. Survey and excavation work at el-Araj showed that the site was not occupied during the New Testament period. Thus, it could not be Bethsaida. But identifying et-Tell as Bethsaida was problematic, for it lies more than a mile north of the Sea of Galilee. How could it have been a fishing village if it was not next to the sea?

Modern geological study solved the problem. It became clear through intricate scientific analysis that a combination of landform processes had moved et-Tell away from the present shore of the Sea of Galilee. There has been a recession of the water level away from the site; seismic activity resulting in faulting that lifted the site away from the sea; and the extension of the shoreline near the site due to sedimentation from flash flooding of the Jordan and other nearby rivers. Therefore, it became evident that et-Tell was on the edge of the Sea of Galilee during New Testament times.

Because of the possibility that et-Tell might be Biblical Bethsaida, full-scale excavations began there in 1988. This work has revealed that et-Tell contained a major Roman city that would have been thriving during the New Testament period. Also, small finds have been made that have confirmed the site as Bethsaida. In particular, numerous fishing tools have been discovered—so many, in fact, that we can confidently say that the principal trade of the village was fishing. Yearly excavations have continued at the site without interruption, and there is now little doubt about the identification of the site as Bethsaida.

Bethsaida during the New Testament period was a town inhabited by Jews who were principally fishermen, but there was also a strong Roman presence at the site.

These excavations have a lot to tell us about the life of Peter and some of the other disciples, and the culture in which they lived. For example, the residential quarter of the New Testament city has been discovered. The people lived in simple houses built around courtyards. The structures were built of basalt stone, and they were probably two stories high. In the houses, archaeologists have found numerous fishing implements, such as lead weights for nets, iron and stone anchors, needles, and fishing hooks. These discoveries underscore the nature of the town as one based on a fishing economy.

One of the more important finds from the New Testament period is a seal depicting fishing. The impression appears to show two men casting a net into the water from a flat-bottom boat with a horse-shaped prow. Near the boat is a reed that is identical to those found in the marshy area next to Bethsaida by the Jordan River. Beneath the reed is a fish. Interestingly, in the late 1980s, a boat from the New Testament period was uncovered in the muddy basin of the Sea of Galilee not too far from Bethsaida. It is now housed in a museum at Kibbutz Ginnosar, along with most of the artifacts from the excavations at Bethsaida.

The Jewish citizens of the town were not merely fishermen. Excavations have revealed what has been called “The Wine Maker’s House.” It included a wine cellar where ceramic wine jars and vine pruning hooks were found.

Dozens of coins have been uncovered through excavation. Two of these are from the years A.D. 29–30, and they were minted by Herod Phillip. After the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C., Bethsaida came under the authority of Phillip, Herod’s son. In A.D. 30, Phillip raised the status of the city to a polis and renamed it Julias after the name of the Roman emperor’s daughter. The excavations of the city have turned up a structure that may have been a temple dedicated to the Roman imperial cult of the emperor’s daughter. According to the first-century writer Josephus, Phillip died in Bethsaida and was buried there with great pomp. And so we understand that Bethsaida during the New Testament period was a town inhabited by Jews who were principally fishermen, but there was also a strong Roman presence at the site. Also, it is important to note that much of this Roman activity at the site was occurring even as Jesus and the disciples were actively engaged in the Galilean ministry.

Josephus tells us that during the Jewish War (A.D. 66–73), a major battle occurred near Bethsaida. There the Jewish rebels fought against the forces of Agrippa II, apparently to a draw. It is likely that Bethsaida eventually was destroyed by the Romans during that war. The site was no longer inhabited after that period, although some medieval potsherds and coins were found in the course of digging. These may have been left behind by early Christian pilgrims who visited the site.

After the time of those Christian travelers, the location of the city was lost for centuries. But now it has been found. And the excavations continue yearly; the archaeologists hope that through continued spade work, our knowledge of the life and culture of New Testament Galilee will be expanded. In that way, we will gain greater insights into the lives of the disciples who walked with our Savior.

Equal Among Firsts

Created in the Image of Rome

Keep Reading The Many Facets of the Fisherman

From the March 2002 Issue
Mar 2002 Issue