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.