The Bethsaida Excavations Project (BEP), led by the authors of the accompanying article, has definitively located ancient Bethsaida at et-Tell. Or has it?
While their identification has gained the imprimatur of governmental bodies in Israel—official maps place Bethsaida at et-Tell and the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has erected signs for visitors there—their work has failed to win over one important figure, Mendel Nun. Like some earlier explorers of the Galilee, Nun champions el-Araj (above) as the site of Bethsaida.
Though not a professional archaeologist, the 81-year-old Nun is widely recognized as one of the leading experts on the Sea of Galilee, its environs and ancient fishing techniques. Nun has gained his knowledge from many decades of exploring the lake as a longtime member of the fishing village of Kibbutz Ein-Gev. Often when someone makes a discovery along the Galilee, the first cry is, “Let’s call Mendel!” Nun is recognized as an Antiquities Trustee by the IAA, and he has contributed several articles to BAR.e
Like the BEP excavators, Nun, too, believes that the shifting shoreline of the Sea of Galilee has confused the issue of identifying ancient Bethsaida. But he makes his case by taking a view opposite to that of the BEP’s investigators: Nun believes the northern shore of the Galilee, except in unusually dry years, is higher today than it was in the past.f Nun argues that when the BEP’s archaeologists surveyed el-Araj and rejected the site, many of its ancient remains lay underwater.
Nun makes three main points in support of el-Araj as the real Bethsaida. First, he notes that el-Araj does contain remains from the late Hellenistic and early Roman periods. Second, he observes that the House of the Fisherman at et-Tell is much larger than the houses of fishermen from Capernaum, on the northwestern shore of the Galilee, and thus is too grand to have belonged to a poor worker’s family. Finally, Nun says that the BEP has misidentified several implements as fishing hooks and netting needles; the latter, Nun claims, are actually sewing needles, and many of the hooks are not of the type used for fishing.
The BEP counters each of Nun’s points. While they agree that el-Araj has some remains from earlier than the Byzantine period, they argue that those remains got there primarily as a result of the cataclysm that swept across the plain north of the Galilee some 1,600 years ago. They also note that these earlier remains have either been moved since their discovery (thus making it impossible to study them stratigraphically) or, if still in place, lie scattered helter-skelter, indicating that they were not part of a cohesive building plan.
As for the size of the houses, the BEP team acknowledges that et-Tell’s quarters are larger than those of Capernaum’s, but they attribute this to the fact that Bethsaida was a more important site. They believe that Bethsaida’s residents were likely richer than Capernaum’s and their domiciles more elaborate.
Lastly, the BEP team grants that some tools may have been initially misidentified as fishing implements, but they explain that these came from a group of objects published early in the publication process. Since then, they say, they have found many more tools that meet Nun’s criteria for fishing implements.
The BEP team also stands by its findings regarding the hydro-geology of the region. While the shoreline of the Galilee may creep north in wet years, the dominant trend over many centuries has been for it to move south. This trend, they assert, has stranded ancient Bethsaida far from the water today but has left it where it always was: atop the mound called et-Tell.