The Bethsaida Project
Since the demise of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, a single family has owned the parcel of land called Khirbet el-Araj. Today, that family has granted permission to a team of professors and 17 students from North Central University, along with Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee, the Institute for Galilean Archaeology, and the Assemblies of God Center for Holy Land Studies, to begin an archaelogical survey of the site.
El-Araj is one of two sites archaeologists have identified as possible locations for the city of Bethsaida. Mentioned seven times in the New Testament, Bethsaida played a prominent role in the ministry of Jesus Christ. "Along with Capernaum and Chorizin, Bethsaida marks a corner of the so-called 'Evangelical Triangle' in which 70 to 80 percent of Jesus' ministry took place," notes Glen Menzies, dean of North Central University's Institute for Biblical and Theological studies.
According to John 1:44, Menzies explains, three of the 12 disciples were from Bethsaida. And in 530 A.D. the patriarch Theodosius I of Alexandria claimed that Zebedee and his sons James and John were from near there as well. That means nearly half of the Twelve may have come from Bethsaida or vicinity. "Bethsaida is also mentioned in the Talmud and in the writings of Flavius Josephus," Menzies adds.
Many believe that Bethsaida, which in Aramaic means "House of the Fisherman" or "House of Fishing," was located at et-Tell, a site two miles north of el-Araj. However, there are serious difficulties with this view. The elevation of et-Tell seems too high, perched 20 to 25 feet above other port cities of the first century. Also, et-Tell is located improbably far from the water for a fishing village, assuming that the contours of the Sea of Galilee are similar now to what they were in the first century. Finally, if et-Tell is not the correct site, then el-Araj seems the most likely alternative.
"El-Araj has never been excavated," says Menzies, who holds a Ph.D. in ancient studies from the Univeristy of Minnesota. "We believe an excavation will likely support or even confirm the identification of el-Araj as Bethsaida." Under the direction of lead archaeologist Mordechai Aviam, Ph.D., founder of the institute for Galilean Archaeology, Menzies and crew will employ metal detectors and ground-penetrating radar to probe the earth and map the terrain, collecting any artifacts they discover along the way.
So far, more than $10,000 has been donated to North Central toward the Bethsaida project. Should survey results justify a dig, and it's expected that they will, excavation of Khirbet el-Araj could begin as early as summer 2016. At stake? The possible solution to a centuries-old mystery, and untold insights into the ministry of Jesus Christ and His disciples.
By Victoria Pyron