SPRINGFIELD, Missouri, June 5, 2014 – In conjunction with the Center of Holy Lands Studies, students and professors from several Assemblies of God colleges recently completed a five-day “shovel testing” survey of Khirbet el-Araj, a possible location for the New Testament site of Bethsaida.
Bethsaida (House of the Fisherman), together with Chorazin and Capernaum, was the location for the majority of Jesus’ ministry. Several of His disciples came from Bethsaida (John 1:44) and it was one of the cities, which Jesus severely upbraided for their lack of repentance (Matthew 11:20-24).
“We now know that el-Araj was an ancient site that began at least during the late Hellenistic period with settlement in the early Roman period (time of Jesus), and continued to the Byzantine period,” states Marc Turnage, director of the Center of Holy Lands Studies who, together with Dr. Mordechai Aviam, founder of the Institute for Galilean Archaeology and senior lecturer at Kinneret College, arranged for the survey as part of a cooperative agreement between the two institutions. “El-Araj is indeed a possible site for New Testament Bethsaida, but we will only know with a full excavation.”In the shovel testing and land survey the students found pottery, architectural fragments from public buildings (possibly a synagogue), and pieces of mosaic tiles.
For the past 20 years, an excavation at the site of Et-Tell, which is one-and-one-half miles north of the Sea of Galilee, has been identified as Bethsaida. However, there are a number of difficulties both with the location and with archaeological finds. Distance from the lake makes it improbable that Et-Tell would have been a fishing village. El-Araj is located on the shores of the lake, and its elevation is consistent with Capernaum and other fishing villages.
At the conclusion of the five-day shovel survey, Aviam noted, “The results are very clear that we have pottery from the late Hellenistic period (the second century B.C.), early Roman pottery from the first century and even Byzantine pottery from the fifth and sixth centuries. We also found architectural fragments that were made of both limestone and basalt, which are typical of large public buildings like a synagogue.”
The survey was made possible through cooperation of several institutions, and a donation from North Central University in Minneapolis provided funding for the survey. Turnage and the Center for Holy Lands Studies worked with Aviam and Dr. Dinah Shalem to arrange for the license, which was obtained through Samford University in Alabama and South Florida University with the assistance of Dr. James R. Strange.
“While the survey could not positively identify el-Araj with Bethsaida, nothing in the survey precludes it from continuing to be a possible location for Bethsaida,” said Turnage. “Only a full excavation will be able to determine that.”
Discussions are ongoing to make plans for such an excavation.
Some 60 students and professors participated in the survey as part of their three-week study tour of Israel and Jordan with the Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies. The students also worked in the excavations of Samford University and Kinneret College at the ancient Jewish village of Shikhin, northwest of Nazareth, and near Sepphoris.