One Galilean place that is mentioned several times, including in the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, is Bethsaida, home of the apostle Philip (Jn 12:20).
Bethsaida lay on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee, at the place where the Jordan River enters the Sea of Galilee. Bethsaida was the birthplace not only of Philip, but also of Peter and Andrew (Jn 1:44; 12:21). Its name, in Hebrew, means “house of the fisherman.”
Bethsaida was very close to the city of Capernaum, which is just a little to the west and where the adult Jesus lived (Mt 4:13). The two towns were located in lands traditionally assigned to the ancient tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon, which were destroyed by the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C.
Bethsaida was the site of several miracles of Christ:
Jesus walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee (Mk 6:45-51);
Healing a blind man (Mk 8:22-26);
Feeding the 5,000 (Lk 9:12-17).
Bethsaida disappeared from history not long after Jesus ascended into heaven. The town (or at least its eastern half) had been renamed Julias by the tetrarch Philip, grandson of Herod the Great, around the time Jesus began his public ministry. The ancient Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, noted that Bethsaida Julias played a part in the Jewish revolt against Rome in 67 A.D. But the city itself disappeared from history not long after.
Only recently was Bethsaida Julias rediscovered, at a place now called et-Tell, a little north of the Sea of Galilee, in 1987. While et-Tell is a large and clearly artificial hill (called a tell by archaeologists), it was not readily identified with Bethsaida for centuries, because it no longer lies on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. However, those waters have receded a great deal since Jesus’ day.
According to the University of Nebraska, which is conducting excavations at the area, the Sea of Galilee was larger than it currently is when Jesus lived there and included a large lagoon and several streams running through it around the Bethsaida area.
While Bethsaida did not last long after Jesus’ time, it had existed for about 1,000 years before him. It is commonly believed that Bethsaida was the ancient city of Zer, that was the capital city of the kingdom of Geshur. King David married the daughter of the King of Geshur and she was the mother of David’s son, Absalom. It was to Geshur that Absalom fled for three years after Absalom had had his brother, Amnon, murdered (2 Sam 13:37).
According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus began his public ministry in the area of Bethsaida, when he moved to nearby Capernaum (Mt 4:12-17). The people had therefore “seen a great light” as Isaiah had predicted. However, by the time Jesus left the area to make his final journey to Jerusalem, his word had not taken root in those towns.
“Woe to you, Chorazin. Woe to you, Bethsaida!” Jesus said of the towns. “For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes” (Lk 10:13).
Bethsaida and Capernaum exist only in ruins today. The same is true for Chorazim, about two miles from Capernaum; it is now the home of Korazim National Park, an archaeological site.
Bethsaida may have been the “house of the fisherman,” but it did not learn to become “fishers of men,” as disciples of Christ are asked to become. As Lent moves us from Galilee to Jerusalem, we might reflect upon these cities that saw Jesus’ miracles, but did not let their messages take root in their hearts.
Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org; Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs at www.mfa.gov/il; and the University of Nebraska at www.unomaha.org