Bethsaida: town or village?

Expanded from my notes on Rami Arav, “Bethsaida,” pp 145–166 in Jesus and Archaeology, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Eerdmans, 2006).

From pp 148–149:

Four years after [Bethsaida’s] foundation, Philip, the founder of the city, died at Bethsaida and was buried in a costly burial; unfortunately, Josephus, our source of information, does not indicate where Philip was buried. Thirty-five years after this event, the city witnessed clashes between Jewish rebels led by Josephus and the Roman mercenaries of Agrippa II. As a result of this episode the city was partly deserted and ruined (Josephus, Vita 71, 72). It is important to mention in this context that Mk 8:23 preserves the tradition of Bethsaida as being a village (kōmē) and not a town (polis). Luke refers to Bethsaida as a polis (Lk 9:10), and it seems that he was not careful in his definition of the place. Bethsaida as a town named Julias did not exist for more than a few years.

Arav’s conclusion may also be seen as somewhat backwards. Both Gospels could be correct for the times in which they were written, if the kōmē and polis usage is indicative. That is, there is a more logical solution. Bethsaida was the polis Julias from either the late first century BC or some point early in the first century AD (see below) until a point during the Great Revolt of the Jews against Rome, between the years of 30 to 68 AD, according to Arav, taking his “thirty-five years” inclusively, as 69 AD is certainly too late (see below). It is thus most likely that the Gospel According to Luke was written during that time, when the place was known as such. Indeed, if the ending of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, the volume following on the Gospel, is any indicator of its date, then it must have been written in 62 AD. This fits the usage. Likewise then, the Gospel of Mark must date to a period either before or after Bethsaida was known as the polis Julias, and was just a kōmē. To date Mark before 30 AD is patently absurd, as the Gospel itself includes events that are generally recognized as occurring later. Taking into account the above evidence regarding Luke, to date Mark after 68 AD supports the Griesbach or Two Gospel Hypothesis regarding the production of the Synoptic Gospels, which posits Mark as a later conflation of both Matthew and Luke. To claim otherwise complicates the issue, requiring us to believe that Mark is somehow more correct than Luke, as Arav seems to imply, though the former imposes the anachronistic label of kōmē on Bethsaida during the ministry of Jesus in preference for the status of the place in the author’s time, and the latter correctly depicts it as a polis during Jesus’ ministry. Issue appears be taken with this evidence in Luke, however, for not toeing the party line: not correctly indicating the status of Bethsaida in light of the typically much later date proposed for the writing of Luke in the Two Source Hypothesis (Mark first, Matthew and Luke later drawing on Mark, Q, and other traditions). And yet, Luke could easily have been written during the time when Bethsaida-Julias was a polis, while Mark could just as easily have been written when it was a kōmē, which is the most logical, least complicated, and patently clear explanation of this piece of evidence.

Of course, the above approach requires us to accept as given that each author can only have described Bethsaida using the proper term (kōmē or polis) that applied to the place during the author’s time, rather than the time indicated in the narrative, which is the period of Jesus’ ministry. This approach fails to take into account the evidence found in the Gospel According to John (1.44), where Bethsaida is called “the city (πολεως) of Andrew and Peter.” John is universally recognized to be the latest written among the canonical Gospels, dating to the last decade of the first century AD, when Bethsaida was most decidedly no longer a polis.

A further issue is in regards to the date used by Arav of 30 AD for the establishment of Julias as a polis, and of 68 AD for its demo(li)tion. These are far from certain. Josephus does not give a specific date for the founding of Julias at Bethsaida, but perhaps implies that it was soon after Tiberius became Emperor, in 14 AD (War 2.168), that Philip acted to honor Tiberius’ mother Livia (as some would correct Josephus; see Ant 18.27–28), known as Julia only from that point forward, when she received membership in the gens Iulia by bequest of Augustus. Arav sets the date in 30 AD, soon after the death of Julia, with the foundation of Julias and its temple being simultaneous and intended to reap the benefits of worship of the Imperial family. This is certainly possible, even plausible, though the equation of temple and city is nowhere stated in Josephus. It is necessary, too, to recall that Josephus states that Julias was named after “Caesar’s daughter” (Ant 18.28) this being Julia, daughter of Tiberius and mother of Gaius (Caligula), who fell from favor in 2 BC. Unless we unwisely wish to posit an error on the part of Josephus, this little bit of evidence indicates that Philip founded Julias almost immediately upon recieving his tetrarchy in 4 BC. This is the closest to a precise indicator that Josephus gives for the foundation of Julias, as the other mentions of the founding of the city appear in simplified lists of Philip’s accomplishments. The date for the demotion (nowhere explicitly stated, either) is likewise up in the air, with our only indication being that it is after the first year of the War, obviously, as Josephus is a general, and before the end of the War in 70 AD. The only indication of the timing of its capture by Placidus (War 4.438) is that it is described just prior to Vespasian hearing of the revolt of Vindex against Nero (War 4.440), which occurred in late 67 or early 68, and Nero’s death, which occurred 9 June 68, is related further on (War 4.491). Clearly, 68 AD is the most likely date for the capture of Bethsaida-Julias, and the de facto (de jure?) end of its existence as a polis.

Perhaps Arav’s ongoing excavations of Bethsaida-Julias will eventually clarify the date of its promotion by Philip. For now, all of the above is rather, I think, indicative of the murky and imprecise nature of the intersection of text and trowel. At least, it is not as exact as we would like it to be, with too much vagueness lying in the realms of both. But I want to thank Dr Arav for his fascinating work and his obviously thought-provoking article. I very much look forward to reading more on the work of the Bethsaida excavations, a site which previsously held no interest for me, but which Arav’s article has made much more interesting, particularly the discussion of the Iron Age findings.

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