Several passages in the Gospels make it clear that Jesus ministered to multitudes from all over Galilee (Matt 4:23-25; 9:35; Mark 1:39; Luke 4:14-15; 6:17-19) in fulfillment of Isaiah 9:1-2 (Matt 4:12-17). We resume our Israel is Real 2019 series with a look at Bethsaida, Capernaum, and Chorazin. These three villages are within about five miles of each on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee; all three figure prominently in the Gospel narratives. They are singled out for special mention by Jesus, and not in a good way (Matt 11:20-24; Luke 10:13-15).
Legacy is a word that is overused today, but it is fitting to think of these three villages with this word in mind. God graciously gives us opportunities to turn to him and use our lives for his glory and the good of our fellow humans. Our legacy depends on how we respond to these God-given opportunities. In this post we look into Bethsaida, Capernaum, and Chorazin as both historical places and as ethical lessons. These villages had many opportunities to respond to Jesus and his teaching, but their lack of response led to a horrible legacy. May God grant that learning about their history will lead us to avoid their legacy.
The Sea of Galilee
The term sea appears a bit exaggerated for this large fresh-water lake. Roughly harp-shaped, it is over twelve miles long, nearly eight miles wide, and around 150 feet deep. The “Sea” is part of the Jordan geological rift valley. With its surface roughly 700 feet below sea level, it is the lowest fresh water lake in the world. Mountains and hills surround the Sea except at its southern end and northwest projection, where there are fertile plains. The Jordan River (Mark 1:9; 3:8; 10:1) rises from sources roughly thirty miles to the north near Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27), and flows into the northern end of the Sea. The river exits at the south end of the Sea and flows around sixty miles south to the Dead Sea. The area around the Sea may well have been the most densely populated region of Galilee because the Sea produced many fish and the rich alluvial soil around the Sea yielded plentiful crops (Josephus, War 3.43, 508, 520).
Fishing in the Sea was a key part of the subsistence economy of ancient Galilee (e.g. Matt 4:18-22; Luke 5:1-11; John 21). Four of the twelve original followers of Jesus were fishermen to whom Jesus said “Follow me and I will show you how to fish for people!” (Matt 4:19 NLT). Jesus commonly traveled by boat across the Sea and on two occasions miraculously delivered the disciples from severe storms that suddenly arose (Matt 8:23-27//Mark 4:35-41//Luke 8:22-25; Matt 14:22-33//Mark 6:45-52//John 6:15-21).
The Bible refers to this body of water in several different ways:
- the lake (Luke 8:22, 33)
- the Lake of Gennesaret (Luke 5:1); Genessaret is likely a variation of Kinneret. Josephus called the lake Gennesar (Antiquities 13.158), Gennessar (War 2.573), or Genesareth (Antiquities 5.84; War 3.463, 506; Life 349). Today the plain on the NW shore of the Sea is called Ginosar. In 1986 fishermen from the kibbutz there discovered the ancient boat (sometimes called the Jesus boat) featured in many study tours of Israel.
- the sea (e.g. Matt 4:13; 8:24; 13:1; Mark 2:13; 4:1; 5:1; John 6:16; cf. Jospehus War 3.413)
- the Sea of Galilee (Matt 4:18; 15:29; Mark 1:16; 7:31; John 6:1)
- the Sea of Kinneret (Num 34:11; Josh 13:27; cf. 11:2; 19:35); Israelis today simply call it the Kinneret.
- the Sea of Tiberias (John 6:1); Roman sources and the Talmud also use this term.
Today the Sea provides only about 10% of Israel’s drinking water, but in the past as the main reservoir for Israel’s National Water Carrier it provided a much higher percentage. Disputes over the use of the water were part of the tension leading to the Six Day War in 1967, leading to Israel’s acquisition of the Golan Heights to the north and east of the Sea. Gradual salinization of the Sea is a major ecological concern today. Underground salt springs feed the lake, and it is necessary that the supply of fresh water from the Jordan River and other sources be maintained to avoid excessive salt content. A project is underway to bring desalinated water from the Mediterranean to the Sea.
The etymology of Bethsaida (בית צידה), “house of hunting or catching,” may reflect its location and economy. The Jerusalem Talmud (ca. 300CE) likely refers to it simply as Saidan (צַידָן) and comments about the numerous fish found there (Sheḳalim 6:2). The village of Bethsaida was honored by Philip the Tetrarch (Luke 3:1), who raised it to the rank of a city around 31 CE, and called it Julias, in honor of Julia, the daughter of Augustus the emperor (Josephus, Antiquities 18.28; War 2.168, 3.515; Life 399). Although its exact location is still disputed, Bethsaida was located near the northern tip of the Sea on the east side of the upper Jordan River. Bethsaida was the home town of Philip, Peter, and Andrew (John 1:44; 12:21). Jesus healed a blind man there (Mark 8:22-26), and fed the multitudes (Luke 9:10-17) nearby in a “desolate place” (ESV 9:12; “desert,” KJV). But the word ἔρημος (erēmos) in this context should not be understood to imply mistakenly that the fertile grassy plain of Bethsaida was a desert, a dismal place. It simply means that the miracle was performed in a “remote” (NIV, NLT) spot in terms of nearby human occupation.
Et-Tell or el-Araj? Although there is some debate about multiple places known as Bethsaida, it is most likely that there was only one such place. Rami Arav and other archaeologists believe that the et-Tell is the site of New Testament Bethsaida, and tourists who go there see signs identifying it as Bethsaida. The site has an impressive Iron Age (10th century BCE) gate, and many of its remains are from Old Testament times. Some identify et-Tell with biblical Zer (Josh 19:35). Be that as it may, it seems odd that the site of an ancient fishing village would be over a mile from the current shoreline of the Sea at a rather high elevation, as the map above shows. Advocates of et-Tell point to earthquakes and fluctuating water levels as evidence that et-Tell may have been on the Sea’s shoreline in ancient times, but Steven Notley argues strongly to the contrary in “Et-Tell is not Bethsaida.” Another likely site of NT Bethsaida is el-Araj, a partially-submerged shoreline site. Roman-era remains have been found on the surface of the site, and recently a Roman bathhouse was discovered under the previously known Byzantine remains. Just this week a preliminary report from the current excavation season at el-Araj describes the discovery of a church mentioned by early Christian pilgrims that commemorated the site as the hometown of Philip, Andrew, and Peter.
Mendel Nun argues for el-Araj in “Has Bethsaida Finally Been Found?” This video promoting el-Araj as Bethsaida provides a helpful perspective on the topography of the area, whether one accepts El Araj as Bethsaida or not.
Capernaum, clearly the most prominent of the three villages, is only about three miles west of either of the probable locations of Bethesda. Jesus moved from Nazareth northeast about 20 miles to Capernaum when his public ministry began (Matt 4:13; 9:1). The village then became a sort of hub for Jesus’ ministry, figuring prominently in all four Gospels. Many of Jesus’ activities occurred in Capernaum and its vicinity, including:
- an early visit there with his family (John 2:12)
- an allusion to previous miracles done there (Luke 4:23)
- an exorcism early in his ministry (Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:31-37)
- healing Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt 8:14-15; Mark 1:29-31; Luke 4:38-39)
- healing a centurion’s servant (Matt 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10; John 4:46-54)
- healing a paralyzed man (Matt 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26)
- Calling Levi/Matthew (Matt 9:9-13; Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27-32)
- walking on water (Matt14:22-27; Mark 6:45-52; John 6:16-21)
- teaching on the bread of life (John 6:22-59)
- the question of the Temple tax (Matt 17:24-27)
- the matter of who is greatest in the kingdom (Matt 18:1-5; Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48)
The “white synagogue,” built with limestone quarried at some distance away, stands out in a village constructed with rough dark basalt stones. The synagogue was built in the fourth century, plausibly on the foundation of the synagogue visited by Jesus (Mark 1:21; Luke 7:4; John 6:59).
Another prominent ruin in Capernaum is known as St. Peter’s house. A small first century rectangular stone house was later remodeled and expanded, becoming a simple church. In the fifth century an octagonal memorial was built over it. In 1990 the Franciscans added the Pilgrimage Church of St. Peter, set on pillars over the site with an open center so that the remains could be viewed from the sides and above.
Chorazin or Korazim sits on a hillside two miles north of Capernaum. It is only mentioned once in the Gospel tradition, in a passage we will speak about below. Today the 3rd-4th century CE village has been restored as a national park, but no remains from the days of Jesus are available.
The most notable feature of the village is its synagogue, built in the third or fourth centuries CE from rough basalt stones with decorative carvings of plants, animals , and mythological figures. Visitors today sometimes use the ancient synagogue for Bar Mitzvah ceremonies and weddings. Near the synagogue are the remains of a ritual bath (mikveh).
A well known find at Chorazin is the carved basalt seat discovered in 1926 near the southern entrance to the synagogue. It bears an Aramaic inscription honoring a donor: “May Judah ben Israel be remembered for good, who made this stoa and its staircase. May he have a place with the righteous as his reward.” Similar seats have been found in several other ancient synagogues. The common association of these seats with Matthew 23:2 (“the scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat”) may be mistaken. It seems more likely that Jesus was alluding to Exodus 18:13-27 and speaking of Moses “chair” as a metaphor for authoritative teaching and fair judgment.
In Luke 4:16-21 Jesus stood to read from Isaiah and sat down when he was finished. The seats discovered at Chorazin and other ancient synagogues could very well be for the synagogue official who presided over the services (Mark 5:22; Acts 13:15; 18:8, 17). Rachel Hachlili’s book on the archaeology and art of ancient synagogues (pp. 217-20) discusses the matter more fully. Perhaps the Roman Catholic view of the authority of ex-cathedra (“from the chair”) papal teachings is similar to this ancient practice.
To whom much is given . . .
Bethsaida, Capernaum, and Chorazin, were typical Galilean villages of their day, populated mainly by laborers and artisans who worked hard for their money. These otherwise unremarkable villages are noteworthy because they had many opportunities to turn to Jesus, but their overall response was a collective shrug. Jesus singled them out for scathing prophetic condemnation because they did not repent despite often hearing him teach and seeing his miracles:
Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent.
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!
For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.
And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.
For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” – Matthew 11:20-24 NIV
No doubt some people in these villages responded to Jesus, but most did not. They may have met their obligations to their families and their jobs, but they neglected their obligation to God. How is it with us? Are we squandering our opportunities to learn about Jesus and follow him? The greater our opportunity, the greater our responsibility. The greater our responsibility, the greater our liability for judgment. God help us to do more than shrug at Jesus!
It all boils down to this basic principle:
When someone has been given much,
much will be required in return;
and when someone has been entrusted with much,
even more will be required. – Luke 12:48 NIV
Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matt 13:1-9//Mark 4:1-9//Luke 8:4-8) warns us that the deception of Satan, the opposition of others, and our own materialism may cause us to miss our opportunity to follow him and lead to the most regrettable legacy:
Listen then to what the parable of the sower means:
• When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path.
• The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.
• The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.
• But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” – Matthew 13:18-23 NIV