Along the Shore of the Sea of Galilee:
Korazin and Bethsaida


"Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida" (Luke 10:13).


In the footsteps of Jesus...

Our minds filled with images of Jesus' life and ministry centered in Capernaum, our tour bus takes us east a short distance to a road going north away from the Sea of Galilee, climbing above sea level, first to Almagor, then a little farther on, to the site of the once flourishing Jewish town of Korazin.

Korazin (Greek, of uncertain derivation, meaning "a furnace of smoke") has been described as "Capernaum with a view (of the lake)." Also on the Via Maris, it was situated high on the basalt hills above Capernaum, about 2 miles up the steep and difficult route through the Wadi Kerazeh, and was one of numerous towns that thrived in the Galilee at the time of Jesus. In the Talmud it is mentioned as a place famous for its wheat. Standing among the ruins of this ancient town and looking down at the blue waters of the Sea of Galilee, 885 feet below, one can't help but be inspired.

(Above left) overall view of the Korazin site; (Above right) toward the Sea of Galilee from Korazin.

In the Gospels, Korazin ("Chorazin" in KJV and ASV) is best known as one of the cities (together with Bethsaida and Capernaum) condemned by Jesus for failing to accept his teachings:

"Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! 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 up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. 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 11:21-24).

The remains of this once flourishing Jewish town are now a national park, under the care of the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority. The excavations stand on a low hill above the Sea of Galilee and are spread over an area of 25 acres, subdivided into five separate quarters. Excavations suggest the town was founded in the 1st or 2nd century BC and concentrated mostly on the north side of the hill. By the late 3rd-early 4th centuries AD, it extended over most of the hill.

Remains at the site include residential buildings, streets, houses, ritual bath (mikveh), olive press and a large 4th-5th century AD synagogue (top row, left and right; bottom row, left). Built, like the rest of the town's houses, of local black basalt stone, it stood on an elevated area in the center of the town. It was approached by two flights of steps and is in the form of a basilica with three aisles (as at Capernaum). Around the walls were stone benches on which the community sat during worship services. This imposing structure is probably one of the most beautiful lesser-known ancient synagogues in Israel. It clearly attests to a mastery of stonework by its builders who ingeniously worked within the limitations of their primary building material. Basalt can become brittle and break easily, limiting the length of support beams, which averaged about six feet in length. This restricted the size of the rooms that could be built. To support these beams, internal walls were built, while in other instances a beam was placed between arched openings (six feet from the wall) and the outer wall. The rich ornamentation of the stones tell us that Korazin was not an impoverished community!

With two rows of columns along its length and one row along its width, the synagogue featured beautiful carvings (as at Capernaum); an assortment of Jewish symbols and inscriptions in both Aramaic and Hebrew. It had three entrances, and as was the custom at the time, the front faced south toward Jerusalem. One of the interesting finds was a stone seat carved from a single block of basalt where the Torah reader sat. Dubbed the "Chair of Moses" or "Moses Seat" (above right), it is inscribed in Aramaic: "May Yudan Son of Ishmael who made this hall and its staircase be remembered for good. As his reward, may he have a share with the righteous." It was reserved for a visitor or the most distinguished elder of the synagogue. A reference to such a place of honor is found in Matthew 23:

"Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 'The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach'" (Matthew 23:1-3).

The town and the synagogue appear to have been destroyed in the latter part of the 4th century AD (earthquake?) and both were rebuilt in the 5th century AD. Jewish fishermen lived in Korazin as late as the 16th century AD.

(Above) Photos from the Korazin site: top two rows show houses; (Bottom row, left) olive crusher and oil press; bottom row, right rock badger (Hyrax)

From Korazin, we backtrack to the lakeside road and head roughly 1 mile northeast to the Arik Bridge (below left), an army construction of wooden planks that takes us across the Jordan River. For those of us who grew up with images of this famed river in children's Bible story books are soon disappointed by its somewhat muddy appearance. At this point, so near its sources, it is surprising to see how small a stream it really is. Seldom more than 30 feet wide, it is often shallow enough to wade through. The Jordan enters the Sea of Galilee a few hundred yards to our right. Along the road we note a number of yellow signs with red triangles (below right) informing us in three languages of the presence of mine fields in the area. We shudder collectively when our guide Doran warns us never to venture off the road. "Obey the signs and you'll be safe!" he says, with a little more force.

Soon after the Arik bridge a left turn onto Route 888 takes us to the Jordan River Park and the north-south mound (tell) of Bethsaida. At the time of Jesus, Bethsaida was part of the pagan territory of Gaulanitis (Golan Heights), ruled by the tetrarch Herod Philip. Bethsaida is best known to Christians as the hometown of three of Jesus' disciples: Philip and the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew.

Bethsaida - a lost city rediscovered

Many pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land are under the impression that all of the sites mentioned in the Bible have been found and can be visited. Alas, a good number of the places in the Scriptures have yet to be positively identified; some, like Bethsaida, have only recently been located.

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, Bethsaida was destroyed by two earthquakes and never rebuilt. The town simply disappeared and for years its exact location was even questioned. Researchers have uncovered 27 pilgrim accounts from the Middle Ages describing their attempts to find the city but, they simply had no idea where it had been. With no consensus reached as to its location, it simply slept, forgotten, for 1700 years. Happily, however, it has again been found, but not on the shore of the Sea of Galilee as expected.

In the early 1980's, Benedictine monk and archaeologist, Father Bargil Pixner, began his search for Bethsaida. Combing the scriptures and other historical records (1st century AD Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, for example) for clues, he determined that the city lay on a 100-foot rise simply called et-Tell ("the mound"), one and a half miles north of the Sea of Galilee, just east of where the Jordan River flows into the lake. In 1985 he published a landmark article in Biblical Archaeological Review, but many experts disagreed with his conclusion, stating that the site was too far from the lake. Excavations began at et-Tell in 1987. Meanwhile, investigations confirmed that the Sea of Galilee may have included a series of estuaries leading off a large lagoon just north of the present day coast (today it is the Bethsaida plain), and that the flow of the Jordan River, along with a series of earthquakes, caused the north shore of the Sea of Galilee to recede (the water level of the Sea of Galilee was higher during biblical times). As a result, Bethsaida, which had originally been built on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, came to be situated to the north. Furthermore, of all the candidates for Bethsaida, only et-Tell was occupied in the Roman period (37 BC-324 AD).

(Above) Looking west toward the Jordan River as it nears the Sea of Galilee.

(Left) Overhead view of Et-Tell (Bethsaida) excavations, with the Bethsaida plain beyond.

Beginning in 1989, the State of Israel recognized et-Tell as the official location of Bethsaida on Israeli maps and, in 1991, the Bethsaida Excavation Project, housed at the University of Omaha, was formed to supervise recovery of the 21-acre mound, one of the largest ever discovered on the Sea of Galilee. Excavations are ongoing and it is assumed that further finds await the archeologists' spades. In 1998, after ten years of excavation, Bethsaida was opened to the public for the first time, and it is the only place where one can actually see the remains of an entire city of the Biblical era which was not rebuilt in intervening centuries. Building material wasn't removed for use in later structures, and no churches were constructed over the ruins (as in other Galilee cities like Capernaum and Nazareth). The ruins of the town that Jesus knew can be studied in the same condition as when it was abandoned. No major restorations have been done; the dirt has simply been cleaned up so ruins remain in much the same condition that they were during Jesus' lifetime. Thus, Bethsaida provides scholars and pilgrims with a first hand look at life at the time of Jesus and his disciples. At Bethsaida Christian pilgrims can literally walk on streets that Jesus walked.

Bethsaida means "house of the hunter" or "house of the fisherman" (the latter is preferable because of its location). It was already an ancient place when Jesus visited it. During the time of King David, the thriving city served as the capitol of the kingdom of Geshur, but it was destroyed in 732 BC by the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser III. Soon after the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 BC, new life was infused into the town. New markets were opened to the Phoenician coastal cities to the west. New settlers came to Bethsaida and to other places in Galilee and developed merchandise such as wine, olive oil, linen and dried fish. In 90 BC the Seleucid dynasty, which ruled over Syria and Mesopotamia, collapsed and never recovered. A few years later, the Hasmonean ruler Alexander Jannaeus invaded the former Seleucid territories and conquered Galilee and Gaulanitis. Mimicking his father's earlier actions in Idumea he forcibly converted the local Phoenician population and brought in Jewish settlers.

Bethsaida at the time of Jesus

At the time of Jesus Bethsaida was a large village covering an area of about 20 acres. The ancient city walls could still be seen (below left, remains of the eastern wall) so that it looked like a fortified village. Still, it was a working-class settlement populated by hard working people living a simple, no frills way of life — nothing too fancy about the homes or public buildings in this seaside town. (Below right, main street of ancient Bethsaida)

Bethsaida was a fishing village, most of the families living there were supported by the "fish of the sea." From this period, several private houses in a residential quarter were excavated. Constructed of basalt and probably two stories high, they included a paved, open courtyard surrounded by several rooms. In one of the houses, dubbed the "House of the Fisherman" (below, with artist's reconstruction), lead fishing net weights, anchors, needles and fishhooks were found, attesting to a fishing-based economy. It is impossible to know if this house was ever home to the fishermen disciples Peter, Andrew or Philip. But, it is a perfect example of the type of house in which the apostles would have hosted their rabbi*, Jesus.

*Rabbi, from Greek rhabbi, meaning "my great one, my honorable sir," a title used by the Jews to address their teachers.

In another structure, dubbed the "House of the Vine Grower" (below, with artist's reconstruction), excavators discovered a wine cellar with wine jars and hooks for pruning vines. Here, too, they found three bent nails (probably from the door hinges) and an iron key (a symbol of Peter), a replica of which was given to Pope John Paul II while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the spring of 2000. In yet another house, which archaeologists named "Salome's House" after the mother of Apostles James and John, was found a wine cellar, wine jars, an oven and two basalt stones used for grinding grain. There is, however, no known connection between this house and Salome.

Contemporary Jewish historian Flavius Josephus related (Antiquities of the Jews, book 18, chapter 2:1) that the tetrarch Herod Philip, one of the sons of Herod the Great, whose territory included the northern part of the country (the Golan Heights), elevated the city to the status of a Greek city-state (polis) and renamed it Bethsaida-Julias, in honor of Livia Drusilla (called Julia Augusta after 14 AD), the third wife of the Emperor Augustus. Philip also built a lavishly decorated temple on the highest spot of the town. In recent years cult objects were found in and around the temple, including a pair of bronze incense shovels, pottery jugs used for ritual practices, figurines, amulets and votive objects. The building had particularly thick walls; stones decorated with meander and floral motifs suggest its elegance. The temple did not serve for more than a century, however. The excavations reveal that during the 2nd century AD it went out of use and a private house was built over it. Bethsaida's status as a polis, together with this temple, suggest that it was a center of the Roman emperor-worship cult.

Apparently Bethsaida was an important city in the Galilee-Golan area at this time for, according to Josephus, Philip died in the city after a reign of 37 years and was buried there with great ceremony. He had lived out his life quietly with his own domain, enjoying his final years with his wife, Salome — the same Salome who had danced for Antipas and requested the head of John the Baptist.

Bethsaida's connection to Jesus and his disciples

Bethsaida is mentioned in the Gospels more often than any other town except Jerusalem and Capernaum. The town, just north of the Sea of Galilee, was home to Peter, Andrew and Philip (John 1:44) and, according to tradition, Zebedee and his sons, James and John. Jesus knew Bethsaida well (Matthew 11:21). He visited the town and performed several miracles there:

"When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, but the crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing" (Luke 9:10-11).

Subsequent verses give the impression the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 took place at Bethsaida:

"Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, 'Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.' He replied, 'You give them something to eat.' They answered, 'We have only five loaves of bread and two fish — unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.' (About five thousand men were there.) But he said to his disciples, 'Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.' The disciples did so, and everybody sat down. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to set before the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over" (Luke 9:12-17).

Note: The number of baskets of leftover food — twelve — is obviously related to the twelve tribes of Israel. Perhaps the symbolic message here is that this is a Messiah who cares for ALL of the Jewish people. Also, the type of basket used in this account is called, in Greek, kophinos, a large round basket for carrying items on the head, in the time honored Middle Eastern tradition.

Furthermore, it is now thought that the boy's "two fish" were sardines, plentiful in the Sea of Galilee. Obviously the boy could not have had them in his lunch unless they were preserved in some fashion — either salted or smoked. It is even quite possible that these little fish were originally processed at Magdala, the main fish-processing center on the lake.

In Mark's Gospel, Jesus cures a blind man at Bethsaida:

"They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spat on the man's eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, 'Do you see anything?' He looked up and said, 'I see people; they look like trees walking around.' Once more Jesus put his hands on the man's eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly" (Mark 8:22-25).

Mark also locates one of Jesus' most famous miracles — his walk on the water — near Bethsaida:

"Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray. When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch* of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified. Immediately he spoke to them and said, 'Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid.' Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed" (Mark 6:45-51).

A "watch" was a period of time during which a guard detail was on duty, at the end of which others relieved them. After the Jews became subject to the Romans, they adopted the Roman custom of dividing the night into four watches. The "fourth watch" was the last time period leading up to the sunrise.

Two things to notice about this account: First, it is amazing that when one of the characteristic squalls — caused by cold winds from the west, or from the north channeled down the Jordan River gorge — struck the Sea of Galilee, Jesus simply sat on the mountainside for some 6 to 8 hours observing the disciples struggling against the wind to reach the shore! Second, as he is walking toward them on the water, he almost walks past them! Was this a test of faith?
Bethsaida (with nearby Korazin) was also the target of a curse by Jesus for not responding to his message:

"Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! 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" (Matthew 11:21).

With the sun low on the western horizon, we head back to the bus, exhilarated by all the images that now fill our heads. Never again will we be able read the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life and ministry along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and separate them from the smells, sounds and sights now ingrained in our imaginations.

Jesus' Life Home n Continue following Jesus' Galilee ministry: elsewhere in Galilee



An unexpected discovery at Bethsaida

A thousand years before the time of Jesus, Bethsaida was the capital of a small Aramian kingdom of Geshur and was known as Zer, mentioned in the book of Joshua:

"The fortified cities were Ziddim, Zer, Hammath, Rakkath, Kinnereth…" (Joshua 19:35)

According to Joshua 13 the Israelites drive out the Geshurites:

"But the Israelites did not drive out the people of Geshur and Maacah, so they continue to live among the Israelites to this day." (Joshua 13:13)

Zer was surrounded by a massive 20-25-foot-thick wall to protect it against the formidable Assyrian battering ram.

The Bible mentions one of the kings of Geshur, Talmai son of Ammihud (2 Samuel 13:37). King David married Talmai's daughter, Maacah (2 Samuel 3:3), presumably to strengthen ties between Israel and Geshur.

Maacah was the mother of King David's third son, Absalom, who ordered his men to kill his half-brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13:28). Afterward Absalom fled and went to Geshur, where he stayed for three years (2 Samuel 13:38).

Among the discoveries dating from 9th century (Iron-Age) was a huge city-gate (below, with reconstruction) built over a 10th century BC gate. The gate entrance was flanked by two massive defense towers, each 20 by 32 feet. Cult niches were cut into each tower one for Israelites (in the north tower); one for non-Israelites (south tower). Each group could pay homage to its respective deities before entering city.

Excavators discovered pieces of a three-foot-high basalt stele carved with a stylized bull (above right) with crescent-shaped horns. Armed with a dagger and standing at the city’s entrance, it was a not so subtle “Keep out!” message to enemies. The carved figure may depict the Mesopotamian moon god, Sin, represented as a bull. "Sin" was one of two highly popular gods in the Near East, believed to be the creator of the universe. The idol was likely smashed during the Assyrian destruction of the city in 734 BC (2 Kings 15:29-30).

In the south tower of the gate was an Israelite cult niche. It had no steps, only a sloping ramp, and no idol!

Jesus' Life Home n Continue following Jesus' Galilee ministry: elsewhere in Galilee