The place ‘where Jesus miraculously fed the 5,000’ has been totally submerged by flooding, forcing archaeologists to abandon the excavation site.
Bethsaida — hometown to disciples Andrew, Peter and Philip — was reputedly where Christ performed the miracles of feeding the multitude and helping a blind man see.
“For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth” – Isaiah 55:10
Water, giver of life, falling from the skies: so precious that God likens his Word with its bounty. Israelis are usually thrilled when it rains.
Neither, happily, will the ruins at el-Araj, the putative hometown of Jesus’ disciples on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, which waxed fat on the heavy rains this winter, swelled and, as it turns out, flooded the archeological site.
Visiting el-Araj for the first time following the rains, after being shut up at home for weeks because of the coronavirus, archaeologist Prof. Moti Aviam had quite the shock.
“Obviously I knew the Kinneret [Sea of Galilee] had risen, but I didn’t know how its rise would affect the excavation,” the Kinneret College professor tells Haaretz.
“I don’t remember a thing like this in the last 30 years, though I don’t schlep over every year to check it. Even if it rains in April and May [and it did], by July or August the site dries out. But it never occurred to me that the lagoon would encompass the whole site of el-Araj.”
Normally el-Araj is on land, surrounded by trees. Some are now sitting in water. Not all parts of the site are submerged, but it’s surrounded.
The higher points – happily with some of the ruins on them – look like tiny islands.
But the remains of the Byzantine structure that Aviam and Notley believe is the Church of the Apostles are underwater.
Instead of archaeologists happily seeking new finds, it’s populated by catfish.
Bethsaida — the biblical hometown to disciples Andrew, Peter and Philip — was reputedly where Jesus performed a number of miracles.
These included the feeding of the 5,000, in which Christ — following the death of John the Baptist — used five loaves and two fishes supplied by a boy to feed a crowd of his followers.
The Gospel of Mark, meanwhile, tells of a blind man of Bethsaida whose sight was restored after two blessings from Jesus.
El-Araj, also known as Beit Habek, is a candidate for the site of the ancient Jewish fishing village of Bethsaida, recorded in the New Testament as the birthplace of three of Jesus’ disciples: Peter, Andrew and Philip.
For the last 10 years el-Araj has been located a few hundred meters from the northernmost point of the lake, where the Jordan River spills into it.
The team excavating el-Araj believe it is also the site where King Herod Philip built the Roman-type city (polis) of Julius.
Another candidate for Bethsaida is et-Tell, a little further north of el-Araj on the north shore of the lake. The excavation there and case for its identity as the Iron Age village of Bethsaida is spearheaded by the archaeologist Prof. Rami Arav of the University of Nebraska Omaha.
Rise and fall of a lagoon
Precipitation in general, and the level of the Sea of Galilee in particular, are a matter of national interest, even obsession.
The last decade has been marked by drought and, though hardly tapped for drinking water anymore, the lake had been shrinking fast.
Its rebound this winter to its highest level in 16 years was hailed nationwide, even if the masses were forbidden to go there – or anywhere else but the grocery – because of the coronavirus.
The refilling of the lake was a point of light in a dark time for the people, the Kinneret College observes.
Israel is riddled with faults and Lake Kinneret formed in the massive Dead Sea Rift fault line. In fact, in the very distant past, the Sea of Galilee and Dead Sea were a large single lake called Lake Lisan, which existed between about 70,000 to 15,000 years ago. In other words, the whole area is seismically frisky, which can affect the level of the lake too.
And there are huge sinkholes devouring the shores of the shrinking Dead Sea: