“When the apostles returned, they told Jesus everything they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew privately to a town called Bethsaida.” Luke 9:10 (NET Bible)

The small fishing village of Bethsaida, mentioned on several occasions in the New Testament, literally means “house of fishing”.  However, Bethsaida lies almost three kilometers from Lake Galilee’s waters edge!  How can this be?  The solution to this conundrum provides a classic example of how Earth Science and Archeology can interact with Biblical scholarship to shed light on Biblical interpretation.

The most likely location of Bethsaida is the present day location of Et-Tell, which as I say lies some distance from the waters edge.  In order to understand how this could be we must appreciate that landscapes change and evolve over time.  In this particular instance an understanding of plate tectonics, landslides, lake level variations, and delta formation are needed in order to appreciate how these processes have shaped the landscape.

The Jordan Valley lies along a major fault line.  The friction between the sliding African and Arabian plates has given rise to many earthquakes (about one every hundred years) several of which are recorded in the Bible.  Tectonic rifting has caused significant uplift at et-Tell; furthermore sediment layers at the site have revealed a history of major landslide events.  One such debris layer, carbon-14 dated to a period just subsequent to New Testament events, measures 50 by 200 by 25 metres.  Such a large debris flow would have damed up the Jordan River, eventually causing a catastrophic outburst flood  (as is evidenced by boulders scattered up to 40 meters from the present river course).  In addition silt from the Jordan river has built up over time gradually filling the northern section of the lake, hence the Jordan delta has been extended by extensive sedimentation.  Water levels of the Sea of Galilee have themselves fluctuated in response to climate and have declined drastically due to land irrigation (see for example our discussions on this blog highlighting the historical changes to the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea).  When carefully piecing this evidence together a picture emerges that  suggests this site was located either at the shoreline or easily accessible to the lake via an estuary during New Testament times.  There is also textual evidence (e.g. from Josephus) as well as archeological evidence.   Further and more detailed information on the evidence for this deduction are well described is an article at The Bible and Interpretation entitled Why the fishing town Bethsaida is not found along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  The wikipedia entry for Bethsaida also provides some good information.

“Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dispersed the crowd.” Mark 6:45 (NET Bible)

Further to the worrying situation with the River Jordan and the Dead Sea (blogged about here and here) I now read about the collapsing fish stocks in the Sea of Galilee (see this article in the Times newspaper).

The article concerns the ban on catching the much sort after ‘St. Peter’s fish’ (formally Sarotherodon galilaeus galilaeus of the tilapia genus) in the Sea of Galilee.

“Stocks have dropped drastically in the past decade because of environmental and human factors. Annual catches of the St Peter’s fish, which takes its name from the New Testament story in which Jesus’s disciple, Peter, netted a fish with a gold coin in its mouth — and paid his taxes with it — have dropped from 300 tonnes to only 8.” James Hider and Yonit Farago from The Times, May 26 2010

The New Testament story is from the Gospel of Matthew:

When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” Matthew 17:24-27 ESV

As has been astutely pointed about by Mark Goodacre over at NTblog the coin referred to in the Times article as gold was in fact a silver coin.  The greek word, στατήρ (stater), translated in the ESV as a shekel was of course worth four drachma and hence the coin paid for both Peter’s and Jesus’ temple tax.

Fascinating, one of the stated reasons for the drastic decline in stocks includes the following:

“One of the problems originated in the Gulf War in 1991, when Saddam Hussein set fire to Kuwait’s oil wells before being driven out by a US-led offensive. The resulting cloud of smoke permanently diverted migration routes of up to 10,000 hungry cormorants, which now fly up the African Rift Valley to the Sea of Galilee and guzzle its fish.”  James Hider and Yonit Farago from The Times, May 26 2010

Of course one of the major reasons for the fish decline is illegal and over fishing.  It’s a lucrative business providing for all the tourists who want to eat the fish that Jesus ate.