Bethsaida in the Gospels: A Dynamic Portrait

Nancy Morgan Mason

Abstract


This paper will examine the usage of a town called Bethsaida within the contexts of the Gospels, other first- and second-century literature, and archaeology. The four Gospels are unique historical and literary sources, generally recording similar events and serving, in many cases, as sources for one another. They are interconnected in such a way that, if the same subject is discussed and narrated differently by each of the authors, motivations likely exist behind why an author changed, or omitted, what his forerunners wrote. Many idiosyncrasies exist within the four Gospels in respect to their references to the town of Bethsaida. Mark considers Capernaum to be the hometown of Andrew and Peter, while John lists their home as Bethsaida. In Mark, Jesus asks the disciples to head to Bethsaida after the feeding of the 5,000, while in Luke they are already in Bethsaida when the 5,000 are fed. It appears that Mark, the original Gospel writer, portrayed Bethsaida as Gentile, whereas Matthew, Luke, and John painted a Jewish picture of Bethsaida. A similar shift seems to occur in non-biblical literary sources that mention Bethsaida during the first and second centuries (Josephus, Pliny, Ptolemy): from a Gentile to a Jewish place and from a non-Galilean town to a Galilean one. Additionally, the archaeological record at Et-Tell, which has been identified as Bethsaida, appears to show an influx in its Jewish presence beginning around the first-century BCE. This differing evidence, with shifts in literature showing up around the first-century CE and shifts in archaeology showing up around the first-century BCE, could make sense if we consider that a shift in reputation takes significant time, even in the modern world. Thus there appears to have been a shift in both Bethsaida’s relationship to Galilee and its ethnographic and metaphorically geographic reputation that can be seen in the Gospels, other first- and second-century writings, and the archaeological record.


Keywords


(Bethsaida; Metaphorical Geography; Gospels; New Testament; Matthew; Mark; Luke; John; Ptolemy; Pliny; Josephus; Archaeology; Et-Tell; Population; Jew; Gentile)

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