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'Jesus Walked Here' :: Dr. Elizabeth McNamer on the Evidence and Significance of Bethsaida

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jan 13, 2017

"It's the feast of St. Basil," Dr. Elizabeth McNamer announces, sweeping into the room, just before she launches into a brief, off-the-cuff lecture about feast days and the controversies that were faced by the early church. ("You think we have a lot of strain talking about things like the election," she points out; "Well, these people had it much worse. They were talking about God!")

Dr. McNamer, a professor of Religious Studies at the Catholic Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana, has a fluent manner of imparting knowledge. As a matter of full disclosure, it's a manner I have witnessed firsthand over the course of several decades: She was one of my instructors in Catholic high school. Since then, I have twice accompanied Dr. McNamer to Israel, to an archaeological dig to which she brought students and interested adult volunteers for a couple of weeks each summer over the course of two decades.

You won't hear much about Bethsaida these days, unless you are an avid reader of the Holy Bible. The city is cited by name throughout the New Testament. It was, as Dr. McNamer describes in her new book "The Case for Bethsaida After Twenty Years of Digging: Understanding the Historical Jesus," a city of central importance to early Christianity, being the place of origin of at least five -- and possible as many as nine -- of Jesus' disciples. As it turns out, when the Son of Man told those closest to him that he intended for them to become "fishers of men," he was only speaking their language: Two millennia ago, Bethsaida was situated on the shore of Lake Kinneret, a body of water also known by the name given to it in scripture: The Sea of Galilee. Israel is a geologically active place, and earthquakes there are commonplace; over time, the lake's bed has shifted dramatically, which is one reason why the mound (or "tell") of the long-buried city lay so long unidentified.

Seekers of the lost city had many different theories, and many different candidates as to where Bethsaida's ruins might be located. Then a priest and scholar named Bargil Pixner identified what he thought was the site, and his theory turned out to be backed by archaeological evidence. More than two decades of digging by university students and volunteers has turned up anchors, fishing weights, wine jugs, and other relics one would have expected to find at a seaside settlement where the fishing business thrived alongside that of imports and exports. Relics recovered from the site also show a long history of occupation; this was a well-established population center in the ancient world.

Dr. McNamer covers all the archaeological evidence in her book, but also paints a vivid picture of Bethsaida as a place of commerce, a center of political and economic importance, and a city inhabited by well-educated, cosmopolitan men who would have been well equipped to hear the Word of God -- and take that Word to others in the ancient world.

From this backdrop, familiar figures from the New Testament emerge with startling new clarity, and not just the men. Dr. McNamer also creates a very different portrait of Mary Magdalene than the one tradition has long promoted. A woman of the world, yes, but not of the streets, Magdalene was -- Dr. McNamer argues -- an upper class woman of means whose financial support was vital to the mission of Jesus and his disciples.

Dr. McNamer fills in other blanks as well, offering her theories on where Jesus might have learned the healing arts, and grounding her narrative in the social and political situation during his lifetime.

For the faithful seeking a fuller understanding of Jesus -- and also for those with a historical or a scientific interest in the Middle East of antiquity -- Bethsaida has emerged as locus of intense interest. It was a pleasure to meet with Dr. McNamer to discuss her book and remember why Bethsaida remains uniquely special even in our modern times.


EDGE: You had known Father Bargil Pixner and heard his stories; he was the one who identified the site that's now thought to be the Biblical city of Bethsaida. How did he come to decide that this particular tell had to be the ruins of the very city that's mentioned so often in the Bible?

Elizabeth McNamer: Bethsaida had been lost for two thousand years. Nobody knew where it was. There had been an earthquake that had happened in the second century, fairly soon after the death of Jesus, that had changed the whole topography of the area. Bethsaida was no longer beside the Sea of Galilee, as it was in the time of Jesus; it was a mile and a half away. It wasn't rebuilt because it was too far to make fishing viable.

The other towns associated with Jesus, like Capernaum, Chorazin, all did rebuild. What you're seeing there is a little later than the time of Jesus. Well, [Bethsaida] was lost. I've read pilgrims' accounts of those who went to Israel, and many of them tried to find it, but couldn't. It seems as though somebody was showing them around said, 'Oh, there's Bethsaida.' Well, it wasn't; none of them were correct. I've read all of their journals. But there was concerted effort to locate this after the science of archaeology became available ... and a man by the name of James Robinson went to Israel to locate places having to do with Jesus. He had pointed out that it had to be this site, because everywhere else he went, it just didn't fit the bill. Others had said, 'Yes, I think he may be right.'

Father Pixner, who had lived in Galilee for years and who had gone everywhere searching for this place, also came to that conclusion -- except that during his lifetime, [the site where Bethsaida is located] was in the Golan Heights, and it belonged to Syria, so he couldn't go there. Nobody could go there. But after the 1967 war, Israel took the Golan Heights and the site was now in Israeli territory. He [Pixner] tells the story how he went up there one day to try to find any evidence that this town [that was buried at the site] had existed at the time of Jesus. He climbed up a hill, even though [there were signs that] said 'Please don't climb here, it's all mined.' But he saw some cows going up and he thought, 'Well, a cow is bigger than I; I'll follow a cow.' He did, and he started to pick up some of the [pottery] sherds that had been unearthed by the Syrians during the way -- the Syrian army had been encamped there -- and he took them back and [after analyzing the sherds] he said, 'Good god, these are Roman! This was here at the time of Jesus!'

He wrote several articles about it, and many expressed interest in it, but eventually it was a young man called Rami Arav who arrived. He was just out of college and he was looking for a site to dig. Father Bargil suggested this was the place to do it. Rami started digging -- not that he was interested at all in it as a Christian site; he just needed a place to dig in Israel. He started digging in 1988, and I joined him in 1993. Of course, my main interest was in the historical Jesus.

Well, now, there was still a lot of controversy about [whether] this could have been Bethsaida or not. I think we have proven beyond doubt that it was. It was definitely as it is described in the Bible: It is a fisherman's town. In fact, the name 'Bethsaida' means 'the house of fishermen.' We have found so many [kinds of] fishing gear -- loads of anchors, fishing needles, fishing weights, a load of stuff having to do with fishing. We do know it was a fishing town. And we have found all sorts of other things that many people find a little disturbing, actually.

You know, it has been bandied about that Jesus associated only with the poorest of the poor. We have found the fisherman were middle-class businessmen. They were not the poorest of the poor.

EDGE: In fact, in your book you point out that the fishermen who lived in Bethsaida were quite cosmopolitan.

Elizabeth McNamer: Yes, they were. They had to be -- they were exporting their fish. Fishermen owned their boats and they would hire day workers to go out and [work on the boats]. Sometimes they went themselves, we do know that. But they exported their fish, and fish was the main [source of] protein that people had. They didn't eat [red] meat; in Galilee that was the source of protein, so the fishing business was thriving at that time. We have established, I think, [that this is the historical Bethsaida]. There are very few people now who would say this isn't Bethsaida. It is the town where Jesus performed so many of his mighty works, as they say, and the town where he walked. In fact, I am looking right now at [the dust jacket of the book, which shows] a picture of the only street in the world where we can definitely say, 'Jesus walked here.'


EDGE: And that's incredibly important to the visitors who go to Bethsaida.

Elizabeth McNamer: Oh, good lord, yes, it is very important. It's a very emotional thing. I mean, I'm so used to it now. I remember once this Japanese group came around, and when I told them this [that the street was a place we can say with near-certainty Jesus actually walked] -- good lord, there was this one young woman who kissed the ground. She just sat down and she never got up [the whole time her tour group were at the site]. She left the group and stayed all day, just sitting in that place. When she went back to Japan she wrote me and said it was the greatest experience of her life; that she had gone there in the hopes that she would find something, and she had found it -- and everything had changed for her. I mean, we often hear the expression, 'Walking in the footsteps of Jesus,' but are we walking in the footsteps of Jesus? We know we are at Bethsaida.

EDGE You make note of the fact, in your book, that Bethsaida was important to the early church because it was a place where people were fairly well off; they were cosmopolitan, they were well traveled and spoke several languages, they had business contacts in cities around the ancient world, and all of this helped them to go out and spread the gospels.

Elizabeth McNamer: Right. We know from scripture that five of the apostles, definitely, [and maybe as many as nine], came from Bethsaida. But my research -- and you know there's a lot of stuff that never found its way into scripture, extra-Biblical stuff -- suggest that others [also did], like Matthew and his brother James, [who] were both sons of Alpheus; they also came from Bethsaida. That's seven. And then James' son Jude would have come from there, too; that's eight. And possibly one more. When the closest friends of Jesus came from here, it suggests that this was a favorite place of Jesus.

Also, we know that [Bethsaida] was under the auspices of Philip Herod [also called Philip Herod II or Philip the Tetrarch], who was one of the sons of Herod the Great. He had this territory, Gaulanitis; his brother Antipas had another territory, Galilee. Antipas was a very cruel man, almost as cruel as his father; he's the one who we remember having beheaded John the Baptist, for instance. But according to the historian Josephus, Philip was a mild-mannered man. He wasn't anything like that.

You know, we never really think, 'Was Jesus ever afraid?' Well, I think he was, especially after he heard of the beheading of John the Baptist. I think he spent a lot more time in Gaulanitis, rather than in Galilee, and of course Bethsaida was the place to be in Gaulanitis.

EDGE: That idea speaks to us profoundly about Jesus as a man -- not only as God, but as a mortal, like the rest of us.

Elizabeth McNamer: Yes, as a man. You know, those who do the research on the historical Jesus really seem to zero in on what is written in scripture. The group who studies it, they look at the words: 'Could he have said these words? Could he have not said these words?' They are seriously trying to get at what Jesus was like. But, to me, place is very important in knowing about somebody. I, for instance, come from Ireland, and I think it was only when I took my husband and children back to Ireland, and they were able to see the circumstances under which I grew up, that they were able to understand me a lot better. Essentially, it was a mediaeval village.

[Laughter]

I feel the same is true of Jesus: When you go to place, and realize what it was like to live there under Roman rule, for instance, and what work was done, and how it was done, it makes him come alive.

EDGE: You've led many groups of students and interested adult volunteers on the archaeological dig at Bethsaida. Some of those who you've taken there have been very pious, and others were more interested in earning credit for their college classes, and others may simply have had a scientific interest. What has it meant to you personally to have been associated with the dig at Bethsaida for so many years?

Elizabeth McNamer: To me it has made Jesus come so very much alive. You know, for instance, at Bethsaida we have found so many flax seeds -- we think there was a linen factory there, possibly. He wore linen. We read it in scripture: He was wrapped in linen swaddling cloths when he was born; he was wearing a linen cloth when he died. This is in John's gospel. In fact, it was so valuable the Roman soldiers threw dice as to who could have it. But was that made at Bethsaida?

I can just sort of see him there: He was a builder. He was a tekton [the Greek word for a builder or an artisan] rather than just a carpenter, and I can see that when he was lifting those stones, they are terribly heavy; just one man can hardly lift them on his own. How many accidents did they have? Did Jesus ever break his toe? I'm sure he did! I'm sure he had accidents, too.

EDGE: In the book you pose the question: How many broken toes might he have healed among his fellow builders?

Elizabeth McNamer: That's right. And he cured a blind man at Bethsaida; and again, every time an ophthalmologist comes around -- and we do have groups come around -- I ask them about it; it was possible to remove cataracts at the time of Jesus. I didn't know that, but it was possible, and how did he do it?

I think, from [having done research for] other things I have written about him, that he was associated at some point with the Essene monks - we call them monks, but they didn't use that term -- at Qumran [a site of archaeological interest located in the West Bank]. They were known as "Therapeutae" [the name of a Jewish sect], as healers, and he may well have learnt some of their healing techniques. They, for instance, made an ointment that was terribly expensive, but it was supposed to help in the healing of the eye. Did Jesus know about this?

You see, he comes alive, as though he were just sitting there. I mean, I can just see him going into one of those kitchens we found and saying, 'Can I do the dishes?' and baking bread, and helping them do stuff like this. He was that sort of man, and he has become very real to me.


"The Case for Bethsaida After Twenty Years of Digging: Understanding the Historical Jesus" is available from Cambridge Scholars Publishing.


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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