“And they that ate the loaves were five thousand men.
And straightway he constrained his disciples to enter into the boat and to go before him unto the other side to Bethsaida, while he himself sent the multitude away.” — Mark 6:44-45, American Standard Version
The ancient fishing village of Bethsaida is one of the most frequently mentioned cities in the Gospels of the Holy Bible. It is said to be the place where Jesus walked on water, where he made a blind man see and where he fed the 5,000 with just five loaves and two fish. Three of Jesus' disciples — Peter, Andrew and Philip — hailed from Bethsaida.
But the town vanished in the fourth century, abandoned by its fishermen after earthquakes shifted the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. By the 20th century, Bethsaida's location was nothing more than a question mark on a map.
The biblical village was rediscovered in 1987, by an Israeli archeologist now based at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Today, UNO serves as headquarters for Rami Arav's international, multi-university effort to excavate the long-buried ruins of Bethsaida. Over the past 25 years, Arav has led thousands of volunteers and students back to the site to discover yet more antiquities and treasures, some dating from the time of Christ, but many more pre-dating Jesus by 10 centuries.
A reception tonight at the UNO Art Gallery, located in the Weber Fine Arts Building, marks the opening of a month-long photography exhibit highlighting the 25-year history of the Bethsaida dig. The $40-per-person fundraiser is an effort to raise money to support the Bethsaida excavations and, in the future, to bring an exhibit of Bethsaida artifacts to Omaha. Artifacts uncovered at the dig remain the property of Israel's antiquities authority.
Arav, now an associate professor of philosophy and religion at UNO, had a newly minted doctorate from New York University in 1987 when he went home to Israel to seek out a project. He had grown up near the Sea of Galilee and hoped to find something in that area.
His initial goal was only to erase the question mark about Bethsaida's location, he said.
“But I realized there is so much more to know,” he said. “I was born and raised in Galilee, and naturally you are interested in the history of Galilee. ... I just thought, ‘I'm going to fulfill my curiosity.' But this curiosity never actually ended.”
As the excavation proceeded, Arav and other researchers realized that Bethsaida once had been much grander than the fishing village of Jesus' time. It likely was the capital city of ancient Israel's neighbor, the Kingdom of Geshur, and home to perhaps 2,000 people.
One of the excavation's most significant discoveries was the gate to the city, which dates back to the 10th century B.C. This gate was no mere opening in a wall, but a three-story structure that served as the city's social center. It was demolished and burned by an Assyrian king in 732 B.C. — but the building's first story had been preserved in a sort of time capsule of debris, Arav said.
Arav's project initially was located at Haifa University in Israel, but as it grew in size, Arav realized he needed to find it a new home. That led to his move to UNO in 1994. Today the Bethsaida project is a $150,000 effort involving a consortium of 20 colleges and universities from around the world.
Hundreds of UNO students have participated in digs at Bethsaida over the past 18 years, he said, many of them going on to teach archeology.
Although Creighton University is not an official partner in the effort, dozens of its students also have participated in the digs, said Nicolae Roddy, a Creighton associate professor in theology, who first began traveling to Bethsaida as a UNO faculty member in the late 1990s. A team of Roddy's students discovered one of the most iconic artifacts in 1997, a religious figure featuring the head of a bull.
“Let me tell you, the student who found it, turned a rock over and it just happened to be head piece,” he recalled. “He ran to me, his face was white as sheet. He looked as if he had awakened a sleeping god.”
Roddy's 20-year-old daughter, Aurelia, also became fascinated by the Bethsaida dig. She has participated in four digs since she was 14 years old. The effort inspired her to study history at Creighton, where she is a junior.
She said it is awe-inspiring to study the places that once seemed to be merely names in the Bible.
“You're walking on streets these people in the Bible walked on,” she said. “You're seeing the buildings. It's kind of surreal.”
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