The name Bethsaida occurs seven times in the gospels. It is not clear however, if there were two Bethsaidas or just one, and the controversy rages on. A compromise seems to be that there may have been only one Bethsaida but that the town straddled the River Jordan touching both its East and West banks near to where the river enters the Sea of Galilee on its Northern shore. Similarly, there are today two Jerusalems, the Old City and the New, but only one Jerusalem, and there are two Nazareths, the old Nazareth and Nazareth Illit, but only one Nazareth.
Smith’s Bible Dictionary says, “In reality there is but one Bethsaida, that known on many maps as Bethsaida Julias. The fact is that Bethsaida was a village on both sides of the Jordan as it enters the Sea of Galilee on the north, so that the western part of the village was in Galilee and the eastern portion in Gaulonitis, part of the tetrarchy of Philip. This eastern portion was built up into a beautiful city by Herod Philip, and named by him Bethsaida Julias, after Julia the daughter of the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar. On the plain of Butaiha, a mile or two to the east, the 5000 were fed. The western part of the town remained a small village.” The controversy need not presently concern us and in our meditation we shall treat the references as one Bethsaida.
However, for those interested in pursuing the question, it may be profitable to quote in full the comments of Dr. W. M. Thompson, a recognized authority on matters relating to the land of Israel. He writes “I am of opinion that the invention of a second Bethsaida is wholly unnecessary. Reland, who first started the idea, confesses that he has no authority for it, but merely resorts to it as an ultimum refugium, a last resort, to solve an otherwise invincible topographical difficulty. I do not believe that another instance can be found of two cities of the same name close together on the same part of a small lake; and such hypothetical cities should not be created without absolute necessity; and no such necessity exists in this case. All admit that there was a Bethsaida at the entrance of the Jordan into the lake. The greater part of it, certainly that part which Philip repaired, lay on the east bank of the river, and, therefore, it is maintained, must have belonged to Gaulanitis, and not to Galilee; and as the Bethsaida of Andrew, Peter, and Philip, was a city of Galilee (John 12:21), it is thought that we must have a second town of this name. But I think this is unnecessary. Any city built at the mouth of the Jordan would almost necessarily have part of its houses on the west bank of the stream; and this would be literally and geographically within the territory of Galilee. Peter, Andrew, and Philip were born there, and would be mentioned as Galileans. I believe, therefore, that there was but one Bethsaida at the head of the lake, and that it was at the mouth of the Jordan; and thus we settle the sites of all the places in this neighborhood which are intimately related to the history of our blessed Lord and His disciples” (The Land and the Book).
But enough of controversy! Bethsaida was indeed the hometown of Peter, Andrew, and Philip. They were fishermen who lived in the “House of Nets.” Bethsaida was the scene of many of the mighty works of the Lord Jesus but it has the unenviable reputation, with Chorazin and Capernaum, of having rejected the witness of those miracles and being destined for judgment (Matt 11:21-23), a judgment which was severe and literal, for today scarcely anything remains of these three towns. They have gone into oblivion and only a few black ruins remain. How solemn it was to reject such evidence of our Lord’s greatness!
Doubtless, one of the better known miracles of the Lord Jesus was that of the feeding of the 5000. This occurred in a desert place, or, more accurately, a deserted, wilderness place, an uninhabited plain which belonged to Bethsaida on the east bank of the Jordan (Luke 9:10). It was a sad time for the disciples and they would need just the very encouragement which this miracle would bring. John the Baptist, who had earlier pointed some of them to Christ, had been beheaded by Herod. The disciples had taken up his body and laid it in a tomb. How sad indeed, and perhaps, how fearful, they must have been. Was the murder of John but a shadow, a foreboding, of what men would do to the witnesses of Jesus? The Savior tenderly recognized their weariness and said, “Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while: for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat. And they departed into a desert place by ship privately” (Mark 6:31-32).
The disciples took ship and sailed along the coastline to Bethsaida Julias, but the people saw them and followed on foot along the shore. They gathered in their throngs to Jesus and He taught them, moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd. But the daylight was fast fading and the disciples could foresee a problem. It was a desert place. The day was far spent and the people would be hungry. Before dark they must get to neighboring villages to buy bread. “Send them away,” was the advice of the disciples. “They need not depart,” was the Savior’s answer. “Give ye them to eat.” But how? Could they buy 200 pennyworth of bread? And would that be enough to feed such a multitude?
As is perhaps well-known, this is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels. For a number of reasons John’s account is especially interesting, and instructive. These must be considered in another paper.
To be continued