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Saturday, September 1, 2007

Let's visit Jesus' neighbors

By Stan Wilson
Special to ASSIST News Service 
The author poses in front of the remains of a church in Kursi. The church was located inside a Byzantine-period monastery that measured 375 feet by 435 feet. The mosaic tile on the floor depict baskets full of fish and bread; most likely a testimony to Jesus' feeding of the multitudes in the area

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL (ANS) -- The Ministry of Tourism of the state of Israel recently invited publishers of 10 American Christian newspapers to tour Israel in the first week of June, and I was fortunate enough to be one of the visitors. I've heard many people say, "Visit Israel and you will never be the same." Without a doubt, this has to be the understatement of the millennium.

Bethsaida is mentioned in the four Gospels and by the Roman historian Josephus. In fact, only Jerusalem and Capernaum are mentioned more frequently in the New Testament. It was the birthplace of Peter, Andrew and Philip and the site of the feeding of the multitudes (Luke 9:12-17), the healing of a blind man (Mark 8:22-25) and where witnesses reported seeing Jesus walk on the waters (Mark 6:45-51). Bethsaida was founded in the tenth century B.C., and apparently destroyed in 734 B.C. by the Assyrians. It was later revived in the Hellenistic period (332-37 B.C.)

Bethsaida remained a mystery to crusaders, pilgrims and scholars for nearly two thousand years. No single place was identified as Bethsaida. Known as a village on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, explorers were perhaps looking in the wrong locations. In the early 1980's did Father Pixner, a Benedictine monk, began a personal search for Bethsaida. He discovered an e-Tell (literally: the mound) approximately two miles from the Sea of Galilee which proved to be the site. Geological experts determined that geological activity, including a significant earthquake in 363 A.D. and deposits from the Jordan River had changed the area and the sea had receded.

These remains of a church in Kursi indicate that the town was occupied by Christians after Christ's time on earth. The church was located inside a Byzantine-period monastery that measured 375 feet by 435 feet. The mosaic tile on the floor depict baskets full of fish and bread; most likely a testimony to Jesus' feeding of the multitudes in the area
Exploration continues, and very little has actually been discovered. It is now believed to have first risen at the time of the Egyptian Pyramids, and played a major role in the time of King David. In fact, Bethsaida means "House of the Fisherman."

Phillip, son of Herod the Great was buried at Bethsaida, and Bethsaida played a role in the opening battles of the First Revolt against Rome in 67 A.D.

The most significant find at Bethsaida to date, is a ninth century B.C. gate. Foundations to a few houses with spacious courtyards have also been discovered. So little has been discovered, I was only able to snap a few photos of rock foundations to some of the homes and buildings.

Ultimately, Jesus condemned the city stating, "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes." (Matthew 11:21). Christ also cursed his hometown of Capernaum, "And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day." (Matthew 11:23)

Our next stop was in Kursi; actually the Arabic name for the ruins of a fishing village, known as Gergesa. It was near Kursi that Jesus healed a man possessed by demons and banished the demons into nearby pigs which then leaped into the Sea of Galilee and drowned. (Mark 5:1-20 and Matthew 8:28-33 and Luke 8:26-39) Although the gospels do not mention the precise town, Christian tradition has held that it was Kursi.

Like Bethsaida, Kursi remained hidden from view until shortly after the 1976 Six Day War, when excavations for a road revealed the remnants of the town. The major discovery is the remains of the largest Byzantine-period monastery in Israel (375 feet by 435 feet). Inside the monastery, the remains of a 5th Century A.D. Christian church have been discovered. The church was damaged during the Persian invasion (614 A.D.), but repaired and abandoned in the 8th Century A.D after an earthquake; never to be used again. Much of what has been discovered since 1976 was destroyed and vandalized in the centuries following the abandonment.

Because Kursi and Bethsaida are so close, some associate the feeding of the multitudes with Kursi; rather than Bethsaida (Mark 8).

Lending credibility to the feeding of the multitudes near Kursi, the mosaics on the floor of the church depict baskets full of fish and bread.

In 1980, remains of a small chapel were discovered built above a cave. Perhaps this was the home of the man healed by Jesus, and revered by early Christians.

Some consider Kursi to be the birthplace of Western Christianity. After all, at the time of Christ, the residents were not Jewish, but Gentiles. (Remember, pigs are forbidden to Jews, and Christ sent the demons into a nearby heard of pigs.) In most of his healings, Christ told to the individual to remain quiet. But, after healing the man of his demons, he told him to "go and tell."

Also discovered in Kursi is a large Roman bath complex and an early Christian residential community. To date, most of the archaeological discoveries in Kursi are from the Christian period.

The discoveries in Betsaida and Kursi are nothing compared to what has been discovered and excavated in Capernaum. But, the excavation and discoveries are on-going. Maybe more earth-shattering discoveries will be made in these two towns as the excavations continue.

If reading of my tour has excited you just a little, I suggest that you visit for further information about Israel and tour information. This is the official website of the Israel Ministry of Tourism. They offer several "virtual tours" online and you can get complete information and find links to help you make your plans. You can actually spend days just navigating the website in preparation for your "trip of a lifetime." Yes, I'll go back...and take my wife. Tours are actually much less expensive that I had thought. One of the tourism magazines that we received featured several all-inclusive tours including airfare from New York for $1200 to $1500. Of course, putting together a tour with members of your church would just be the icing on the cake. Shalom!

Stan Wilson is a lifetime journalist after graduating from college in 1970 with a B.A. in journalism. He  worked in various positions in newspapers in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas prior to starting Southwest Kansas Faith and Family in 2001. Faith and Family is a monthly Christian newspaper serving Dodge City, Garden City and 18 other surrounding communities. He can be contacted by email at

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