In 2015 I traveled around Israel with my doctoral studies supervisor (now Doktorvater), Craig Evans, my good friend, Greg Monette, and several employees of Faithlife, as they worked on a documentary that addressed what archaeology can tell us about the context of Jesus’ life (‘Archaeology and Jesus’). One of the things we noticed is that when it came to the site a given archaeologist was working, they tended to be quite apologetic, but when it came to other sites, they tended to raise the demands of the criteria. It was good to see that people who work with material artifacts are required to do interpretation just like those of us who work with texts because sometimes archaeology is seen as a much more exact science than the evidence supports.
One of the debates we encountered had to do with the location of Bethsaida. We visited Et-Tell where Rami Arav explained to us how they know this is the Bethsaida mentioned in the Gospels. On the trip we met Mordechai Aviam while visiting the dig at Shikhin (see my interview with James R. Strange, ‘Shikhin Excavations’). While I don’t remember Aviam discussing Bethsaida then, I do remember some archaeologists expressing skepticism regarding Et-Tell. It turns out that Arav and Aviam are featured in this month’s Biblical Archaeology Review debating the identity of the real Bethsaida. Arav argues for Et-Tell still. Aviam, along with R. Steven Notley (who has made a similar public argument in Christianity Today: ‘Have Archaeologists Found the Lost City of the Apostles?’), argue for El-Araj.
This makes me want to go back to Israel again. It’s one thing to read about these debates in a magazine. It’s something different to have visited at least one of these places and talked with the personalities doing the work. Again, I’m glad to see that there’s some strong subjectivity to the work of archaeologists. This means we must do more than just examine the material remains to make claims about the past. That said, archaeology has a special role to play in that anyone can create a narrative, but you can’t make the remains of a city appear or disappear overnight (usually), which is why archaeology is so important to our understanding of the past, the Bible, etc.