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Where did Jesus feed the 5000?

Near Bethsaida Galilee / Near Bethsaida Julias?

 

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NASA Photo. Markers and names inserted by author.

The feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle of Jesus described by all four gospels (Matt. 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, and John 6). It signaled the end of Jesus' Galilean ministry that lasted about two years. When he refused to be their earthly king, they lost interest and deserted him (John 6:66). After the feeding of the 5000 Jesus visited Phoenicia, Decapolis, Caesarea-Philippi, Judea and Perea.

For centuries, the locality of the miraculous feeding of 5000 has been clouded in uncertainty. Great scholars have disagreed. William Hendriksen decided on a spot near Bethsaida Julias, but conceded that according to Mark 6:45 there must have been a second Bethsaida on the western shore of the lake. John Calvin thought that a place near Bethsaida Galilee (John 12:21) was more acceptable. This spot, known as Tabgha, was already accepted in the Byzantine era as locality for this miracle.

Sea of Galilee, Western Shore (photo by Jacob M. Van Zyl)

 

Tabgha, Byzantine Church (photo by Jacob M. Van Zyl)

 

Tabgha, mosaic of bread and fish (photo by Jacob M. Van Zyl)

 

The locality of this event does not affect its meaning and importance in the ministry of Jesus. However, for historical and geographical purposes it is always a plus if the location of an important event can be pinpointed. Tourists like to know they stand on the very spot where something great happened.

The apostle John grew up in that region. He knew the name of every small place. He wrote his gospel about twenty years after Mark, Matthew, and Luke had completed theirs. John sometimes gives extra information to eliminate uncertainties. His remark in John 6:23 may hold the key to the Bethsaida controversy.

Tiberias, Sea of Galilee (photo by Jacob M. Van Zyl)

 

Sea of Galilee

Sea of Galilee, western shore, looking south (photo by H. Isahar).
Source:
http://www.trusting-in-jesus.com/Sea-of-Galilee-Picture.html

 

A view from the top of Arbel cliffs.

Sea of Galilee, north-west shore, looking north
(Source: http://www.biblewalks.com/sites/arbel.html)

It was already evening (John 6:16, Mark 6:45-47) when Jesus sent the disciples by boat to the nearby Bethsaida Galilee, south-west of Tabgha (they later landed at Gennesaret, still farther south in the direction of Tiberias). If Jesus had fed the 5000 near Bethsaida Julias, the news about the miracle could not have reached Tiberias overnight.

Because of the strong wind the disciples exerted themselves to row a few kilometers from sunset to daybreak. It is highly unlikely that people would have rowed the 15 km from Bethsaida Julias to Tiberias in the dark and in that kind of weather. However, going on foot from Tabgha or Gennesaret to Tiberias overnight would be easier.

The disciples wanted to return to Capernaum (John 6:16) but the strong wind against them (Mark 6:48) drove them to Gennesaret. When the wind died down they returned to Capernaum.

Because Tabgha was close to Tiberias, people in Tiberias learned the next morning about the miracle and decided to investigate. John says, "they came in SMALL boats (ploiaria) from Tiberias near the place where they ate the bread" (literal translation).

It is doubtful if they would have dared to row (after a stormy night) with small boats for 15 km over the open lake to Bethsaida Julias. It is much more feasible that they would have kept close to the western shore, first reaching the spot of the miracle, and then proceeding to Capernaum where Jesus later addressed them in the synagogue (John 6:24, 59).

A few other practical considerations argue against Bethsaida Julias as the site of the miracle.

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The River Jordan enters the north side of the lake through a marshy delta. The people who followed Jesus and the Twelve on foot along the shore (Mark 6:33) would have found the route from Capernaum to Bethsaida Julias very difficult. If there were a bridge, it would be north of the delta, causing a long detour.

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Furthermore, John says that it was shortly before the Passover (John 6:4). Many people were traveling south to Jerusalem, so Bethsaida Galilee would be on their way while Bethsaida Julias would be totally out of their way.

The main reason for the controversy is probably the phrase "crossed over." It was not only used for West/East trips but also for North/South ones.

They had only two ways to move from one spot on the shore to another: either going around the lake on foot or crossing over a part of the lake by boat. Those who prefer Bethsaida Julias as the site of the feeding of the 5000 have misinterpreted the phrase "crossed over." Because it refers to East/West crossing in Mat. 9:1, Mark 5:21, and 8:13, scholars erroneously concluded that it must have the same meaning in Mat. 14:34, Mark 6:53, and John 6:1 and 23, which actually refer to North/South crossings.

Have a good look at the map again, read the four gospels, keep the scenario explained above in mind, and the pieces of the puzzle will fall into place.

For more pictures of Capernaum click here.

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