Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Minnetonka pastor helps dig up biblical Bethsaida

The journey combined travel with scholarly research for the LCMS clergyman

For three weeks early this summer the Rev. David Buuck, who serves Bethlehem Lutheran Church (LCMS), Minnetonka, Minnesota, got down and dusty with a cadre of volunteers at the Bethsaida Archaeological Excavation in northern Israel.
Supported by gifts from family and the members of Bethlehem, with matching funds provided by a Wheat Ridge Foundation pilot Sabbatical Grant Program, Buuck connected with a consortium of colleges and universities headquartered at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

During his time at the dig he unearthed several significant artifacts, rubbed shoulders with students, pastors, archaeologists, professors, and others all sharing the same interest. He was the only volunteer to find an ancient coin in his sifter during the three-week session. Along the way he found parts of a large, five-foot-tall clay storage pot, plus an intact grinding stone, along with a countless array of “shards” (broken pieces of pottery).

The Twin Cities pastor was moved by the realization he was walking every day on a portion of a stone street that was in existence in Jesus’ time. He had the opportunity to watch the filming of portions of a Discovery Channel special planned for broadcast this December, and met one of the two brothers who discovered the famous Galilee “Jesus Boat” — from the time of Jesus, not necessarily used by him — in 1986. The vessel is now displayed at a museum on the grounds of the kibbutz (communal village) where the dig volunteers stayed.

The site of Bethsaida — just off the northeast coast of the Sea of Galilee, in the southwest corner of the Golan Heights — was lost to history centuries ago, apparently due to a lower water level on the Sea of Galilee and/or a landslide, perhaps from an ancient earthquake, which filled in the shallow harbor by the town.

The tel, or mound of ruins, is now a mile or more from the seashore. Acting on a hunch, Dr. Rami Arav, then a newly-graduated archaeologist, visited the tel in the mid-1980s, and quickly began to find artifacts from the first century A.D. This led him to suggest that this tel was the long-lost site of the New Testament town of Bethsaida.

Arav is the director of the dig now and a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The Gospel of John (1:44) describes Beth-saida as the hometown of Jesus’ disciples Peter, An-drew, and Philip. That makes the site a significant one for New Testament research.

In the 1990s, an exciting discovery was made at Bethsaida. The remains of a strongly fortified city, with indications that it was a capital city from the 8th to 10th centuries B.C., were discovered beneath the ruins of the town. This was the time of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, starting with the time of King David and the United Kingdom. It has been determined that this, most likely, was the capital of the Kingdom of Geshur, the home of one of King David’s wives, who was the mother of Absalom. (See 2 Samuel 3:2 and 13:38 for the Geshur references.)

The Kingdom of Geshur was an ally of Israel and was destroyed by the Assyrian army, with the rest of the northern Kingdom of Israel in 732 B.C.

The importance of finding the central city for Geshur is that it has produced the largest and best-preserved four-chambered city gate of that era (9th century B.C.) in all of Israeli archaeology to date. Also, there are 50 meters of a road from around the time of the Geshur kingdom.
It is rare to find a 3,000-year-old road today. This one was still in use, apparently, at the time of Jesus.

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Part of Buuck’s sabbatical consisted of learning to post a Web site with reports on the experience. This was created through the Thrivent “Lu-therans OnLine” site. You can check out what he calls a “growth experience” at www.lutheransonline.com/ pastordpbuuck.