Was Bethsaida a village or a city?

Posted on Sep.23, 2009. Filed in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. Average rating: 3.0 / 10 (Rate It).

Bethsaida was the home of Andrew and Simon Peter, fishermen who Jesus called from their nets to become “fishers of men”. But was Bethsaida just a small fishing village, or something more?

In Luke, when Jesus’ disciples return from a missionary tour, Bethsaida is referred to as a “city”:

“On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida.” [Luke 9:10-11, NRSV]

This is confirmed in Matthew, when Bethsaida is listed as one of the cities that Jesus reproached for their lack of repentance:

“Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.'” [Matthew 11:20-21, NRSV]

In John, when Jesus calls Philip, Bethsaida is again described as a “city”:

“The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.” [John 1:43-44]

However, in Mark, when Jesus heals a blind man at Bethsaida, Bethsaida is twice referred to as a “village”:

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Can you see anything?’ And the man looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, ‘Do not even go into the village.‘” [Mark 8:22-26, NRSV]

So was Bethsaida a village or a city?

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  1. 1

    I believe the word translated as “city” is polis, which apparently can mean “town”…

  2. 2

    The issue here is whether being a κωμη (“village” or “small town”) and being a πολις (“town” or “city”) are mutually consistent.

    The two terms are often used together in a way that suggests that there’s a contrast between them:

    “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages…” [Matthew 9:35a, NRSV]
    “Whatever town or village you enter…” [Matthew 10:11, NRSV]
    “Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages…” [Luke 8:1, NRSV]
    “Jesus went through one town and village after another…” [Luke 13:22a, NRSV]

    However, I don’t see why there couldn’t be borderline cases that could be described using either term; perhaps Bethsaida was such a case?

  3. 3

    The word kome can refer to a neighborhood or a district of a city or town. Jesus did not lead the blind man out of Bethsaida. He led him out of the neighborhood he was in when he found him. but Jesus and the blind man were still in Bethsaida when Jesus did the healing. Likewise, Jesus did not tell the man not to return to Bethsaida. He told him not to return to the neighborhood they started in. Instead, the blind man went home to his house in Bethsaida.

  4. 4

    I haven’t heard the idea the κωμη can refer to a neighbourhood before. Do you have a supporting reference for this? Any clear examples of this usage?

  5. 5

    Kome=neighborhood came from Thomas Pangle’s translation of Plato’s Laws. He chose it to split the difference between “village” and “quarter of a city” (both of which are possible meanings according to Pangle).

    Strong’s doesn’t have this meaning, though. Neither does any Lexicon I could find of Biblical Greek. Pangle was, of course, not dealing with Biblical Greek, so his translation may have been perfectly good for his purposes, but flawed here.

    On the other hand, the passage doesn’t really make much sense if you think that Jesus took the blind man right out of Bethsaida. If he was not in the town, where did all these men come from whom he saw that looked like trees walking around. Also, Jesus commands the blind man to go home. But, Jesus says, don’t go back to the kome. If the kome is Bethsaida, how could the blind man follow that command? Wouldn’t he have to go into Bethsaida to go home?

  6. 6

    “On the other hand, the passage doesn’t really make much sense if you think that Jesus took the blind man right out of Bethsaida…”

    I don’t think the presence of men “like trees walking around” outside the village is a big problem. Some men had brought the blind man to Jesus and begged for his help; presumably they would have accompanied Jesus and the blind man out of the village, so these could be the men that the blind man saw.

    Sending the blind man home with an instruction not to go into the village does sound a little odd, but only if we assume that he lived in the village; perhaps the men brought him from outside the village?

    So I think we can make sense of the passage translating κωμη as village, there’s no conclusive reason internal to the passage to look for an alternative translation. It’s just the external references to Bethsaida as a city that cause problems.

  7. 7

    “Some men had brought the blind man to Jesus and begged for his help…these could be the men that the blind man saw.”

    Except that they would have been standing with Jesus and the blind man, not walking. Unless the whole miracle took place while Jesus and the blind man were walking?

    “perhaps the men brought him from outside the village?”

    Good point, Mark is silent on where the blind man hails from. He might have been from a neighboring village. It wouldn’t be the only time that someone comes to Jesus from a distance to be healed.

    You would have to assume that Jesus was there for a while (giving word of his presence a chance to spread to the blind man’s home town) before the blind man showed up. Against that assumption is the fact that the blind man’s healing is the first thing mentioned about this particular trip to Bethsaida.

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