Locating Biblical Bethel -- By: David Livingston

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 24:1 (Winter 2011)
Article: Locating Biblical Bethel
Author: David Livingston

Locating Biblical Bethel

David Livingston

Most scholars today locate Old Testament Bethel at the Arab village of Beitin, about 11 mi (17.7 km) north of Jerusalem. An examination of the evidence, however, indicates that this identification is incorrect. It is important to correctly locate Bethel because Ai is located with relation to Bethel (Gn 12:8; Jos 7:2), and finding Ai has been a major focus of ABR’s research work.

How was Beitin originally identified as Bethel? Edward Robinson was the first to identify it in the l830’s. He equated the modern Arabic name of “Beitin” with “Bethel” (which is feasible, but not compelling). Actually, there was no village at the site in Robinson’s day. Apparently, it was an area name rather than a village name. In fact, for over 1400 years the very name “Bethel” had been completely forgotten in the area.

Michael Luddeni

The modern village of Beitin.

Besides the name, the only other evidence Robinson used in the identification was the distance of Bethel from “Aelia” (Jerusalem) mentioned by the early Church Fathers Eusebius (fourth century AD) and Jerome (fifth century AD). His measurement of the distance was done on horseback, estimated by the length of time his horse traveled from Jerusalem to Beitin. Is this an accurate way of measuring distance? One hundred years later, W.F. Albright accepted Robinson’s identification without even checking the distance, either by horseback or automobile!

On this basis, then, Albright, and later James Kelso, excavated Beitin for several seasons. The results were published in 1968 (Kelso). We read the report before it was published, looking for archaeological proof that Beitin was truly Bethel. However, we

could not find anything in the report to prove it. So, we wrote Dr. Albright and asked to what proof he could point. Albright answered that there was no archaeological proof (no inscriptions or anything specifically confirming that Beitin was really Bethel). He insisted that the identification was maintained by the biblical and patristic (Church Fathers) evidence.

With that, we restudied the biblical references and concluded that one could not locate Bethel precisely from them, either. So we wrote again asking about the biblical proofs, thinking surely we had missed something. His answer was that there was no biblical proof at all. The identification was made using the archaeological and patristic evidence. But, he had already eliminat...

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