Why ABR Should Give Up On the el-Bireh-Bethel Equation

Since the founding of ABR (Associates for Biblical Research, a Protestant ministry), it has since its founding (in 1969) supported the idea that Bethel should not be identified with Beitin, but, rather, with el-Bireh. This was largely David Livingston’s idea, and was proposed due to his miscounting of Roman milestones, his supposition Bethel should be a ‘living town’ (he did not consider in his first article that Beitin’s situation is paralleled by Lachish, Megiddo, Gezer, Hazor, ect.), and his supposition Bethel should have a mountain E. of it, not just a ridge. Note that I now think the statements of Eusebius that Bethel/Beitin was 12, not, as is in fact, 13, milestones from Jerusalem possibly stemmed from the possible lack of the Roman road leading directly to Beitin in his day (there was an eastern service road from Bireh to Nablus on the PEF map; see below). However, since 1995, there has been a split between Bryant Wood and David Livingston on the location of ‘Ai. While Livingston suggests Khirbet Nisya (excavated under his direction between 1979 and 1994) to be ‘Ai, Bryant Wood suggests Khirbet Maqatir (excavated under his direction since 1995) to be ‘Ai. In order for Nisya to be ‘Ai, Bethel has to be identified as el-Bireh. However, if ‘Ai is to be identified at Maqatir, there is no need for ignoring (or misinterpreting) Late Roman data to fit a location of Bethel at el-Bireh.

Even assuming a location of Bethel at el-Bireh, Khirbet Nisya is a poor location for ‘Ai. It contains no remains of a city gate that would have been visible during the time of original composition of Joshua, obviously the late 7th century BC, and, indeed, contains no architectural remains at all prior to the Iron I period. Indeed, it was hardly a ruin between the Iron IIB and the Persian period; a two-winged lmlk handle and three yhwd impressions were discovered at the site. A location of ‘Ai at Khirbet Nisya also suffers from a lack of a good location for Beth-Aven, which would, if Khirbet Nisya was ‘Ai, be better substituted for Mizpah.

Above: Mizpah is just to the W. of HaGiva. Nisya is just to the SE of Psagot. el-Bireh is just to the SW of the map’s “al Bira”. Baytin is Beitin. The remaining two sites are Maqatir and et-Tell, the latter being closer to Deir Dibwan.  The blue line is the Geba-Beitin road.

Thus, we are left with the conclusion that ‘Ai is either Khirbet Maqatir or et-Tell. For our purposes, it does not matter which is ‘Ai, due to the sites’ proximity. It is clear that a location of Bethel at el-Bireh is as consistent with Genesis 12:8 as a location of Bethel at Beitin; one can see both candidates for ‘Ai from the ridge E. of Beitin, but none from the ridge E. of Bireh. Indeed, ‘Ai would, if Bethel was at Bireh, be scattered in a collection of hills just E. of Bethel, and there would be no point stating “between Bethel and ‘Ai” in Gen 12:8. I should also note the Iron Age settlement in the area SW of Beitin was at Ras-et-Tahuneh, a high spot altered by means of ancient fills two hundred meters NW. of Bireh. It has been suggested this is Zemaraim, although Zemaraim might as well be Nisya. Bryant Wood has also used the Beth-‘Aven argument against Beitin, although it is not known for certain what Beth-Aven was (was it a set of EB/IB ruins just E. of Beitin? Site 205?), and the range of possibilities is certainly consistent with the traditionally-attested location of Bethel at Beitin (it is rather unlikely the location of one of the most important sites in the Tanakh was mysteriously lost during the Persian period). Likewise, Joshua 8:13 may mean that the border turned to the South or to the southern shoulder of Luz/Bethel.

Thus, while there is no conclusive evidence against the location of pre-Persian Bethel at el-Bireh, the weight of the evidence points to Beitin being pre-Persian Bethel. Since Bryant Wood’s reasonable identification of Khirbet el-Maqatir as ‘Ai, there has been no good reason I can think of for ABR to continue to identify Bethel with el-‘Bireh.


The PEF map:

I suspect the western roman road to Nablus was built by the Romans, while the eastern one was built by the Byzantines-I do not see any other reason for the eastern service road to Nablus than pilgrimage reasons.

Dr. David Livingston Mismeasured

Below is conclusive evidence Dr. David Livingston was wrong in his milestone measurements:

Please ignore all my placemarks north of Jebel et-Tawil-they are over a year old and are in serious need of updating. Also, Tell el-Ful is not necessarily Gibeah. I have re-arranged Livingston’s map in several different ways, and it is clear that from his 5th milestone (which is placed by him 200 or so yards too far south, judging by the Survey of Western Palestine’s map) to his 11th milestone, a Roman mile of 1400 or so yards is used by Livingston. This is consistent with my observations in October 2011 and March 2011. Needless to say, the Roman mile was some 1614-1618 yards in length, and there is no warrant to shortening it to 1400 or so yards merely to get the result one desires. Besides, even if Livingston was correct regarding his milestone measurements, Bireh would still only be 11, not 12 milestones from Jerusalem.

Geographical Skepticism and Byzantine Bethel

Throughout my studies, I have found that it only makes sense to identify an ancient site if one is either certain (Jerusalem, Gezer, Beth-Shean, Rehov, Ashdod, Hazor, Gibeon, Arad, Joppa, Jezreel, Lachish, Mareshah, Dor, Tyre, Byblos, Hamath) or reasonably certain (Megiddo, Shechem, Ashkelon, Gath, Ekron, Shiloh, Dan, Azekah, Hebron, Bethsaida, Beth-Shemesh, Mizpah) about its identification. I consider the identification of Tel Batash as Timnah, for instance, to be reasonably certain due to the fact it fits all the data we have and no one has suggested a better candidate. I consider the identification of Jericho, meanwhile, to only be considered probable, however, no one has come up with a better candidate, and the identification of Jericho might be considered by some to be reasonably certain. I would not think of naming et-Tell as Ai or Tell el-‘Farah N. as Tirzah when writing about archaeological matters. This is largely due to my wish to be wrong as little as possible. I still find it more acceptable to refer to Tell Deir Alla by its modern name then as Succoth, and might possibly consider naming Khirbet Mediniyah on the Wadi Thamud as Jahaz.

This opinion has been strengthened by my reading of Peter James (no Velikovsky)’s papers, which stress the limits of our knowledge about pottery chronology and ancient sites and question our universally accepted axioms quite frequently. He is, in fact, my inspiration for adding the extra paragraphs to my “Iron Age” page. I still, however, find it reasonably certain Shoshenq is to be identified as Shishak and likely that the Conventional Chronology is predominantly correct.

This brings me to the matter of Byzantine Bethel. So far, no certain proof has been shown regarding the location of Iron Age Bethel. It has only been shown by Judges 21:19 to have been on the Jerusalem-Nablus road and by Joshua‘s boundary description as being north of Michmash and Tell en-Nasbeh (very likely Mizpah). There has been quite some debate regarding whether it is to be identified with el-Bireh or with Beitin.

According to Eusebius and Jerome, Bethel lay on the east side of the road, 12 miles from Jerusalem. Also, according to Jerome, Ophrah lay both at the 21st milestone and 5 miles east of Bethel (i.e., at the 18th or 17th milestone). Since el-Bireh, the only candidate for Bethel besides Beitin, is between the tenth and 11th milestones, while Beitin is located closer to the 13th milestone than the 12th, neither of them fit Eusebius and Jerome’s data well, however, Beitin is clearly closer to the 12th milestone and had many churches before their demolition by the Muslims in the 19th century. Also, if Ophrah is to be identified as et-Tayyibeh, as identified by most, or Dayr Jarir, or even Ramun, there is no debate as to the identification of Byzantine Bethel as Beitin.

The Roman Miles of Bethel

Basing my data entirely from this and this article, I locate the Byzantine milestones from Jerusalem to Gophna (with the enormous help of the Survey). We may assume a mile to be roughly .9193 English Miles (1618 English Yards).

0- 31°46’36″N, 35°13’52″E (calculated back from Milestone 3).

1-31°46’34″N, 35°13’51″E (calculated back from Milestone 3)

2-31°48’5″N, 35°14’2″E (calculated back from Milestone 3)

3-31°48’48″N, 35°13’55″E (fixed by continued existence, number unreadable, location certain)

4-31°49’30″N, 35°13′”E (continued existence, number unreadable, exact location unknown to me and therefore extrapolated)

5-31°50’17″N, 35°13’38″E (fixed by continued existence, number readable, location certain)

6-31°51’2″N, 35°13’35″E (fixed by reference to Ramah in Eusebius)

7-31°52’31″N, 35°13’3″E (fixed by reference to Ramah in Jerome)

8-31°52’31″N, 35°13’3″E (extrapolated)

9-31°53’15″N, 35°12’44″E (extrapolated)

10-31°53’56″N, 35°12’35″E (Khirbet esh-She milestone. fixed by continued existence, unknown whether readable or unreadable)

11-31°54’34″N, 35°12’54″E

12- 31°55’2″N, 35°13’36″E

13-31°55’35″N, 35°14’11″E

Livingston has tried to make a map making the Khirbet esh-She milestone the eleventh. However, looking at the Survey’s map of Roman roads, I cannot come to the same conclusion. A check for this conclusion was Eusebius’s placing Gophna (Pharagx) at the 15th milestone and the Peutinger Tables‘ placing it 16 miles from Jerusalem. Indeed, as Livingston himself states, the 15th milestone had been found in the vicinity of Jifna (not, as he would expect, Jalazun).

Bethel, on the east side of the road, 12 milestones from Jerusalem when traveling to Nablus and somewhere near the 12th milestone from Jerusalem when traveling to Jerusalem (suggestively, between the 12th and 13th milestone), one mile away from Bethar/Beitin must be placed at either el Q’ada, 31°55’21″N, 35°13’45″E, or, the site which fits the Pilgrim’s description EXACTLY, Ein el-Q’asa, a two acre site at 31°55’7″N, 35°13’52″E. Since Beitin is at the 13th milestone, not the 12th, it still cannot be Early Byzantine Bethel.

UPDATE (as of May 6, 2012): I now consider Beitin to be Byzantine Bethel, since it is the only major site between the 12th and 13th milestones. The Bordeaux Pilgrim’s notes only state that the almond tree at which a number of events mentioned in the Bible took place was near Ein el-Q’asa, not that any settlement existed there.

Where is Biblical Bethel, Beth-Aven, and Ai?

UPDATE: A year after the writing of this post, I totally changed my position regarding Beitin and Bethel.

Bethel was located in the hill country of Ephraim (Judges 4:5) and in Benjamin (Josh 18:22). It was said by both Jerome and Eusebius to be at the 12th milestone from Jerusalem, but Beitin (the conventionally accepted Bethel, LB IIB fortress at 31°55’37″N, 35°14’20″E) does not fit, either by size, archaeology, or distance.

Firstly, archeologically, Beitin only had strong activity beginning in the Iron IIB; the 8th century BC. Throughout the entire period of early Iron IIA and late Iron I (from Saul to Omri), there was hardly any sort of settlement at Beitin! Even in the days of Jehu, there is no evidence of any great city at Beitin. After the 8th century, Beitin remained a poor village until the Hellenistic period.

Secondly, Judges 4:5 makes far better sense if a Ramah is placed at Ramalla and Bethel placed at Bireh (there are over five miles between er-Ram, certainly a Ramah, but certainly not the one mentioned in the verse, and Beitin [remember the existence of Mizpah]). Ras et-Tahuneh, 31°54’30″N, 35°12’44″E, the most likely candidate for Bethel’s high place, contains 40% Iron II shreds. We can therefore assume Bethel as el-Bireh, since, if it is not Bethel, it is not mentioned in the Bible (Beeroth is at Biddu according to Eusebius’s distances and the implication of other Bible verses, and at Khirbet al-Burj according to Finkelstein, which, while a fine Iron II site, is too near Jerusalem to fit Eusebius’s distances). Since Bethel was in Benjamin, Beth-Aven must be interpreted in Joshua 18:12 as being north of Bethel. Since Ai was “near” Beth-Aven, Beth-Aven should preferably be to the east of Bethel/Bireh. Beitin is the only site with Iron II pottery Northeast of Bethel that is west of Michmash (1 Sam 13:4). It is therefore the best candidate for Beth-Aven. Since there are only two archeological sites that were ruins during Iron II in the vicinity of Beitin, Kh. Maqatir, 31°54’54″N, 35°14’58″E, and et-Tell, et-Tell being excluded due to its being larger than Gibeon in Joshua 10:2 (Gibeon was 16 acres. et-Tell was 27), Khirbet Maqatir is the only candidate for Ai. This is supported by Genesis 12:8, which says there is a mountain between Bethel and Ai (obviously, the one at 31°54’47″N, 35°13’49″E). Burj Beitin, the conventionally accepted “mountain” is not even a hill, but a modest ridge, and was only inhabited in the Byzantine-Crusader era. The most likely locations of Iron II and Persian Ai are Sites 205 (31°54’45″N, 35°14’51″E) and 204 (31°54’33″N, 35°15’4″E), respectively, on the previously linked Benjamin Survey. Khirbet Nisya, 31°53’48″N, 35°13’45″E, is therefore Zemaraim.