Further Considerations on the Location of Bethel at El-Bireh

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Excerpt The correct locations for both biblical Bethel and its twin city of Ai are crucial for chronology (since excavation at the-wrong sites could be completely misleading chronologically), topography (this should fit the detailed biblical description) and geography... Continue reading

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The correct locations for both biblical Bethel and its twin city of Ai are crucial for chronology (since excavation at the-wrong sites could be completely misleading chronologically), topography (this should fit the detailed biblical description) and geography. The latter is related to the correct location of the border between Ephraim and Judah, as well as the locations of many biblical towns in southern Ephraim and Benjamin.

We present here additional evidence that the generally accepted sites for both Bethel and Ai are incorrect and that both need to be relocated in the vicinity of el-Bireh, 3 km. south of the present locations. But first a summary of the earlier discussion of this problem in the Westminster Theological Journal.


In my first article (1970) I pointed out that the original proposal to locate Bethel at Beitin was made by Edward Robinson, using the references to it in the Onomasticon of Eusebius and Jerome (Robinson 1856, 1.448-51; cf. Klostermann 1904). A century later, without checking the actual distances, W. F. Albright completely agreed with Robinson's location for Bethel and began excavations at Beitin assuming it was Bethel (1928, 9: cf. 1934, 25; 1968, 1-3). Was it really? What did the two Church Fathers actually say?

The Church Fathers were not writing about road measurements. They were referring to specific mile-markers, or milestones. The location of Bethel is fixed by them at the twelfth Roman milestone on the Jerusalem-Neapolis (Nablus) road (see Fig. 1 for mile-markers related to the study below). The wording of the relevant entries in the Onomasticon is as follows (Klostermann 1904, 40-41):

Jerome-- Bethel vicus in duodecimo ab Aelia lapide ad dexteram euntibus Neapolim, quae primum Luza, id est amugdalon vocabatur et cecidit in sortem tribus Beniamin, iuxta Bethaun et Gai, quam expugnavit Iesus, rege illius interfecto.

Anyone using such evidence must know where the '0' milestone was located. Contrary to what many scholars assume, the pillar marked on the Madeba Map at what is now the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem cannot be the '0' milestone. This was made clear by the discovery of the third, fourth and fifth milestones at the turn of this century, all of them allowing measurements indicating that the '0' milestone is in the centre of Jerusalem. (We show below that additional milestone studies and references in other early writers sustain this.) According to Eusebius and Jerome the sixth and seventh milestones straddled Rama (Fig. 1: Klostermann 1904, 144-45, which cites Jerome's commentary on Hosea 5.8 for 'seventh'). The fifth milestone on the road northward from Jerusalem has been found and had clearly inscribed numbers in both Latin and Greek. Its location allows one more, the sixth, to have been located at the road turning into Rama (er-Ram) off the main northward route. The seventh, then, would have been where the road north out of the village joined the main road.

Michael Avi-Yonah, in his Map of Roman Palestine (1940, 44), listed a milestone at Khirbet esh-She, about a mile south of el-Bireh. If, as he said, it is the tenth, then the eleventh was in el-Bireh, which in turn puts the twelfth between el-Bireh and Beitin. Howeve rif the stone at esh-She is really the eleventh milestone, as the location of the earlier milestones requires, then the twelfth milestone was at el-Bireh.

One of Robinson's errors was equating biblical Beeroth with el-Bireh (1856, 1.452: cf. his map).The identification, however, clashes with Eusebius's statement in the Onomasticon, which indicates that Beeroth is seven miles distant from Jerusalem (Klostermann 1904, 48). It is also clear in both Eusebius and Jerome that Beeroth was considered to be on the road to Nicopolis, not on the road to Neapolis (modern Nablus). As for the location of Nicopolis, it is most likely at Imwus in the Valley of Aijalon. Thus the road to Beeroth went mostly westward (and a little north) from Jerusalem, not northward.

Milepost 267 (in the catalogue of P. Thomsen) reads IG in Greek, or 'thirteenth mile', and it was found near Jifna (Thomsen 19l7, 76). However, in a study of the eighteenth milepost at Yabroud (milestone 260) C. Clermont-Ganneau pointed out that Jifna (ancient Gophna) was listed in the Onomasticon as being at the fifteenth or sixteenth milestone (1907, 93-94; cf. Klostermann 1904: 168). We suggested, on this basis, that the reading should be IE (15) instead of IG (13). This accords with Eusebius's distance for Jilha and agrees much better with other road distances. Significantly it further confirms el-Birch's location at the twelfth marker.

A. F. Rainey responded to my article in the following year (1971, 175-88). He argued that toponymy, archaeology and biblical topography all supported the identification of Bethel with Beitin, and claimed that this was also true of the evidence of their Onomasticon once it was realized that the twelfth milestone was, as it is in other locations given there, the point at which one turned off the main road to reach Bethel, not the location of Bethel itself. ln reply to this I pointed out that the evidence appealed to by Rainey was less conclusive than he claimed and that the ‘turn off’ interpretation, while valid in some cases, need not necessarily apply to the case of Bethel (Livingston 1971, 39-50). I turn now to evidence about the location-of Bethel which has come to my attention since I published my original articles.

Figure 1. Map traced from The Survey of Western Palestine sheets. 'RMS' indicates Roman milestones which were still in place in 1883.


1. Bethlehem and the location of the '0' milestone in Jerusalem

Two more opposite towns than Bethlehem and el-Bireh do not exist in terms of direction from Jerusalem. Bethlehem is almost due south and el-Bireh is almost due north. The use of milestones as well as measurements by road (or in a straight line, for the roads to both are relatively straight) should give an indication of the proper location of the '0' milestone. With respect to Bethlehem, Thomsen (1917, 82) records two milestones (section xliii, milestones 295 and 296). Thomsen 295 is milepost IV from Aelia Capitolina, located near modern Tantour. In Thomsen's day the stone was still in the Greek church at Beit Jala, but the number was not readable, so not much can be learned from this milestone.

The more important milestone is Thomsen 296. According to the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL 13591) this milestone does record the distance -- MP VI. Its location, according to both Thomsen and the CIL note, is opposite the Carmelite cloister, beyond or southward from where the road going south divides, the left fork going to Bethlehem and the right to Beit Jala. Eusebius and Jerome both say that Bethlehem is 'at' the sixth milestone on the road leading south to Hebron (Klostermann 1904, 42-43). When measured by car on modern [Page 157] roads, it is about 7 km. from the Zion Gate of Jerusalem to the road fork referred to by Thomsen and the description in CIL of milestone VI. It is 8.5 km. from the Zion Gate to the Carmelite cloister where the milestone was actually located.

Using Bethlehem to establish the location of the '0' milestone in the centre of Jerusalem, one finds some striking correlations when considering the relationship of Bethlehem and el-Bireh to Jerusalem. Whereas it is 8.5 km. from the Zion Gate to the sixth stone at Bethlehem, it is 16 km. from the Damascus Gate to Ras et-Tahuneh in the centre of el-Bireh, and close by was the original location of the twelfth stone as described by the Church Fathers. From the centre of Jerusalem the distance to Bethlehem is almost exactly half the distance to the ancient ruins in el-Bireh at Ras et-Tahuneh. Thus, when we compare the distances and milestones mentioned by the Church Fathers regarding Bethlehem, the '0' milestone must be located in the centre of Jerusalem, and Bethel must be located at el-Bireh instead of at Beitin.

2. The distance from Bethel to Gibeon

Rupert Chapman has pointed out in correspondence (letter to John Bimson, 8 March 1988) that the Onomasticon locates Gibeon four miles from Bethel (Klostermann 1904, 66-67). He was impressed by this while annotating a translation of the Onomasticon into English by G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville. He wrote: 'There is a track shown on the P.E.F. map which leads to el-Bireh via Rafat, a distance of fractionally over four miles.' Thus from this point of view too it appears that in the Byzantine period Bethel was located at el-Bireh, not Beitin.(1)

3. The Site of 'La Grande Mahomerie'

In the early centuries of the Church some of the European Christians who made pilgrimages to the Holy Land wrote journals about their travels, several of which were published. Since the locations of many biblical sites were still known then, their reports can be helpful in finding correct locations, and they often confirm identifications made by Eusebius and Jerome. An important consideration from one of these reports follows.

In an earlier article I mentioned that el-Bireh was the location of 'La Grande Mahomerie'. (1970:42) The importance of this identification will be expounded in the section below, but first, what was 'La Grande Mahomerie'? The best explanation of its meaning was given by F.-M. Abel (1926, 274-75). He indicated that the Crusaders named it thus because a Muslim sanctuary was prominent there in their time, which afterwards fell into disuse and was forgotten. The remains of a recently excavated Crusader church can be seen today in el-Bireh. Next to it on the south is an ancient Muslim holy place - a 'weli'- built over an even earlier church. W. M. Thomsen noted: 'It is part of the tradition that the ruined church was erected here by the Knights Templars to commemorate that event in the life of Jesus [when his parents returned to Jerusalem to look for him], since el-Bireh is the limit of the first day's journey of pilgrim caravans northward from Jerusalem . . .' (1882, 2.87).

How can the location of La Grande Mahomerie help locate ancicnt Bethel? One problem is that scholars seem unable to 'let go' of the generally accepted location of Bethel at Beitin. The following misuse of evidence is typical of the misinterpretation caused by this error:

Bethel, ancient Luz, where Jacob built his altar, was identified by most Christian travellers of the Crusader period with Kh. Luza on Mount Gerizim. In this way they followed the Samaritan tradition. Only a few identified it correctly with the village of Beitin, north-east of Ramallah. One of them, an anonymous traveller, wrote: ‘Mahomerie was first called Luza and afterwards Bethel’, identifying Bethel with Mahomerie or al-Bira, two kilometres [actually 3 km.] from Beitin. Burchard of Mount Zion in grand style locates it near Nablus and further on near Ratnallah. (Benvenisti 1970, 318, our emphasis)

 Note, to begin with, that Benvenisti equates Bethel with Beitin --- the usual identification. Then he quotes a pilgrim and Burchard who both contradict him! The first traveller quoted above equates Mahomeria with Bethel. Benvenisti himself correctly understands the pilgrim to say that Bethel was at ‘Mahomeria or al-Bira’, but he then makes a leap of logic and places Bethel at Beitin, apparently just because that is the usual view! Finally he notes that a location for Bethel suggested by the second pilgrim -- the thirteenth-century German monk Burchard -- is near Ramallah (which adjoins el-Bireh). This all supports our contention that early pilgrims understood Bethel to be at el-Bireh.

4. A Potential Identification for Beitin

In the Itinerary of the 'Pilgrim of Bordeaux' (tr. Wilkinson 1981, 155) the pilgrim says:

Twenty-eight miles from there [Nablus] on the left [east side] of the road to Jerusalem is the village called Bethar [in a footnote Wilkinson equates Bethar with 'Bethaun' or 'Bethaven', Joshua 7.2, 18.12], and a mile from there [southward] is the place where Jacob slept on his way from Mesopotamia [fn. 'Bethel'] . . . Jerusalem is twelve miles further on.

Later on a nineteenth-century traveller, John Wilson, misinterpreted this reference when he said: 'The Bourdeaux pilgrim, A.D.333, places it [Bethel] at twenty-eight miles from Neapolis, on the left of the road to Jerusalem, giving it the name of Bethar...'(Wilson 1847, 288). But Bethar is not equated with Bethel by the pilgrim. The pilgrim says plainly says that Bethel is a mile south of Bethar. The point is, there is a little north of 'Bethel' a village named 'Bethar' by this pilgrim.

If el-Bireh is Bethel (being at the twelfth Roman milestone north of Jerusalem), the next village north on the road to Nablus is modern Beitin. It should be clear at this point that the village there was known as 'Bethar' (and possibly 'Bethaun' or 'Bethaven') by this pilgrim in about A.D.333, at almost exactly the same time as Eusebius's Onomasticon was written. In the Onomasticon itself the authors even spell ‘Bethaven’ as ‘Bethaun’ (Klostermann 1904, 50-51). The Onomasticon, however, does not give Bethaven's location in miles --- it gives only its biblical description.

As far as this pilgrim's account is concerned, the problem with postulating that modern Beitin was Bethel is that there is no village or ruins along the road north of Beitin itself to equate with 'Bethar'. On the other hand, excavations at Beitin have shown occupation for the times Bethaven is referred to in the Bible. Linguistically speaking, the modern name 'Bcitin' may have derived from 'Bethaven'. Among others, C.R. Conder suggested that Beitin could be either Bethaven, Bethel or just Aven (1879, 334-35).

Besides Bethaven, two other possibilities to consider for Beitin's identification are Ophrah (Josh. 18.23, I Sam. 13.17) and Zemaraim (Josh. 18.22, 2 Ch. 13.4). Y. Aharoni mentions that Zemaraim must be in the vicinity of Ramallah and el-Bireh on the Judaean border (1966, 287). Beitin fits this identification very well. Most scholars place Ophrah at et-Taiyibeh (Aharoni 1966, 110; Baly 1974, 175). However, this may be because Bethel itself has been misplaced. Y. Kaufmann wrote that Ophrah 'may not be at et-Taiyibeh at all', since it is in the lists of both Benjamin and Ephraim (1953, 13-14). Thus Beitin itself might be considered a candidate for Ophrah.


If we take into consideration the mileage measurements and Roman milestone studies outlined above, biblical Bethel should be found in modern el-Bireh. There does not seem to be any substantial reason to continue equating Beitin with ancient Bethel.

Surface surveys at Ras et-Tahuneh have shown evidence of use as early as the Chalcolithic, Early Bronze and Middle Bronze periods (as well as several later periods including the Iron Age (Kochavi 1972, 178)). However, Bethel itself is not likely to be found there, since Ras et-Tahuneh lies on the left (west) side of the road as one travels north to Nablus. It is also too small to be the site of a town as important as Bethel. Ras et-Tahuneh may rather have been the 'high place' for the city. Bethel itself on the other hand, is described as being on the east side of the road. Therefore it should be somewhere between the now excavated Crusader church and the spring at the south end of the town (covered by a small mosque), on the right-hand side of the road as one travels north through el-Bireh.

Finally, Ai should then be east of el-Bireh on the other side of Jebel et-Tawil (Gen. 12.8). Ten seasons of excavation at Khirbet Nisya, our proposed new location for Ai, have clearly shown that the site was occupied during the biblical periods when Ai was in existence. Periods of significant occupation, determined by ceramic, artefactual and architectural evidence are: Early Bronze (possibly), Middle Bronze II, Late Bronze I, Late Bronze IIB, Iron Age I and II, Persian, Hellenistic, Early Roman, Byzantine and Early Arab (Livingston 1987, 1989). A preliminary report on the excavations is in preparation. Furthermore, the topography around the site matches every detail given in the account of the destruction of Ai in Joshua 7-8.

This article was first publshed in Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 126, 154-159. (1994). Posted with permission. 

 Recommended Resources for Further Study

Bible and Spade

Khirbet Nisya: The
Search for Ai- 1979-2002

Giving the Sense


(1) Rainey referred to this passage of the Onomasticon (1971, 185) and claimed that the 'four miles' represented the distance from (the turn-off to) Gibeon to Jerusalem. But the context and Jerome's specific statement (in quarto miliario Bethelis) are against this interpretation.


Abel, F.-M. 1926. “Les deux Mahomerie: el-Bireh, el-Qoubeibeh’, Revue Biblique, 35, 272-83.
_____ 1938. Geographie de la Palestine II, 2nd ed. (Paris).

Aharoni, Y. 1966. The Land of the Bible (London).

Albright, W.F. 1928. ‘A Trial Excavation on the Mound of Bethel’, BASOR, 29, 9-11.
_____ 1934. ‘The First Month of Excavation at Bethel’, BASOR, 55, 23-25.
_____ 1968. ‘The Site of Bethel and its Identification’, in J.L. Kelso et. al., The Excavation of Bethel (1934-1960) (AASOR 39: Cambridge, Mass.), 1-3.

Baly, D. 1963. Geographical Companion to the Bible (New York).
_____ 1974. Geogrpahy of the Bible, 2nd ed. (New York).

Benvenisti, M. 1970. The Crusaders in the Holy Land (Jerusalem).

Clermont-Ganneau, C. 1907. “Section 13: Le milliaire de Yabroud’, recueil d’archeologie orientale, viii (Paris), 93-94.

Conder, C.R. 1879. Tent Work in Palestine, 2 (London).

Conder, C.R. and Kitchener, H.H. 1883. The Survey of Western Palestine, 3 vols. (London).

Kaufmann, Y. 1953. The Biblical Account of the Conquest of Palestine (Jerusalem).

Klostermann, E. (ed.), 1904. Eusebius. Das Onomastikon der biblischen Ortsnamen (GCS: Leipzig; repr. Hildesheim, 1966).

Kochavi, M. (ed.), 1972. Judea, Samaria and the Golan. Archaeological Survey 1967-1968 (Jerusalem).

Livingston, D.P. 1970. ‘Location of Bethel and Ai Reconsidered’, Westminster Theological Journal, 33, 20-44.
_____ 1971. ‘Traditional Site of Bethel Questioned’, Westminster Theological Journal, 34, 39-50.
_____ 1987. ‘Khirbet Nisya--- Is it Biblical Ai?’ BAR, 13/5, 48-51.
_____ 1989. ‘Khirbet Nisya, 1979-1986: A Report on Six Seasons of Excavation’, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Andrews University.

Rainey, A.F. 1971. ‘Bethel is Still Beitin’, Westminster Theological Journal, 33, 175-88.

Robinson, E. 1856. Biblical Researches in Palestine and the adjacent regions. A journal of travels in the years 1838 and 1852, 2nd ed. (London).

Thomsen, P. 1917. ‘Die romischen Meilensteine der Provinzen Syria, Arabia und Palaestina, ZDPV, 40, 1-103.

Thomsen, W. M. 1882. The Land and the Book, 3 vols. (New York).

Wilkinson, J. 1977. Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades (Jerusalem).
_____ 1981. Egeria’s Travels to the Holy Land, 2nd ed. (Warminster).

Wilson, J. 1847.The Lands of the Bible (Edinburgh).

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