Most scholars today locate Old Testament Bethel at the Arab village of Beitin about 11 mi north of Jerusalem. An examination of the evidence, however, indicates that this identification in 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 1830'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.
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 eliminated the former himself. Now we were left with only the patristic evidence of Eusebius and Jerome. What was it, and how accurately could it be checked?
Roman engineers not only constructed roads throughout the empire, but also erected mile markers. The author is standing beside a typical Roman milestone.
Roman Milestones Tell the Story
What did the two church fathers actually say? They both said, Eusebius in Greek and Jerome in Latin, that Bethel was located near the 12th Roman milestone north of Aelia (Jerusalem) on the road to Neapolis (modern Nablus). Keep in mind when using this source that the church fathers were not writing about road measurements. They were referring to specific mile markers, or milestones. On the 1883 Survey of Western Palestine map, actual mile markers (found by the map makers) are delineated "RMS," Roman Mile Stone.
Although the church fathers were referring to specific milestones, it is also helpful to use road measurements in trying to determine where the 12th mile marker was located. In terms of distance, one Roman mile is about 1,620 yd; an English mile is about 1,760 yd. For this study, we may consider that 11 modern miles equal 12 Roman miles rather closely. We measured the distance by auto (three times) from the Damascus Gate to the center of El-Bireh. It consistently proved to be slightly over 16 km (10+ mi). This equals a little more than 11 Roman miles. Adding one-half mile, more or less, to reach the zero milestone near Jerusalem's center would put the 12th Roman milestone near the north end of modern El-Bireh.
Mosaic map of the city of Jerusalem (“Aelia”) in the 6th century AD., part of a larger map of the Holy Land in St. George’s church in Madaba, Jordan. Notice the single tall black column on the left, standing in the plaza of the Damascus Gate, the city’s northern gate (1). While there is no trace of the column today, it is remembered in the Arabic name for the Damascus Gate, Bab al-Amud, “Gate of the Column.” The ancient road proceeded north from here to Damascus, passing by Bethel. The city street running south from the Damascus Gate was known as the Cardo (from the Greek word cardia, “heart”), since it went through the heart of the city. Notice the small white columns lining both sides of the Cardo. They were for the covered sidewalks of the Roman city, which archaeologists have now excavated. The large structure opening onto the Cardo from the east (7) depicts the Constantinian Church of the Holy Sepulcher. At the southern end of the Cardo is the Nea (“New”) Church (12) with its long roof running east and west. Somewhere between the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Nea Church stood the actual 0 mile marker of Roman and Byzantine Jerusalem. Unfortunately, that location is not noted in the Madaba map. Other points of interest: (2) St. Stephen’s Gate, (3) Golden Gate, (4) Dung Gate, (5) Zion Gate, (6) Jaffa Gate, (8) Baptistery of the Church of Anastasis (?), (9) Monastery of St Serapion (?), (10) Church of the Sheep Pool, (11) Church of the Pinnacle of the Temple, (13) Church of the Pool of Siloam, (14) Basilica on Mt. Zion, (15) Diaconicon of the Basilica on Mt. Zion (?), (16) Church of the House of Caiphas, (17) Church of St. Sophia (?), (18) Church of St. Cosmas of St. Damianus (?), (19) Tower of David, (20) Patriarchal Quarter (?), Monastery of the Spoudaei (?), (22) Temple Esplanade, (23) Fortress of Antonia (?), (24) Public Baths (?).
Where Was the 0 Milestone Located?
Contrary to what many scholars assume (e.g., Vincent 1901: 100; Magen 1988: 6), the pillar at the Damascus Gate on the Madaba Map cannot be the zero milestone. It is more likely a commemorative column of Hadrian. Columns like this erected by Hadrian and Trajan can be seen to this day in Rome. We do not know the shape of the zero milestone.
Trajan’s Column in the Roman forum.
But the base of one with the inscription milliarium aureum , “Golden Milestone,” is still visible in the Forum at the Palatinate in the very center of ancient Rome. Another parallel is found in London on Cannon Street.
Column base in the Forum at Rome marking the center of the city. Its Latin inscription milliarium aureum, “Golden Milestone,” was the zero mile marker from which distances to other cities were measured.
Further negating the possibility of the zero milestone being at the Damascus Gate was the discovery of the first, third, fourth, and fifth milestones at the turn of this century. Measuring backward from the first milestone clearly indicates that the zero milestone was at least as far south as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and possibly as far as the Nea Church (both on the Madaba Map). This allows us to add several tenths of a mile to our measurements by odometer, putting Beitin almost 14 Roman miles north of Jerusalem and el-Bireh 11.5–12 miles.
The Distance of Rama from Jerusalem
Both Eusebius and Jerome place Rama at the sixth milestone. However, Jerome also mentions that it was at the seventh (Onomasticon,145, n. line 13). It appears that the sixth and seventh milestones straddled Rama, which was slightly east of the ancient Roman road. This presents the possibility that one turned off the main road at the sixth milestone to go in when traveling northward, or turned in at the seventh when traveling southward.
The preceding accords also with milestones discovered and published in the last century. The fifth milestone on the road northward from Jerusalem had clearly inscribed numbers in both Latin and Greek (Avi-Yonah 1940: 44; Thomsen 1917: 70). Its location allows one more, the sixth, to have been located at the road turning into Rama off the main northward route (for an actual milestone comparison, see Clermont-Ganneau 1888: 284). The seventh, then, would have been where the road north out of the village joined the main road. If so, the remaining distance north to El-Bireh puts the 12th milestone in El-Bireh. The 14th would have been at Beitin, ruling it out as "Bethel" according to its placement by the church fathers.
Ruins of a Crusader church, excavated in El-Bireh in 1987.
Locating the 10th or 11th Milestone
Michael Avi-Yonah listed a milestone at Khirbet Esh-She, about a mile south of El-Bireh (1940: 44). He called it the tenth milestone. However, in correspondence with him, he replied, "The milestone has probably been assigned to the tenth mile from Jerusalem because of its situation, because if it had an inscription it would have been published, then or later" (1970). If, in truth, it is the tenth, then the 11th was in El-Bireh which, in turn, puts the 12th between El-Bireh and Beitin. This would mean Beitin is at the 13th milestone which does not match the location according to the church fathers. However, if the stone at Esh-She is really the 11th milestone (which it should be by all other considerations), then the 12th milestone was at El-Bireh.
The modern road through El-Bireh follows the route of the ancient Roman road.
Beeroth Is Not Located at El-Bireh
Having considered the milestones, it may help to review the identification of some ancient towns relative to the location of Bethel. Edward Robinson made a number of amazingly accurate locations of Biblical towns. But he also made mistakes. One of them was equating Biblical Beeroth with El-Bireh (1856, 2: 132). This incorrect location was dealt with in an earlier study (Livingston 1970: 39–41). S. Yeivin agrees that El-Bireh cannot be ancient Beeroth:
As to Beeroth, there is a large divergence of opinion among scholars . . . Abel identified it with El-Bireh . . . (this suggestion has been adopted by many scholars). The identification, however, clashes with Eusebius' statement in the Onomasticon that Beeroth is seven miles distant from Jerusalem (1971: 141–145).
It is clear in both Eusebius and Jerome that Beeroth was on the road to Nicopolis, not on the road to Neapolis (modern Nablus, Livingston 1970: 40–41). Beeroth was only six or seven miles out of Jerusalem, barely half the distance to El-Bireh. Although Edward Robinson recognized that Beeroth was near the seventh mile marker on the road to Nicopolis, he misinterpreted the church fathers by thinking that one could see Beeroth (in his opinion, modern El-Bireh) from a seventh marker located near El-Jib (Gibeon). As for the location of Nicopolis, Avi-Yonah suggests that Emmaus became the Nicopolis referred to by the church fathers in AD 220 (1940: 115). Today it is Imwus in the Valley of Aijalon. Thus the road to Beeroth went mostly westward (and a little north) from Jerusalem, not northward. Beeroth was in the Gibeonite confederation and thus must have been not far from Gibeon. According to Joshua 9:17, it was near Kiryat-Yearim, which is nowhere near El-Bireh. Some have suggested that Beeroth might be located at Biddu.
Site of La Grande Mahomerie
In the early centuries of the church, some European Christians who took 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 tend to confirm identifications made by Eusebius and Jerome. An important consideration from one of these reports follows.
El-Bireh was the location of La Grande Mahomerie. What was La Grande Mahomerie? The best explanation of its meaning was by F. M. Abel. He indicated that the Crusaders named it thus because a Muslim sanctuary was prominent there at that time, but afterward fell into disuse and was forgotten (1926:274–75). Recently, remains have been uncovered in El-Bireh of a Crusader church. Next to it on the south is an ancient Muslim holy place, a weli built over an 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: 87).
How can the location of La Grande Mahomerie help locate ancient Bethel? One problem is that scholars cannot seem to let go of the traditional location of Bethel at Beitin. Typical of the misinterpretation caused by this error is seen in the following:
Bethel, ancient Luz, where Jacob built his altar, was identified by most Christian travelers of the Crusader period with Kh. Luza on Mt. 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 traveler, wrote: “Mahomerie was first called Luza and afterwards Bethel,” identifying Bethel with Mahomeria or al-Bira, two kilometres [sic, actually 3 km] from Beitin. Burchard of Mount Zion, in grand style, locates it near Nablus and further on near Ramallah (Benvinisti 1970: 318).
Note in the above that, to begin with, Benvinisti equates Bethel with Beitin, the traditional identification. Then he quotes a pilgrim and Burchard who both contradict him! The first traveler equates Mahomeria with Bethel. Benvinisti himself correctly understands the pilgrim to say that Bethel was at "Mahomeria or al-Bira." If so, this means Bethel is at El-Bireh. But Benvinisti then makes a leap of logic and places Bethel at Beitin, only because that is the traditional view! Finally, he notes that a location for Bethel suggested by the second pilgrim, 13th century German monk Burchard, is near Ramallah (adjoining El-Bireh). This all supports our contention that most pilgrims understood Bethel to be at El-Bireh.
All North-South Roads Go Through El-Bireh
A final consideration is that El-Bireh is the natural crossroads for the whole area. All roads from the north and all roads from the south converge like the waist of an hourglass at the narrow ridge on which the city sits. This is necessary because of the extremely deep and rugged wadis extending east and west of the town.
Taking this into consideration, the high point on which the town sits would be very strategic in controlling travel going north or south. It is the best place to establish a north-south road block. The Israelis effectively did just that in the 1967 war. We believe Jeroboam did the same when he set up a golden calf at Bethel (with a battalion of soldiers?) to deter northern Israelites from traveling south to the Temple. This way he could control the travel of pilgrims from the northern kingdom as they tried to go to Jerusalem (1 Kgs 12:25–33).
This is not true, on the other hand, of Beitin. It lies in a relatively level area and does not seem strategic for controlling travel in the area, although a road to Jericho and another going to Nablus passes through it.
Other Possibilities for the Identification of Beitin
Two possibilities are that Beitin is "Ophrah" (Jos 18:23; 1 Sm 13:17) or "Zemaraim" (Jos 18:22; 2 Chr 13:4). Y. Aharoni (1966:287) mentions that Zemaraim must be in the vicinity of Ramallah and El-Bireh on the Judean border. 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. Kaufmann (1953: 13-14) says Ophrah "may not be at Et-Taiyibeh at all" since it is in the lists of both Benjamin and Ephraim. Thus Beitin itself might be considered a candidate for Ophrah.
How to Verify the New Bethel?
Even if our conclusion about relocating Bethel is reasonable, we cannot verify that el-Bireh might be Bethel. It is a heavily populated modern city. One section of the city, however, has a high point called "Ras et-Tahuneh." It was surveyed by the Israel Department of Antiquities in 1969. Surface finds indicate that it was occupied in almost every period of ancient times and as early as the Calcolithic, Early and Middle Bronze Periods (Kochavi, 1972:178). If Bethel is at el-Bireh, this high point is probably not Bethel, but it may be the “high place” at Bethel. It needs to be excavated. However, Ramallah/el-Bireh is very tense politically. So excavation is not feasible for now.
A stone retaining wall surrounds the top of Ras et-Tahuneh in modern El-Bireh. Could this be the “high place” of ancient Bethel?
Conclusion: Biblical Bethel Is Located at El-Bireh
Taking into consideration the topography of the area, its strategic placement in controlling the north-south roads, mileage measurements, and Roman milestone studies outlined above, Biblical Bethel should be found under modern El-Bireh. There does not seem to be any substantial reason to any longer equate Beitin with ancient Bethel.
Recommended Resources for Further Study
Abel, F. M.
1926 Les Deux Mahomerie: El-Bireh, El-Qoubeibeh. Revue Biblique 35: 272–83.
1966 The Land of the Bible. London: Burns and Oates.
Avi Yonah, M.
1940 Map of Roman Palestine. London: Oxford.
1970 Personal communication, June 6.
1974 The Geography of the Bible. New York: Harper.
1970 The Crusaders in the Holy Land. Jerusalem: Israel University.
Clermont Ganneau, C.
1888 Une Borne Miliaire de Jerusalem. Recueil d'Archaeologie Orientale 1: 280–84. Paris: E. Leroux.
Conder, C. R., and Kitchener, H. H.
1883 The Survey of Western Palestine, 3 vols. London: Palestine Exploration Fund.
1904 Onomasticon. Leipzig: Erich Klostermann.
1953 The Biblical Account of the Conquest of Palestine. Jerusalem: Magnes.
Kelso, J. L.
1968 The Excavation of Bethel. Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 39. Cambridge, MA: American Schools of Oriental Research.
1972 Judaea Samaria and the Golan: Archaeological Survey 1967–1968. Jerusalem: Carta.
Livingston, D. P.
1970 Location of Bethel and Ai Reconsidered. The Westminster Theological Journal 33: 20–44.
1988 Recovering Roman Jerusalem-The Entryway Beneath Damascus Gate. Biblical Archaeology Review 15.3: 48–56.
Robinson, E. and Smith, E.
1856 Biblical Researches in Palestine and in the Adjacent Regions. Boston: Crocker and Brewster.
1917 Die romischen Meilensteine der Provinzen Syria, Arabia und Palaestina. Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palaestina-Vereins 40: 1–103.
1882 The Land and the Book, Vol. 2. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Vincent, R. B.
1901 Un Nouveau Milliare sur la Voie Romaine de Jerusalem a Naplouse. Revue Biblique 10: 96–100.
1971 The Benjamite Settlement in the Western Part of Their Territory. Israel Exploration Journal 21: 141–45.