Traditional Site of Bethel Questioned

Share/recommend this article:

Excerpt Unfortunately, Dr. Rainey has presented little for the Beitin = Bethel case that has not already been considered. He has ably restated traditional opinions regarding the location. In spite of the evidence we present in our first article, he obviously concludes we are wrong (which, of course, he has every right to do). However, we urge the reader to look carefully at all the evidence, and lack of it, and decide for himself on the basis of evidence, not votes. We urge serious readers to become familiar with our previous article... Continue reading

Related Articles
Like this artice?

Our Ministry relies on the generosity of people like you. Every small donation helps us develop and publish great articles.

Please support ABR!

Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover & PayPal

This article is part of a series dedicated to Dr. David Livingston, in recognition of his accomplishments in defending the reliability and inerrancy of the Bible, and in celebration of the 40th anniversary of his founding of the ABR ministry.

We are pleased with Dr. Anson Rainey's reply to our previous article.[1] We find it difficult to reply to a former teacher. However, we are happy for the opportunity to reply to a former teacher. However, we are happy for the opportunity to restate our case. In spite of his careful work, we are still compelled to question the traditional location of Bethel.

The real problem is whether our research will be inductive or deductive. If the former we do not know of any single fact which clearly and independently demonstrates that Beitin is Bethel. All is questionable and capable of double interpretation. We reiterate once more, and will try to demonstrate, that the burden of proof is still on those who maintain the Beitin = Bethel equation.

If one argues deductively, that is, assuming Beitin is Bethel, then a number of items may be construed as evidence for Beitin, if there were no other possible site in the area. The evidence is not overwhelming yet for Bireh; but, in spite of Dr. Rainey’s contentions, it does seem overwhelming for Beitin, either. In light of the new possibility we present, we urge alert scholars to reexamine all the facts and, if possible, to discover new data. That is, excavate at Bireh and/or its sister-city.

Unfortunately, Dr. Rainey has presented little for the Beitin = Bethel case that has not already been considered. He has ably restated traditional opinions regarding the location. In spite of the evidence we present in our first article, he obviously concludes we are wrong (which, of course, he has every right to do). However, we urge the reader to look carefully at all the evidence, and lack of it, and decide for himself on the basis of evidence, not votes. We urge serious readers to become familiar with our previous article. Many important details will not be reiterated here.


In dealing with topographical evidence, Dr. Rainey does not give adequate consideration to the importance of topographical features mentioned in Scripture. The explicit topographical data given in Scripture are so detailed that one is hard put “to find similar topographical situations at various places in the same general region.” The region is quite limited, and there are simply not many possible choices. If one takes Scripture seriously, the topography at Beitin-at-Tell lacks some important features.

Discussions about the border can be considered after Bethel is properly located. Others have made studies similar to Dr. Rainey’s. But conclusions regarding national and tribal boundaries are of value only after evidence is in had to demonstrate Beitin is Bethel. If it is not, some Scripture passages can be re-interpreted. At the end of his discussion, Dr. Rainey concludes, “The natural topographical border would then lie between Bethel [Beitin] and Mizpah [Tell en-Nasbeh]; to the north of the latter there rises a prominent ridge…perched on it are the twin cities of Rāmallāh and el-Bîreh!” [2] This only demonstrates exactly what we have been trying to say. That is, Bethel (at Bireh) is on the natural topographical border, right where it should be! [3] To place Bethel inside one or the other territories obviously means the border line no longer goes through Bethel. [4]


Dr. Rainey has, as others before him, made some interesting observations on the name “Beitin.” We have not questioned that it might have devolved from “Bethel.” Nor, incidentally, does he deny that it could mean “two houses” (although we would never insist on that meaning).[5] But, neither of these suggestions is concerned with the real problem. That is, Beitin has been known by that name scarcely 150 years. Carl Ritter, in 1866, was familiar with the situation when he said, “Notwithstanding that the site of the once so renowned Bethel…, on the primitive boundary of Ephraim and Benjamin…, was completely unknown at the beginning of the present century, yet there is no doubt concerning the identity of Bethel with modern Beitin” (!).[6] Why insist on the toponymy for proof when there is no historical reference to the site for 1400 years, thus no tradition relative to the name at all?[7]

What is more, Dr. Rainey does not consider the fact that the name, even if it did derive from “Bethel,” may have moved. Dr. W.F. Albright, the earliest excavator, has himself considered this possibility.[8] Carl Wolf, whom Dr. Rainey cites, also says, “…even within biblical times the settlement as well as the name could wander from the original location.”[9]

Toponymy, in this case, seems a most tenuous means of identification. With no corrobating historical evidence available, we do well to hold identification of this site by toponymy loosely.


Dr. Rainey has reiterated facts known to students of the Beitin excavations; but he still has not presented independent evidence from archaeology that Beitin is Bethel. What he demonstrates is that, for the MB-LB period, Beitin could be Bethel. But it may also have been some other town for that period. Nor does the fact that MB-LB remains are in abundance at Beitin preclude the possibility that they are also under Bireh.[10] Dr. Albright has plainly stated in a letter to the writer[11] that there is no independent archaeological evidence for Beitin = Bethel only lend themselves to circular reasoning. If there is no real evidence, let us be done with archaeology for proofs.[12]

Dr. Rainey suggests that if a temple or church was mentioned in a source, we should find evidence of it at a site. He applies the argument to Byzantine churches at Beitin, supposedly commemorating patriarchal events, about which we shall have more to say later. But Jeroboam’s temple is often mentioned in Scripture as being at Bethel, and it has not yet been found. Dr. James Kelso describes what has been typical of the search for it: “The expedition failed to find any trace of Jeroboam’s temple. It must lie under the built-up area of Beitin, which occupies most of the southern half of ancient Bethel. Since some scholars have suggested that the temple was outside the city, several of our staff and workmen looked carefully for Iron Ii sherds at Burj  Beitin…but none was found.”[13]

Find Ai, or Jeroboam’s temple, or other solid archaeological evidence, then everyone can accept the identification. But, with the most obvious and easily discoverable evidence still strangely lacking, is it any wonder that scholars will question the identification of Bethel with Beitin?[14]


Dr. Rainey assumes (as have others) that the “churches” at Beitin are those spoken of by Jerome, commemorating Jacob’s Dream and Abraham’s Altar. This might be possible if Beitin is the Bethel of which Jerome spoke.

As for the church in Beitin itself, Conder and Kitchener describe it as “of Crusading date, once dedicated to St. Joseph.”[15] This, then, could not be a candidate for the church of Jacob’s dream.

Concerning the building at Burj Beitin, southeast of Beitin, there is real question. The SWP says, “The ruins of an ancient church at Burj Beitin may be those of the church mentioned by Jerome as built on the spot where Jacob slept.”[16] But, the ruins may also not be the church mentioned by Jerome. The reason the author could confidently suggest this building was that particular church is seen in his preceding statement, “The identity of Beitîn with Bethel has never been questioned.” Now that it is questioned, we do not hesitate to question the identity of this building.

Actually, Burj Beitin is described by the SWP as a “monastery subsequently converted into a fortress.”[17] That is has some Byzantine-type stones imbedded in its walls is evident. But that it was a church is not certain. Neither Burj Beitin, nor Khirbet el-Maqatir has ever been excavated, according to correspondence with Dr. James Kelso. Therefore, one should be cautious in making statements about Burj Beitin like that of the SWP, “this spot…is probably a traditional site of Abraham’s altar, east of Bethel.”[18] The reader will notice in our quotations above that in one place this building is said to be commemorative of Jacob’s Dream, and in another place, of Abraham’s Altar. It does not seem likely that the same building would commemorate both events, which only serves to amplify the uncertainty connected with this structure. Apparently there is no evidence that this building commemorates either event, other than that it happens to be near the place assumed to be Bethel.

As we have tried to point out, the archaeological evidence for Beitin = Bethel is elusive at every point. We would do well to scrutinize the solid evidence available, while holding loosely to tradition and long-held opinions. How can we be certain this church mentioned by Jerome does not lie in ruins somewhere near Bireh, near the prominent mountain there?

We are glad Dr. Rainey called attention to Iron Age pottery at our projected “Ai.” What we first said was misleading. We meant the point to be that Iron Age pottery just off the tell may indicate a much older settlement was possible on the tell than any surface pottery there indicates. Perhaps there may even be a Late Bronze level. Of course, no one can be certain without digging. Why not exhaust every possibility (as has been done over a large area east of Beitin) instead of defending a questionable site?


Some have suggested that we had a bias in our first article with respect to the date of the Conquest, a sort of apologetic. There is no question about that. We do have a bias. Everyone does. Ours is for the early date of ca. 1400 B.C. Although most scholars now hold to a later date, we personally are convinced that there is evidence (beginning with Scripture) to support the early date.

Correspondence with Siegfried Horn indicates that he has unquestionable found LB material at Heshbon, Nelson Blueck himself concurring before his death. Paul Lapp seriously questioned Glueck’s Transjordan survey conclusions in 1963, presenting evidence for occupation there in 1400 B.C.[19] More recently, Franken and Power reexamined Glueck’s work and much of the pottery he collected, coming to the opposite conclusions from Glueck![20] Thus, Nelson Glueck’s work, so long a pillar of the late date is now controverted in enough places that his original conclusions are highly questionable. There apparently were cities in Transjordan in 1400 B.C.

In Palestine, as for destruction levels at various locations in the 1300-1200 B.C. period at several sites, there is no biblical support whatever that these destructions were caused by Joshua’s troops.[21]


One other foundation for the late date is the name “Rameses” in Egypt, supposedly indicating that the Exodus has to coincide with the Ramesside period. However, the fact that there was already a place by that name in Joseph’s day[22] has been pointed out often; it hardly needs repeating here. Calling this an “anarchronism” is necessary only to those assuming (again) a late date. There is no proof it is anachronistic. Thus, the main evidences advanced for the low date leave much to be desired.

At this point we remind our readers that the late date for the Conquest was largely determined by Professor W.F. Albright in the excavations at Beitin! Until then, he had long held to an early date, as did most scholars.[23] Since then, scholars have increasingly followed his original lead. Joseph Callaway says, “Professor W.F. Albright’s view that the Conquest occurred in the latter part of the thirteenth century B.C. has generally prevailed.”[24] After “establishing” the late date at Beitin, to turn around then and claim that the archaeology of Beitin supports the biblical evidence seems like running in a circle.[25] What is worse, what shall we do with comparative chronology if Beitin proves not to be Bethel after all?


Dr. Livingston conducted excavations at Khirbet Nisya from 1979-2002. He has identified Khirbet Nisya as Joshua's Ai, based partly on the groundbreaking research found in this article. His book, Khirbet Nisya - The Search for Biblical Ai, 1979-2002, can be purchased in the ABR bookstore.


 Relative to the location of the 12th milestone, we see no problem with Dr. Rainey’s contention that the Greek and Latin can mean “somewhere near.” The same construction also means “on” or “at.” However, we do not insist that the 12th milestone has to be at the gate of Bethel to establish our point. “Somewhere near” is sufficient.

Dr. Rainey’s argument that there were turn-offs at Gibeon and Ramah are not troublesome, either. We do not question that the markers mentioned were turn-off points. The argument simply does not apply to Bethel. àπó + gen. is used in speaking of the former two cities, meaning “at a distance of  (  ) mileposts from Aelia (one turns off).” And since they are off the main road, one would logically expect to turn off there.

However, in the case of Bethel a different preposition is used, implying close proximity to the marker, i.e., “somewhere near.” Eusebius and Jerome mention “Bethel” several times and always give the same distance from Jerusalem, whether approaching it from the north or from the south. Thus, even though the marker probably was not in Bethel, it certainly must have been the closest one.

We remind the reader that the original identification of Beitin = Bethel by Edward Robinson was based on only two factors: the name “Beitîn,” and the road distance mentioned in the Onomasticon. We have considered above the value of the name. Of the distance, he himself says: “From Beitîn to el-Bîreh we found the distance to be forty-five minutes, and from Bîreh to Jerusalem three hours, with horses. The correspondence therefore in the situation is very exact [!]; and the name affords decisive confirmation.”[26] (Unfortunately, he did not state whether his horse was fresh or tied, or whether it walked or trotted somewhat.) We are not a little dismayed when Dr. Albright says, “Since the publication of Robinson’s results in 1841 no competent topographer has hesitated for a moment to accept the identification as essentially correct.”[27] If others have checked the distance, they will have discovered that Robinson was somewhat off. But at any rate, he obviously considered that the 12th milestone should be very close to Bethel, wherever Bethel is.

Furthermore, and this is most important, the road situation completely negates Dr. Rainey’s argument about “turn offs.” To say one “turns off” the main road and goes across country to Bethel is not proper. Both Bireh and Beitin were on ancient roads between Jerusalem and Nablus.[28] In neither case did one need to “turn off” except to go in.[29]


In speaking of “the route that goes up from Bethel towards Shechem” (Judges 21:19), Dr. Rainey says that Bethel was “obviously beside” the road.[30] But on the next page, he says the same road ran two kilometers west of Bethel. What he means is unclear. However, if he claims on one hand that Bethel is beside the road, then to illustrate another point, that it is two kilometers to the west, he loses the force of both arguments. At any rate, our case is based on Roman roads and milestones, and the Roman roads clearly went close to each town with no need for a “turn off’ to go cross-country.

Studies on toponymy, topography, archaeology, geography, etc., are interesting, and can be very helpful. But, in the case of Bethel, only when we deal with distances and milestones do we have definite evidence. If the proper distance given by Eusebius and Jerome brings once close to Bireh, then we have a real problem with the (recent) tradition locating Bethel at Beitin. These church fathers gave the distance enough times from both directions that we cannot think they made a mistake, especially when the distances to Ramah and Gibeon prove accurate.

We have seen that the argument for a “turn off” is invalid. We must now determine whether indeed the 12th milestone was near Bireh.

To mileage measurements reckoned from the Damascus Gate (and Bab el-Amud), we have some objections. Professor Avi-Yonah’s opinions are valuable. However, we wonder what his proof is that the column on the Medeba Map was the millarium aureum of Jerusalem? Is there no possibility that, instead of being the central milepost, the column may have been commemorative, something like Trajan’s column in his forum?

If the third milestone was at Safat, then we should by all means consider again Vincent’s and Clermont-Ganneau’s investigations.[31]

Both had actually viewed the third stone at Safat, and both independently measured the distance back toward Jerusalem. Both also concluded that millarium aureum could not possibly be at the Damascus Gate. Thus, it is unlikely that the colum represented on the Medeba Map was the 0 milepost. The only factual way to determine whether it was would be to find the base of the column. What seems to be the base of the 0 milepost in Rome is still in place and underneath is a stone clearly inscribed “millarium aureum.” Visitors there can see it to this day. The writer is not aware that the milestone column itself has been discovered in Rome. But it seems reasonable that it would have approximately the same shape as the milestones themselves, even if larger. Roadside milestones in Palestine were about 250 cm. high (beginning above the square base), cylindrical in shape, and about half as large at the top as at the bottom (about 60 cm.). The Damascus Gate column of the Medeba Map is not that shape. In fact, it seems to have a capital on top. Furthermore, we should keep in mind that the central milestone in Rome is in the temple area of the main forum. Would we not expect it placed also in the temple area of the Jerusalem, about a half mile or so south of the Damascus Gate? Until visible evidence regarding the Damascus Gate column is available, won’t we do better to base our investigations on milestones and measurable distances actually available to us, and resist conjectures related to the Medeba Map?

We wonder whether the Medeba Map, quite stylized like other ancient maps, is of real value in locating Bethel. It does demonstrate that Bethel existed somewhere north of Jerusalem. But that fact is plain from other sources. To try to locate Bethel using the Medeba Map with the exactness this problem requires seems to us to stretch the evidence.

Continuing the study of the milestones, Carl Wolf says: “Many of the milestones of the first three centuries must have survived into the fourth. For the most part distances seem to be according to mileposts. The slight divergence between Jerome and Eusebius which is often only mile can be accounted for by the fact that a site is seldom so small as to be only at one milestone and also that in the seventy-five years the roads and starting points normally would change slightly.”[32]

The situation at Ramah seems to have been that the 6th and 7th milestones straddled the city.[33] Possibly one turned off at the 6th when coming up from Jerusalem, and at the 7th when approaching from Bethel. The approximate measured distance from the Damascus Gate to a point opposite er-Ram (Ramah) on the Jerusalem to Bireh road is 5 ½ miles. Add ½ mile to put the 0 milepost inside Jerusalem, where it no doubt was. This gives 6 statute miles, which corresponds to about 6 ½ Roman miles, exactly the right distance to Bireh, about 4 ½ -5 statute miles (5-5 1/2  Roman miles), means the 12th marker could not possibly have been far from it. We encourage interested scholars to check these facts for themselves. If the 12th marker (approaching from either direction) was near Bireh, are we presumptuous to ask that Bireh at least be considered as the location for Bethel, instead of Beitin?

Unfortunately, Dr. Rainy has “turned off” at the 12th marker, feeling that its close proximity to Bireh is of little consequence. On the other hand, he does cite Kallai (in note 44), who concluded that the 12th milestone was a little north of Bireh. Early in our own studies, we had come to the same perplexing conclusion that the marker was out in an open area or beyond Bireh. That was while we measured by distance only, from the Damascus Gate. Later, the studies by Vincent and Clermont-Ganneau convinced us that, with the 0 milepost somewhere well inside Jerusalem, distance and milestone discrepancies could be reconciled. The 12th stone had to be very close to Bireh.


If one already assumes Beitin is Bethel, then the proofs Dr. Rainey presents may seem convincing. However, we contend that these proofs leave too many unanswered questions. For instance, where did Beitin first get its name and why was it known (in the 1830’s) only by the local residents? Where at Beitin is the “mountain” spoken of in Genesis 12:8? (There is one at Bireh, with a good view of the Jordan Valley. The mountain mentioned in Genesis is clearly between the cities. We cannot just look anywhere for it.) Why is there no trace of Jeroboam’s temple at Beitin, even though every campaign made the finding of it the first objective? Can a burn level be used as evidence that Beitin is Bethel when there no biblical evidence that Joshua (or anyone else) ever burned Bethel? Why has no trace of Ai been found east of Beitin? (Dr. Rainey largely ignored this problem. But that is what set off the investigation in the first place. Why continue to excavate east of Beitin looking for “Ai”? Why not rather suspect Beitin itself?) When Roman mileposts take one to Bireh, instead of Beitin, why look elsewhere for Bethel?

As long as many questions remain in the Beitin = Bethel equation, we may serve objective scholarship best by keeping an open mind and not dogmatically defending traditional positions. We would dislike entering an archaeological “dark age” with respect to Bethel and Ai.

We recommend to the reader the conclusion of Dr. Donald J. Wiseman: “It must be emphasized that this new suggestion of Mr. Livingston must remain an unproven theory until checked by archaeological soundings at both places for the evidence for the identification and location of Bethel and Ai is interrelated. Pending such identification, the student of the Bible has every right to hold to the explicit statement of Scripture rather than to any passing idea even though the latter may seem to support him.”[34]


1.  David Livingston, "Location of Bethel and Ai Reconsidered," Westminster Theological Journal, XXXIII (1970-1971), 20-44. (Hereafter referred to as WTJ.)

2.  Anson F. Rainey, “Bethel is Still Beitîn,” WTJ, XXXIII (1970-1971), 184.

3.  Cf., Ephraim’s southern border: Joshua 16:1-3; and Benjamin’s northern border: Joshua 18:11-13.

4. The “shoulder of Luz” (ibid., p. 181, and note 27) could just as easily be the slope of  the most prominent peak in the area, et-Tawil at Bireh.

5. When Edward Robinson first made the identification (in 1838) by toponymy, the only ones who called the area “Beitin” were the local common people. Nearby priests knew nothing of it. One would think that if the identification were valid, the local priests would have been able to identify the second most important town in Scripture. Biblical Researches in Palestine, I (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1856), 449.

6. Carl Ritter, The Comparative Geography of Palestine and the Sinaitic Peninsula (4 volumes, tr. William Gage; New York, 1866), IV, 226. (Our italics)

7. Edward Robinson says, “Eusebuis and Jerome…is the last notice of Bethel as an inhabited place. The name is indeed mentioned by writers of the times of the Crusades, but apparently only as a place known in Scripture history, and not as then in existence.” Biblical Researches, I, 450.

8. James L. Kelso, ed., The Excavation of Bethel, Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research (Cambridge, 1968), XXXIX, 1. (Hereafter referred to as Bethel.)

9. Carl Wolf, “Eusebius of Caesarea and the Onomasticon,” Biblical Archaeologist, XXVII (1964), 90.

10. Early travelers noticed many evidences of ancient remains at Bireh. See the works of Edward Robinson, John Wilson, William Thomsen, and J.W. McGarvey, who all viewed Bireh while it was more sparsely inhabited.

11. See our previous article, WTJ, XXXIII, 28.

12. Those who hold to the biblical date for the Conquest would agree that Beitin was unoccupied during the Conquest, ca. 1400 B.C., thus making it impossible for Beitin to be Bethel. Cf., Bethel, p. xiv, for the archaeological timetable.

13. James Kelso, “The Third Campaign,” Bulletin for the American Schools of Oriental Research, 151 (October, 1958), 3-4.

14. We have heard from several scholars reminding us that Bethel has been looked for elsewhere because of these problems. For instance, see W. Ross’s “Is Beitin the Bethel of Jeroboam?,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly (1941), pp. 22-27.

15. C.R. Conder and H.H. Kitchener, The Survey of Western Palestine (London, 1883), III, 305. (Hereafter SWP.)

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., p. 307.

18. Ibid.

19. Paul W. Lapp, “Palestine: Known But Mostly Unknown,” Biblical Archaeologist, XXVI (1963), 124.

20. Vetus Testamentum, XXI (1971), 119-123.

21. Beitin, Debir, Lachish, Eglon, etc. To continue to hold them up as evidence for the late date is begging the question. See our previous article, WTJ, XXXIII, 21.

22. Genesis 47:11.

23. See the very important footnote #5 in our previous article, where his changeover is clearly stated by Dr. Albright himself.

24. Joseph A. Callaway, “New Evidence on the Conquest of Ai,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 87, 3 (Sept,., 1968), 313.

25. Especially is this so when the Bible does not state that Joshua even burned Bethel!

26. Biblical Researches, I, 449.

27. Bethel, p. 1.

28. Cf., Avi-Yonah’s Map of Roman Palestine (it is too bad that this masterful study is not more accessible to scholars), SWP map, etc.

29. This, incidentally, negates also Dr. Rainey’s argument that important towns did not lie close to important roads. Beitin was just as close to a main artery as was Bireh, even though Beitin was not on the main crossroads. It was, furthermore, right on a junction of an ancient road going to Jericho through modern Deir Dibwan.

30. Rainey, op. cit., p. 180.

31. To consider this problem without carefully studying the articles of both these men would be the greatest possible mistake. We cannot reproduce their complete articles here, obviously, but will gladly furnish copies to serious scholars upon request (if unavailable). The work of these two men is fully as objective and just as important as is Edward Robinson’s. For bibliography, see pp. 36-37 of our previous article.

32. Wolf, op cit., pp. 77-8.

33. See our previous article, p. 35, for details.

34. “Ai in Ruins,” Buried History, VII, 1 (March, 1971), 5-6. (Our italics)

Research RSS Feed

AddThis Feed Button

Recent Articles

What we read in the Bible has a clear historical connection. In Digging for Truth, Bryan Windle reveals...
Five years ago I came up with the idea of a traveling museum exhibit on the excavations at Khirbet el-Maqatir....
What we read in the Bible has a clear historical connection. In Digging for Truth, Bryan Windle reveals...
Peggy Miracle Consolver, an ABR supporter and dig volunteer, has published a book and study guide partially...
Associates for Biblical Research
  • PO Box 144, Akron, PA 17501
  • Phone: +1 717-859-3443
  • Toll Free: 1-800-430-0008
Friend ABR on Join us on Twitter Join us on Twitter