Arbel is the name of two sites in Israel - the first is known principally from the writings of Eusebius and was situated in the Jezreel Valley not far from Afulah. The second, and the most important site, is situated on the east side of Lower Galilee, identified at Horvat Arbel, to the northwest of Tiberias.
The remains of an ancient Byzantine synagogue were explored at Horvat Arbel site by Charles Wilson in the 19th century as well as fortified caves which were connected by stairways and situated at a strategic point at the entrance to the valley facing the Sea of Galilee. It is possible that Arbel may be identical with that Beth-arbel which is mentioned in Hosea 10:14 as the site of a historic battle. The Seleucid commander, Bacchides, in his second campaign against Judah Maccabee, captured the "mesalot at Arbel" and executed the inhabitants. The reference is apparently to the caves in the vicinity and the connecting stairways.
The Zealots who rose against Herod in 39 B.C.E. sought refuge in these caves. Herod routed them by lowering from the escarpment cages containing soldiers who lit fires at the entrances of the caves. During the Jewish War (66–70) against the Romans, fortifications were built in this area by Josephus, who was a local commander at that time, and he later recorded this in his writings.
The early Pharisaic leader, Nittai of Arbela, may have originated from this area. After the destruction of the Second Temple, priests of the House of Jeshua settled at Arbel. The valley of Arbel was also noted for its agricultural fertility and items made of linen were said to have come from Arbel.
The early Byzantine synagogue discovered there consists of a columned hall entered via a doorway with molded jambs and lintel, and it had an apse in the southern wall, perhaps to contain Torah scrolls. The synagogue was first excavated by Kohl and Watzinger in 1905. The date of the construction of the synagogue has been debated by scholars. What is certain, however, is that the third century C.E. date that was originally proposed for this building based on architectural parallels and carved decorations is no longer accepted by scholars. Near the remnants of this ancient synagogue a moshav shittufi was established in 1949 by a group of Romanian Jews.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
H. Kohl and C. Watzinger, Antike Synagogen in Galilaea (1916), 59; Abel, in: RB, 33 (1924), 380ff.; idem, Les Livres des Maccabées (1949), 159; Avi-Yonah, Geog, 140; EM, 2 (1954), 68;