Unearthing a Byzantine Monument to the Apostles
It’s not everyone’s idea of fun to do unpaid manual labor in the sweltering heat of an Israeli summer. But for those who know the joy of finding things that have been lost to the light of day for centuries, it can be an incomparable experience. “Every piece of pottery you find,” the archaeologist Mordechai Aviam told us, “is something that no one has seen for hundreds of years, not since the person who dropped it there. It gives you a personal connection with the past.” After saying this, he swept our pile of pottery sherds unceremoniously into the discard bucket, as none of them were significant enough to save and store away. That’s the way it is on an archaeological dig, the prosaic and the profound all mixed up together.
I was volunteering on the team digging at El Araj, a plausible site for the New Testament town of Bethsaida. The lure of that connection—finding evidence of the hometown of Peter, Andrew, and Philip, in the area where Jesus ministered—was a large reason why we were there. In previous dig seasons, evidence of a Jewish fishing village from the Roman period (c. 37 BCE–324 CE) emerged, as well as a Byzantine basilica marking the spot. It matched the testimony of Willibald, an eighth-century bishop who visited a location known as Bethsaida and remarked that a basilica stood there to indicate the location of Peter’s home. Our team referred to the basilica as “the Church of the Apostles” on the assumption that it was the same church Willibald saw. Still, while the circumstantial evidence looked compelling, the site had not yet given the team anything that definitively linked it to Peter or the other apostles.
So, we labored for two weeks along the marsh-lined lagoon at the north end of the Sea of Galilee, digging down around the basilica walls to see what else we could find. The level of the lake was higher than in years past, so the water table had risen and much of the floor level of the basilica was now covered in a layer of muddy silt. My dig square lay on the exterior north wall of the church, and as my partners and I dug ever deeper, the earth became wetter and wetter, the buckets heavier and heavier. We were able to make good progress, though, and unearthed a small section of exterior rooms that abutted the church’s walls. These rooms, along with other structures the team was uncovering, were part of a Byzantine monastic complex that supported the church and its pilgrim visitors. They were later reused during the Crusader period as a sugar-processing factory, so we had to work our way down through piles of Crusader sugar-pot sherds to get to the Byzantine-era floor, finding interesting bits of pottery, glass, and the occasional coin along the way.
To many of my fellow teammates, monastic cells were interesting, but not quite as big a deal as finding a link to Peter and the apostles. For me, though, it was a thrill. Ever since I was a teenager, my spiritual heroes had been the desert fathers and the early monastic founders like Antony, Benedict, and Euthymius. To prepare for my trip to Israel, I had been reading Cyril of Scythopolis’s The Lives of the Monks of Palestine. Now to be digging out a monastery from the very same time period—perhaps one that Cyril might even have known—was a delight. As we hauled away stones and lugged buckets of dirt back and forth, I thought about the monks that lived there and the pilgrims who visited, and what that site must have meant to them. To have stood there in the shadow of a magnificent church on the beautiful lake shore, with the hills of Galilee sweeping up on one side and the hills of the Golan on the other—it must have been a place that moved people to wonder and to prayer. With that vision in mind, I undertook my muddy toil in the spirit of an ancient monk: ora et labora, prayer and work.
Thankfully for my workmates, who were perhaps not as strangely attracted to monasticism as I was, our team eventually struck something that got everyone excited. Just a couple dig squares over from where I was working, a mosaic was uncovered in the northeast corner of the church. It was a mosaic medallion 4 or 5 feet in diameter, complete with a full inscription set down in black-and-white tile. Team members labored over cleaning the mosaic and transcribing the words, and although the full translation eluded us at first, the team’s academic director, Dr. Steven Notley, noticed one phrase that leaped out of the middle: “of the apostles.” Was it providence, or just coincidence, that this was precisely what we had been calling the basilica all along—the Church of the Apostles? A couple weeks after our trip ended, a translation of the inscription was released, revealing it to contain a prayer directed to Peter, who was referred to as “chief of the heavenly apostles.” Here we had one of the main things we had been looking for—evidence that early Christians had made a direct connection between this site and Peter himself. The case for the biblical Bethsaida was looking stronger than ever.
Volunteering on a dig is something of an adventure, but by that I mean a real adventure: not just the excitement of solving age-old mysteries, but a good bit of hard work and weariness, too. Yet amid the sweat and toil, the best thing of all is the camaraderie of being part of a company of fellow adventurers. Laughter and friendship lighten the load, and make all the discoveries, from mud to mosaics, sweeter in the end. I’m grateful to have been a part of the team at El Araj.
Matthew Burden is a pastor serving in a rural area of eastern Maine. Matthew was a winner of BAR’s 2022 digs scholarship, which – over the years – has financially assisted dozens of volunteer excavators. Burden does some independent writing on the side and is a lifelong history lover, with a particular fascination with the world of late antiquity.
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