Updates from the excavations at El-Araj
In 2017, excavators at El-Araj uncovered a Byzantine basilica. The question on everyone’s mind: “Is this the lost Church of the Apostles?” El-Araj, located along the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee, is one of two sites proposed as biblical Bethsaida, the other being nearby Et-Tall. In the Bible, the village is famously the home of the apostles Peter, Andrew, and Philip (John 1:44). However, Bethsaida was abandoned in the fourth century, and was not mentioned again until an eighth-century Bavarian bishop traveled to the “Church of the Apostles” that was said to be built atop the site’s ruins. Over the past century, scholars have tried repeatedly to locate biblical Bethsaida and the Church of the Apostles. Recent discoveries at the Byzantine basilica at El-Araj are now providing new evidence that the site may indeed be the location of the Church of the Apostles.
From the start of the excavations, the team found gilded glass tesserae, which only appear in ornate churches of the Byzantine period. As the dig continued, it became clear that the basilica was extremely lavish. During the 2019 season, the team discovered the remains of elaborate mosaic floors. In 2021, more of the church’s mosaic was uncovered, along with walls that indicated the building measured approximately 88 by 52 feet in size. The team also found two fragmentary inscriptions, one mentioning the construction of the basilica and the other referencing major renovations carried out on the church. According to Dr. Steven Notley, professor of New Testament of Christian origins at Nyack College and co-director of the excavation, “There are no other churches in the vicinity mentioned by Byzantine visitors to the Holy Land, and there is no reason to question that this is the [Church of the Apostles].”
Excavations began at El-Araj in 2016, revealing the remains of a Roman-era fishing village from around the time of Jesus, along with the large Byzantine basilica that was built centuries later atop the earlier village. The basilica only went out of use in the eighth century when a large earthquake devastated much of the region. While there is still no definitive evidence that El-Araj is biblical Bethsaida, Notley notes that “the [Byzantine] church serves as a witness to the long Christian memory that kept alive the location of the city of the apostles … Everything we have discovered has only strengthened the case that El-Araj is the site of New Testament Bethsaida.”
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