Biblical Capernaum vs. El-Araj (Biblical Bethsaida)
After seven seasons of excavation at El-Araj on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, archaeologists have found the remains of a house that they claim was venerated by early Christians as the original house of Saint Peter the Apostle. Over this first-century structure was later built a basilica in honor of the “chief of the apostles.” Although a more recent tradition identifies Peter’s hometown with nearby biblical Capernaum, researchers believe that the evidence of both archaeology and the Bible fits biblical Bethsaida much better.
Writing for the Winter 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Professor R. Steven Notley of Kinneret Academic College and Yeshiva University lays out his arguments why he thinks El-Araj is where Jesus first met Andrew and his brother Simon, whom he renamed Kefas, i.e. Peter. In his article “The House of Peter: Capernaum or Bethsaida?” Notley presents what evidence there is for biblical Capernaum, which annually welcomes thousands of pilgrims and tourists who come to see the small fifth-century octagonal church allegedly constructed over the remains of the house of Saint Peter the Apostle. A New Testament scholar and archaeologist, Notley compares this evidence with his reading of the Gospels, early pilgrims’ accounts, and the new archaeological discoveries at El-Araj. In his view, there is every reason to reconsider the current Christian tradition, which identifies Peter’s hometown with biblical Capernaum.
It is a two-tier argument. Referring back to his previous BAR article (summarized in this interview), Notley first reaffirms his view that we need to look for biblical Bethsaida at modern El-Araj, not at nearby Et-Tell—both on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. “We believe the site’s archaeology as well as early Christian tradition and pilgrimage accounts confirm not only the site’s identification with Bethsaida but, perhaps more significantly, its location as the home of the apostle Peter.”
Notley points out that there is only one passage in the Christian Bible that explicitly mentions Peter’s hometown—the Gospel of John 1:44, which states “Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.” All other passages that name Capernaum, including the healing of a woman referred to as the mother-in-law of one Simon (Luke 4:38–39), likely do not name Peter the Apostle or are a result of a later editorial work. “Given these literary developments, our only direct New Testament reference to the location of Peter’s house remains John’s Gospel, which placed it in Bethsaida, not Capernaum,” concludes Notley.
Moving to the material evidence excavated at El-Araj, Notley focuses on the large Byzantine basilica, which apparently grew over much earlier, Roman-era structures. Dating to the late fifth century and located next to a monastic complex, it measures around 70 by 60 feet, with an eastern apse that contained the main altar space. Archaeologists found fragments of a chancel screen, pottery stamped with crosses, and, on the last day of the summer 2023 excavation season, even a marble leg of the altar. “Clearly, the El-Araj basilica and its associated bath and monastery, like many contemporary Byzantine sacred sites, were built to commemorate places of importance to Christian pilgrims.” Notley then cites several church fathers and early European pilgrims who describe Bethsaida as the hometown of Saint Peter the Apostle.
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Archaeologists will certainly never find a doorbell plate inscribed with Peter’s name—at either Capernaum or Bethsaida. But one particular find gets them as close as possible to such a confirmation. A large mosaic inscription, written in Greek, was unearthed in the basilica’s diaconicon, naming a local benefactor and imploring “the chief of the apostles and the keeper of the keys of heaven.” This apostle cannot be anyone but Peter. “A request for the apostle’s intercession intimates his close identification with the church. Peter’s association with churches in Byzantine Palestine is rare, typically occurring only at places with a connection to his appearances in the Gospels. The discovery of a petition to St. Peter in the basilica at El-Araj should remove any doubt that the church recalls the testimony of John 1:44—that the home of Peter, Andrew, and Philip was in Bethsaida,” summarized Notley in BAR.
Excavations in late 2023, following the publication of Notley’s BAR article, concentrated on the church’s eastern apse. Their goal was to fully expose the layers beneath the fifth-century floor. As reported in Haaretz and confirmed by Bible History Daily, archaeologists revealed two walls under the mosaic floor of the apse—one from the second or third century, and an earlier one that can be dated to the first century. In Notley’s view, this attests to the early Christian tradition that preserved older structures because the builders thought they had belonged to the house of Peter.
This is not to claim that the first-century wall once belonged to the actual house of Saint Peter the Apostle. It is very likely, however, that Christian worshipers at the site of Bethsaida had a living memory of where the house of Peter and Andrew once stood. And they materialized that early tradition in the building of a church that preserved the original house.
To explore the biblical and archaeological clues in detail, read R. Steven Notley’s article “The House of Peter: Capernaum or Bethsaida?” published in the Winter 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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