Excavating El-Araj—a Candidate for Biblical Bethsaida

The town of Bethsaida appears in the New Testament as a fishing village on the Sea of Galilee and the hometown of the apostles Peter, Andrew, and Philip. In the first century C.E., it became a polis (Greek city) and was renamed Julias. Over the past two millennia, the exact location of this site was lost—partly due to the Sea of Galilee’s shifting shoreline. However, archaeologists think they have found Bethsaida once more! In fact, two sites now vie for this identity. The candidates are et-Tell, excavated by Rami Arav, and el-Araj, excavated by Mordechai Aviam and R. Steven Notley.

When I toured the archaeological excavation at el-Araj in July 2019, I had a chance to ask Aviam and Notley about their dig. Here they explain why they believe el-Araj is the best candidate for biblical Bethsaida.

R. Steven Notley and Mordechai Aviam, directors of the excavations at el-Araj, stand in front of one of the main excavation areas open in 2019. Photo: Megan Sauter.

Megan Sauter (BAR): How long has this excavation been underway?

Mordechai Aviam: This is our fourth digging season. We had another season before that, which was shovel testing.

Steven Notley: Our plan is to dig for one more year to complete phase one.

Aviam: When we finish the fifth season, we’ll produce a preliminary report of the first five seasons and ask for a license for the next five years.

MS: Why did you choose to excavate this site?

Notley: Being familiar with the other proposed site for Bethsaida-Julias, et-Tell, I didn’t think it fit the description by the ancient historians, people who actually visited, let’s say, Julias. Et-Tell and el-Araj have always vied together; they were alternatives already in the 19th century. El-Araj seems to fit better as a fishing village because it’s closer to the lake. So we thought this would be a better candidate, but you couldn’t know until you’ve dug. I’m always very clear that I was trained as an historian and work as an historical geographer. I’m not a trained archaeologist, but I realized that archaeology was the only thing that could answer this question with certainty.

Kathryn Notley excavates part of a mosaic floor uncovered from the Byzantine church at el-Araj. Photo: Megan Sauter.

Aviam: Of course, we have the testimony of an eighth-century Christian traveler named Willibald, who walked from Capernaum to Kursi and says he passed through a place called Bethsaida, in which there was a Church of the Apostles. There are no known Byzantine layers at et-Tell, so the pilgrim couldn’t have seen the church there. It doesn’t necessarily mean our site, el-Araj, is Bethsaida of the first century, but at least what we would expect with Bethsaida from the Byzantine period fits with what we have uncovered.

MS: Could you please describe what you’ve found here?

Aviam: We have three layers at the site. The upper one is a 13th-century sugar factory. In the Crusader period, there were sugar factories around the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee. At el-Araj, the Crusaders built on the remains of a Byzantine period structure, which we have identified as a possible monastery. We have also been finding evidence for a church, and just this week—our last week of excavation—we have finally found the Byzantine church itself, including a mosaic floor.

A meter and a half below the Byzantine period, after crossing the layer of soil that was brought from the nearby Jordan River, we arrived at a Roman period layer, dated to the first through third centuries and containing Roman period pottery, coins, glass, mosaics, chunks of mosaics, and bricks from a bathhouse. That, of course, has changed the whole debate. Because if et-Tell has a Roman layer, and el-Araj had none, there would be nothing to debate. Now the debate is equal—except that our claim is stronger than that of et-Tell.

And finally, in the last few days of excavation, we have detected the Early Bronze and Middle Bronze Age. It’s only a few pieces of pottery, but it shows occupation of the site before the Roman period.

MS: Why should readers visit or dig at el-Araj?

Aviam: First of all, we’re here, right on the Sea of Galilee. People can dig anywhere in the world because it’s all interesting. However, if you want to dig in a place where you have an interesting debate on a biblical issue, this is the place for you. Identifying Bethsaida is a biblical question, and if you are interested in the Bible and New Testament, the early Roman period, or the life of Jesus and his followers, this is the place to come.

Notley: Let me add two things: First, along with the dig, we provide a field school, where we bring in lecturers. We don’t assume a lot of prior knowledge. We bring in people to speak about the broader issues of Bethsaida and its larger context. It augments the digging experience. Second, there’s no other excavation where twice a week you get to go from the dig and jump into the Jordan River. We have the Jordan River 50 yards from us. We’ve ordered it specially to come by here.

Aviam: Last winter it came even closer. There was so much water, it carved a new course.

MS: So next season it might be right up against the site.

Notley: Let’s hope not! That’s enough—too much of a good thing.

MS: What have you discovered that you didn’t expect at the outset?

Aviam: What was really surprising this season is an area we decided to open 100 meters north of the main site. We did it because we’ve been asking ourselves, what is the size of the site? If it is just a few huts here in the Roman period, and we’re trying to identify it with the village of Bethsaida or with the small polis of Julias, that’s one thing. There was absolutely nothing on the surface. The first wall we hit was Roman. No Crusader, no Byzantine, only Roman: third century C.E. and earlier. We’re now on a floor that’s yielding first- and second-century pottery, and we have a lot of coins that will give us a reliable date. So this was surprising. We went there to check; we were hoping, but we didn’t know.

We did magnetometry yesterday, and we hope to learn about the site’s size from it. If it yields good answers, maybe we’ll check an even larger area later. It should be helpful in identifying the village of Bethsaida.

Notley: When I read the literary witnesses, they talk about Bethsaida being here. Josephus even tells us how far it was from the river. I remember when the first archaeological fragments started indicating a church, and we were wondering which church it was. We looked in the pilgrimage records, and in the eighth century, the pilgrim Willibald talks about a church built over the house of Peter and Andrew. So it’s been a nice interplay between archaeology and history. It’s been a very nice interdisciplinary approach to the site.

We have a continuing discussion as to what Josephus meant when he called Bethsaida-Julias a polis—because Josephus was very specific about it. It changed from a kome, a village or an unwalled country town, to a polis. In his mind, something transformed. We expect to find the extent and nature of this transformation in the coming seasons. But I would say thus far we’ve been pleasantly surprised in terms of confirming our hopes in the excavation.

Aviam: How you identify a polis is a very interesting and important question. When Josephus says that Herod Philip made Bethsaida a polis, what did it entail? Some people suggested it was surrounded by a wall. Rami Arav, for example, says that et-Tell was a polis because it was surrounded by a wall. But I think that local client kings were not allowed to build walls around their cities in the Roman period. Therefore, neither Tiberias nor Archaeolius had any walls. Maybe building a few large public structures, such as a theater or a net of streets, or maybe minting coins makes something a polis. For example, Herod the Great built Gabba as a small polis. We don’t have any evidence of a theater or a basilica, an amphitheater, or streets, but we have coins that were minted by Gabba. Is that what made it a polis?

There is one type of coin that Herod Philip minted probably at Caesarea Philippi Banias. In this coin, he calls himself the “founder.” One scholar, Arie Kindler, suggested that this is not the founding of Caesarea Philippi Banias because it’s on his third year of reign, but because he founded a new city—Julias. So let’s assume, we find here ten of these coins, that would support that it was actually minted here. And if it were minted here, this could be enough to identify el-Araj as a polis. So it’s a very fragile question, but we hope to be able to suggest some solutions in the next seasons.

MS: Has any volunteer been with you from the very beginning?

Notley: From the beginning of excavation, my wife and my daughter have been here. If I don’t acknowledge them, I’m in huge trouble! This has been sort of a family project. My wife, Sunya, says she’s the best testimony of a dig volunteer because she hates heat, hates humidity, and hates dirt. But she says the first time she pulled history out of the ground, it hooked her, and there’s never been a question about coming back. She’s a college librarian, and my daughter Kathryn is an elementary school teacher, so archaeology does not fall within either of their professions.

Two of my former graduate students, Marc Turnage and Juan Arias—and his wife Sandra—have also been here from the beginning. Marc was instrumental in organizing the original survey. Others have been here two or three seasons. As you know, it happens on every site, a community develops. They come back and see each other, and they follow each other on social media. It’s a nice community.

Aviam: Have you seen the two young boys here?

MS: Yes, they’re adorable.

Aviam: This is their second season—of playing while their parents excavate nearby. They were two years old when they arrived here from Hong Kong. Now they are three.

Notley: This morning Zachary Wong, father to one of the boys, was pushing something in his wheelbarrow, and his son was following behind with his own wheelbarrow, father and son.

MS: You begin teaching them archaeological method young!

Notley: We have a diverse, very international group here.

MS: That’s wonderful. Well, thank you so much for your time. I don’t want to take up any more of it.

Aviam: Thank you very much.

Notley: We have a mosaic to uncover!

Aviam: Yes, we have a mosaic to uncover, and you’re invited for breakfast if you’d like.

BAS Library Members: Read the article Searching for Bethsaida: The Case for El-Araj in the Spring 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

More about el-Araj in Bible History Daily:

Archaeologists Say They May Have Found the Church of the Apostles at el-Araj. According to the Gospels, Bethsaida is a small fishing village on the banks of the Sea of Galilee often mentioned as the location of some of Jesus’ most well-known miracles.

 Dig at el-Araj this summer. Read more about digging at el-Araj this summer. Deadline for applying is March 1, 2020.

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