Should we be skeptical of this claim?
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. Here he restored the sight of a blind man (Mark 8:22–26) and fed the masses with just five loaves and two fish(Luke 9:10—17; Mark 6:30–44). Along with Jerusalem and Capernaum, it is one of the most frequently referenced historical locations in the New Testament. Bethsaida is also the believed hometown of Jesus’ disciples Philip and brothers Peter and Andrew.
The precise location of the biblical village is unknown; two years ago, I wrote a blog post for Bible History Daily that detailed the ongoing debate between archaeologists excavating at two sites around the Sea of Galilee about which is the historical Bethsaida. Recently initiated excavations led by Mordechai Aviam and Steven Notley at el-Araj have challenged the decades-old claim by Rami Arav that et-Tell in the Golan region east of the Jordan River is the yet unidentified biblical settlement.
Arav’s team at et-Tell has been publishing as the Bethsaida Excavation Project since 1991 and argues that the archaeological remains at the site line-up with extra-Biblical historical accounts of the village. One of these accounts is that of Josephus, who writes that under Herod Philip II (“the Tetrarch,” one of the sons of Herod the Great) the small fishing village grew “… both by the number of inhabitants it contained, and its other grandeur” (Antiquities 18:2). Bethsaida was renamed Julias in 30 C.E. after reigning Roman Emperor Augustus’ wife Livia-Julia and became an important town during Roman occupation; this is why the village is sometimes referred to as Bethsaida-Julias. Historical accounts of the village’s growth during this time appear to synchronize with the archaeological evidence at et-Tell.
The claim that et-Tell is biblical Bethsaida has since been the target of criticism from other scholars. Most notably, Notley, Professor of Biblical Studies at Nyack College in New York, has argued that et-Tell, a mile and a half from the Sea of Galilee, is too far from the body of water to be the biblical fishing village. Instead, he offers the site of el-Araj in present-day Israel as an alternative. Excavations there have revealed evidence of early Roman occupation from the first through third centuries C.E., including a Roman-style bathhouse, mosaic fragments, and a silver coin from 65–66 C.E. portraying Roman Emperor Nero.
The case for el-Araj as Bethsaida continues to gain more acceptance among archaeologists and biblical scholars; confirming the claim, however, demands more concrete evidence like an inscription of some kind with the ancient name of the village. Notley hopes that further excavation may reveal such evidence, as he recently told Express UK, “(i)t would be normal to find an inscription in a church of the Byzantine period, describing in whose memory it was built, for instance.” While the identification of biblical Bethsaida at el-Araj becomes more plausible, the claim remains uncertain.
The ongoing excavations at el-Araj under the auspices of the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology and the Center for the Study of Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins at Nyack College, New York as well as the Israel Antiquities Authority have remained in the news since they began in 2014.
In 2017, headlines boasted that the team at el-Araj had uncovered remains of the home of Jesus’ apostles Peter, Andrew and Philip. Notley clarified, in a statement to National Geographic, that what media outlets like Haaretz were reporting as the lost house of the apostles was actually a Roman-era bathhouse, evidence of a thriving urban environment at the site during the first to third centuries C.E. “We did not write the headline,” he added, hoping to counter a media sensationalization of the excavation results. Nevertheless, this discovery was the primary impetus for opening the ongoing debate over the true location of biblical Bethsaida.
In 2018, Aviam and Notley uncovered a possible reliquary of the apostles , Peter, Andrew and Philip. The large carved basalt block would have been sunk into the floor of a church beneath the altar and contained relics in each of the inset stone compartments. However, Aviam and the team at el-Araj did not discover the stone in the floor of a church but rather in the debris of the house of a 19 th-century Ottoman-era landowner, Abdul Rahman Pasha al-Yusu. The estate appears to have housed a trove of unprovenanced archaeological artifacts, likely collected from the surrounding landscape. Out of context, the identification of this stone artifact as a reliquary remains uncertain and the association between this possible reliquary and the apostles from nearby Bethsaida remains dubious.
The famous house of worship is said to be a Byzantine-era church constructed over the home of Peter and Andrew at Bethsaida. Little is known of the supposed appearance of the church in antiquity. The only account of the structure is from an 8 th century C.E. Bavarian bishop and traveler named Willibald who toured the region in 725 C.E., making stops at sites of biblical importance including Tiberias, Magdala, Capernaum, and Kursi.
Archaeologists have so far only uncovered the southern portion of the monastery complex which is adorned with well-preserved, ornate mosaic floors. Excavations also uncovered a fragment of a marble chancel screen with a wreath decoration and a gold-trimmed glass tesserae that may have belonged to a wall mosaic. These features indicate that the monastery would have been a lavish and impressive structure.
Are the architectural remains uncovered at el-Araj the historical Church of the Apostles? It certainly could be; there is no competing archaeological evidence to suggest the historical church could be at another site, and indeed the location of this church appears to synchronize with Willibald’s. However, there is no incontrovertible evidence pointing to the remains uncovered at el-Araj as the Church of the Apostles and I would be skeptical of making such a claim before archaeologists can conduct further excavation of the structure.
Of course the identification of this monastery as the Church of the Apostles rests on the assumption that el-Araj is indeed biblical Bethsaida (and that Wilibald’s description of the church as being at Bethsaida is correct).
So it must now be asked again: is el-Araj the site of biblical Bethsaida? Notley has certainly made a convincing case that et-Tell is not Bethsaida, however, the el-Araj excavation project has yet to produce strong evidence that their site is the biblical settlement. Furthermore, the evidence used to make the claim — such as the identification of the reliquary of the apostles — borders on the tautological. In other words, specific archaeological evidence that indicates that el-Araj is Bethsaida is moot if the identification of that specific archaeological evidence precludes that archaeologists are working at Bethsaida.
Ultimately, the discovery of the monastery complex does offer further evidence in support of el-Araj as biblical Bethsaida. And while headlines have been quick to embellish the discovery and suggest that this confirms the identification of the biblical village, the archaeologists have remained appropriately cautious. Further excavation at el-Araj in coming seasons by Aviam and Notley should focus on further exploring the monastery complex. Only by continuing to elucidate the architectural remains at el-Araj can we begin to better understand where biblical Bethsaida may be.
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