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Discovering Biblical Bethsaida

by Touchpoint Israel

Does a mosaic prove El-Araj is the home of the apostles?

Could a mosaic inscription at the site of El-Araj be the smoking gun archaeologists are looking for to determine the true location of biblical Bethsaida? According to the excavators, it is. The mosaic, which was discovered in the excavations of a Byzantine basilica, references the donor “Constantine, the servant of Christ” and goes on to offer a petition to St. Peter “chief and commander of the heavenly apostles.” This mosaic joins a long list of other finds from the site, which the team believes provides conclusive evidence that their site is indeed biblical Bethsaida, home of the apostles Peter, Andrew, and Philip (John 1:44).

Mosaics and Bethsaida

Inscription from the Church of the Apostles. Courtesy Zachary Wong, El-Araj Expedition.
Inscription from the Church of the Apostles. Courtesy Zachary Wong, El-Araj Expedition.

Excavating only a few feet from the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the team at El-Araj made an incredible discovery, a round mosaic medallion with a two-line Greek inscription. This is certainly not the first mosaic inscription that the team, led by professors Mordechai Aviam and Steven Notley, has discovered in the Byzantine basilica. However, it might well be the most important. The inscription is part of a larger mosaic floor in the church’s sacristy (a room for preparing the church service) that is partly decorated with floral patterns.

According to Notley, “This discovery is our strongest indicator that Peter had a special association with the basilica, and it was likely dedicated to him. Since Byzantine Christian tradition routinely identified Peter’s home in Bethsaida, and not in Capernaum as is often thought today.” This identification is supported by many Byzantine travel logs including the eighth-century writing of Willibald, the bishop of Eichstätt, who stopped in Bethsaida to visit the Church of the Apostles, built over the first-century home of St. Peter.

Mordechai Aviam cleaning the inscription. Courtesy Zachary Wong, El-Araj Expedition.
Mordechai Aviam cleaning the inscription. Courtesy Zachary Wong, El-Araj Expedition.

But does one inscription prove the site is Bethsaida? At the very least, it proves that the Byzantine Christians believed it was. “Indeed, it is a smoking gun. We can now certainly say that this is the church visited by Willibald, and for him it is Bethsaida, so it is for us,” said Aviam. Similarly, in earlier interviews, Notley contended, “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].”

While the nearby site of Et-Tell is also argued to be the site of biblical Bethsaida, the team at El-Araj believes that the discovery of the Byzantine basilica and its associated finds pushes the balance of evidence firmly in their direction. A scientific article dealing with the mosaic is expected to be published shortly by the archaeological team and the translators of the inscription, Leah Di Segni and Yaakov Ashkenazi. In the meantime, the mosaic will continue to be studied and preservation work will be carried out.

A History of El-Araj/Bethsaida

Archaeological work at El-Araj has faced unique challenges since excavations began in 2016. Chief among those is how close the site is to the Galilee, which is dozens of feet higher today than it was in the first century. As a result, the excavations have to constantly battle with groundwater, which floods the lowest layers of the site, allowing for the study of the oldest sections of el-Araj only in years when the water level is lower.

Water-logged section of El-Araj. Courtesy Mordechai Aviam, El-Araj Expedition.
Water-logged section of El-Araj. Courtesy Mordechai Aviam, El-Araj Expedition.

Nonetheless, the team has successfully delved into the depths of the site on several occasions, revealing a Jewish fishing village dating from the first century B.C.E. to the first century C.E., when the site would have been known as Bethsaida, an Aramaic name likely meaning “House of Fish.” In the early first century C.E., the village was converted into a Roman city by Herod Philip, who named it Julias, after the widow of Caesar Augustus and the queen mother of Caesar Tiberius.

The site was abandoned in the third century and only reinhabited in the sixth century, at which time it became the site of a Byzantine basilica, likely the famed Church of the Apostles. According to Aviam, “One of the goals of this dig was to check whether we have at the site a layer from the first century, which will allow us to suggest a better candidate for the identification of biblical Bethsaida. Not only did we find significant remains from this period, but we also found this important church and the monastery around it.”

Originally posted at Israel Advantage Tours.


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