After recent headlines announced that archaeologists in Israel had uncovered the Church of the Apostles, questions followed. What church is this? And what do these findings tell us about the days of Jesus and his earliest followers?
The world’s attention has turned to a small excavation on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, a project I have been involved with as the academic director since the beginning. Our findings have rekindled the debate about the location for Bethsaida, the home of Peter, Andrew, and Philip referenced in John 1:44.
Every year millions of Christians travel to the Holy Land in their desire to visit places mentioned in the Bible. They journey from Dan to Beersheba with Bibles in one hand and cameras in the other. Not long ago, no one knew about these places. Yet, today signposts proclaim each location to pilgrims: Caesarea, Megiddo, Capernaum, and more. How did all this happen?
The rediscovery of the land of the Bible has been a slow process that began in earnest in the middle of the 19th century, once European and American travelers could make the trip. Mark Twain famously recorded his visit to the Holy Land in Innocents Abroad (1869). His impressions were not altogether favorable:
We traversed some miles of desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds—a silent, mournful expanse. … A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action. …We never saw a human being on the whole route. …There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.
Edward Robinson, a scholar from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, was among the first to attempt to locate the lost cities of the Bible. Now considered the father of modern historical geography in the Holy Land, he traveled the region by horseback in the 1830s and 1850s, accompanied by Eli Smith, an expert in Semitic languages. Robinson and Smith discovered that the Hebrew place names from long ago were often remembered in their Arabic equivalents. (For example, the town of Jesus at Capernaum, Kfar Nahum in Hebrew, was remembered in Arabic as Tel Hum.)
The geography of the sacred
When I first came to Israel in 1983 as a PhD candidate at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I learned—as many scholars and pilgrims do—how being in the land of the Bible changes your perspective. You are drawn to the geographical contours of the sacred narrative. You see how the setting for these ancient characters, where they lived and traveled, shaped how they saw the world, and, at times, how they saw God.
These early musings about land and Scripture were deepened when I became a graduate professor. I wanted my students to understand the interplay between land, language, and ancient literature, and how it should inform our reading of the Scripture, particularly the Gospels. If one of the central tenets of historic Christianity is the incarnation, should not the aspects of history, material culture, and geography be crucial to our understanding of the life and message of the historical Jesus?
Take Bethsaida, for example. It is one of the most frequently mentioned cities in the Gospels, home to at least three of Jesus’ disciples (John 1:44), and a location for his ministry (Mark 8:22). Jesus repeatedly traveled there by boat (Luke 9:10), and according to Luke, the countryside near Bethsaida was the location for the feeding of the multitudes (Luke 9:12–17). And yet, there was not a strong archaeological consensus around where this lakeside village was located.
I had the opportunity to spend time with the late Mendel Nun, a member of the Ein Gev kibbutz (an agricultural commune) and a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee for over 50 years. Walking its shores with Nun was illuminating. He knew the area like the back of his hand. It was on a visit to el Araj that he introduced me to the question of first-century Bethsaida.
Nun was not the first to speculate about the location of this elusive site. Already Robinson had theorized that the New Testament village had been situated on et-Tell, a small hill three kilometers (one and a half miles) from the current lakeshore.
Even in his day, not everyone embraced Robinson’s proposal. He was challenged by an American civil engineer and architect, Gottlieb Schumacher, who had resettled in Haifa. Schumacher’s objection to Robinson remains a serious—and rather obvious—obstacle to the identification of et-Tell as a fishing village: It is too far from the lakeshore.
Schumacher offered instead the site of el Araj, with its close proximity to the lake and numerous architectural fragments found in the area. Nun also believed that el Araj was a more likely candidate and published his observations more than 20 years ago in Jerusalem Perspective.
A new location for Bethsaida
I first addressed the question of the Bethsaida’s location at a conference organized in Jerusalem in 2000, then presented papers at the annual conferences of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) in the years to follow. Finally, I published “Et-Tell is not Bethsaida” in Near Eastern Archaeology in 2007. A spirited forum ensued on the pages of the journal. It concluded with the excavator of et-Tell, Rami Arav’s observation that archaeology alone could answer this question with any certainty. He challenged those of us who thought Bethsaida lay elsewhere to excavate.
And so we did.
The process at el Araj started five years ago, when Marc Turnage, a PhD candidate at Bar Ilan University in Israel, organized what we call a “shovel survey,” digging and sifting the soil from several five-meter by five-meter squares to a depth of 30 centimeters (about a foot). Archaeologists then collect and date the pottery, glass, and coins they’ve found to create a profile of the site and its settlement.
Our team determined that there was settlement at el Araj over a thousand years spanning the Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, and Crusader periods —precisely the time frame of Bethsaida, according to historical sources.
Our excavations began in 2016 under the direction of Professor Mordechai Aviam from the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archeology at Kinneret College, Israel. With a limited budget, the scale of our efforts was initially small. Many excavations involve a hundred or more volunteers for six weeks. Our team was less than 20, working for two weeks.
In the upper strata we found remains from a Crusader sugar factory, which had mostly reused still-standing Byzantine walls. In the following season, we continued to excavate what we now know was a Byzantine monastery that accompanied a church. This is a common combination in Galilee. Although we were not yet able to identify the walls of the church, its existence was unmistakably signaled each season by the discovery of individual gold-gilded glass tesserae, which are only found in wall mosaics of ornate churches. We also decided to dig two probes to see if there were Roman remains under the Byzantine floors.
The results were remarkable. Beneath the Byzantine pavement, dated with numerous coins, we encountered a layer of about 40 cm of silt, later identified from the Jordan River. There were no archaeological artifacts in this layer. Below the alluvial soil, we immediately encountered a compacted dirt floor with Roman pottery, coins, and lacking any Byzantine objects. The most amazing discovery were portions of a mosaic floor. These belonged to a Roman bath, which was indicated by accompanying ceramic vents and roof tiles.
The Roman bath captured the imagination of the international media and for good reason. This was the first evidence of urbanization in the region: A Roman bath is not a common feature in a Jewish village. However, the Jewish historian Josephus reports that Herod Philip, son of Herod the Great, transformed the village of Bethsaida into a city and renamed it Julias after the wife of Caesar Augustus and the mother of Tiberius (Antiquities 18:28). The bathhouse aptly belongs to what we would expect from Herod Philip’s urbanization.
While no one excavating at el Araj has declared the search for Bethsaida over, in light of these discoveries, el Araj should now be considered the leading candidate for Bethsaida-Julias.
A New Testament fishing village
The new finds in 2017 encouraged us to enlarge our excavation, and last year we quadrupled our efforts to 40 volunteers for four weeks. We excavated areas beyond the main site. We found no Crusader and little Byzantine settlement in these outlying areas—but Roman walls, pottery, and coins instead.
Moving to an area 100 meters north of the main excavation, we found more evidence that el Araj was the site of a large settlement in the Roman period. We found only Roman period houses, walls, pottery, coins, and a large Roman taboon (oven).
Together with these discoveries we have found evidence of Jewish life. Distinctive limestone dishes and knife-pared Herodian lamps that were only made in Jerusalem prior to 70 C.E. present clear indications of Jewish settlement at el Araj.
These finds add to the mounting evidence that el Araj was the site of a Jewish village that was transformed into a city in the Roman period, precisely as it is reported in the New Testament and early Jewish sources. It certainly was not four meters under the lake as some have contended. (One modern theory promoted by the excavators at et-Tell suggests that the lake was much higher in the first century, and that’s why their location is so far removed from the water.)
The importance of the Roman settlement should not be overlooked. If el Araj was settled in the period of the New Testament, then it lay on the lakeshore between the Sea of Galilee and et-Tell, and therefore is the more likely location for a first-century fishing village as the New Testament describes.
Byzantine pilgrims drawn to el Araj
Some have questioned the attention drawn toward what is being called the Church of the Apostles. By itself, the Byzantine church should not be considered evidence for the location of first-century Bethsaida. However, coupled with the extensive and increasing archaeological evidence from the earlier Roman period at el Araj, the church does take on increased significance.
To understand how remarkable this find is, no other Byzantine churches been found in the area on the lakeshore between Capernaum and Kursi, the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee known as ancient Gergesa.
Moreover, what we have found is precisely what was reported by pilgrims traveling this region in the Byzantine period. In other words, not only do we not have any other churches in the immediate vicinity of el Araj, we have no other churches mentioned other than the one we are currently excavating. Together this reinforces the identification of our church with the one Byzantine pilgrims report was at Bethsaida.
Memories are long in the East, and it seems that the Christian community had not forgotten the location for the hometown of the apostles when they reestablished a Christian presence at the site of el Araj in the fifth century C.E.
As for the church itself, until recently, many doubted it existed at all. Aviam and I have both received correspondence from scholars who contend that we have misread the pilgrimage reports. Many think Willibald, a Bavarian bishop, was confused when he reported that he visited a church at Bethsaida in 725 C.E., built over the house of Peter and Andrew. Instead, they contend he meant Capernaum and the octagonal Byzantine church there.
Those assumptions will now need to be re-thought in light of the new evidence. Next year we hope to excavate the church entirely with the hope of finding its inscription, a routine feature in these churches. In addition, we intend to expand our excavation in the vicinity to strengthen the material evidence for Bethsaida-Julias at el Araj in the Roman period.
Crossroads of history
Why should Christians care about the archaeological efforts at el Araj and the search for first-century Bethsaida? The setting for biblical stories often influences how we read them. Not in the sense of proving or disproving what is written, but in providing a greater understanding of the world in which the redemptive story unfolds.
Regarding the geographical setting of Bethsaida itself, one historical detail does come to mind that is underscored by its geographical setting, the area our team is exploring right now. When Jesus heard that John had been killed by Herod Antipas (Mark 6:14–29), he withdrew to the other side to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45).
This withdrawal to Bethsaida had geopolitical significance. Bethsaida was under the legal jurisdiction of Herod Philip not Antipas. Herod Antipas had just murdered John the Baptist. To remain in Galilee (Capernaum, Magdala, etc.) would have put Jesus and his disciples at risk. So, he instructed them to travel to the other side, to Bethsaida, which lay outside of Galilee and beyond the reach of Antipas.
Bethsaida was not a marginal location in the life of Jesus and his apostles. The more we can know about this city, the better we can understand its place in the gospel story. Hopefully, in the coming seasons we can gain new insights into this fascinating town and how it served as a crossroads for Jewish and Christian history.
R. Steven Notley is distinguished professor of New Testament and Christian origins on the New York City campus of Nyack College. Notley lived 16 years in Jerusalem and was the founding chair of the New Testament studies program at the Jerusalem University College. Since 2016 he has served as the academic director of the El Araj Excavation Project in its search for first-century Bethsaida-Julias, the lost city of the apostles.