A 300-kilogram (661-pound) basalt block with three smooth compartments carved into its top, found in the ruins of what may be Bethsaida, may have been a reliquary housing the remains of apostles Philip, Andrew and Peter, a leading Israeli archaeologist proposes.
The case of el-Araj as the long-lost Roman city of Bethsaida Julias – home to Peter, Andrew and Philip (John 1:44; 12:21) – has long been touted by Prof. Mordechai Aviam of the Kinneret Academic College.
The latest scuffle over the true location of the biblical town was ignited by further excavation of el-Araj, which uncovered more remains from the early Christian era.
Based on the New Testament, Bethsaida is somewhere on the shores of Lake Kinneret (a.k.a. the Sea of Galilee). The question is where. “I don’t say that el-Araj is Bethsaida, but I think it’s a better candidate than the other site,” Aviam says.
El-Araj is on the lakeshore. The competition is et-Tell, a site 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) further north, near where the Jordan River spills into the lake. Prof. Rami Arav of the Hebrew Union College suggests et-Tell (in the Jordan Park) as the real site of the lost city.
Now, though, Aviam suggests the remains of a newly unearthed Roman-period bathhouse, and remains from a richly endowed Byzantine-era church found there, support the claim that el-Araj (also known as Beit Habek) is the site of Bethsaida. And now there is the discovery of the reliquary.
Two apostles, three apostles
The carved basalt block was actually found almost by accident and not among the ruins of the glorious church that had once, apparently, graced the site.
“We didn’t find it in the excavation,” Aviam told Haaretz. “It was found in the debris of an Ottoman-era, two-story house built by a rich man from Damascus, who owned all the land locally in the late 19th century. His full name was Abdul Rahman Pasha al-Yusuf and he was called “the Bek” – hence the town’s soubriquet of ‘Beit Habek.’”
In 1955, as the Israeli army conquered Syrian outposts around the lake, they blew this house to bits, says Aviam. He is leading the Beit Habek excavation with Prof. Steven Notley of Nyack College, New York, in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Thus, stones from even more ancient times, which the Damascene home-builder had repurposed, were rediscovered. One was the evocative carving of a lioness from about 1,500 years earlier. Aviam dates the lioness, tentatively, to around the fourth to sixth century, and suspects it originated with the Jewish population of el-Araj.
Another was the stone that Aviam thinks, with due caution, may have been the apostles’ reliquary, which he believes further bolsters his case that el-Araj was Bethsaida.
While the top of the black basalt stone is meticulously carved with three depressions, the bottom of the stone – which would have been in the floor below the church altar – remained rough, he says. It cannot be definitively classified as a reliquary, but it has the form of one, he says.
In Byzantine churches, to this day, reliquaries were placed in the earth beneath the altar and might have one to multiple compartments for the sacred relics, Aviam says. Given the location and doing the math, “We suggest, cautiously, that this could be the reliquary of Peter, Philip and Andrew. This could have been the reliquary of the Church of the Apostles.”
Intriguingly, the eighth century Byzantine pilgrim St. Willibald (also called Willibrord), who wrote the Hodoeporicon, trekked from Capernaum to Kursi (Corazain), around the Sea of Galilee, and wrote about the Church of the Apostles and Bethsaida that were en route. “Then they went to Bethsaida, the native place of Peter and Andrew. A church now occupies the site where their home once stood,” Willibald wrote.
So at least in the Byzantine period, the lakeside site was identified with Bethsaida, Aviam says.
“Willibald only mentioned the church of two apostles, Philip and Andrew: he didn’t mention Peter [in that context]. I still feel it was the church of three apostles,” Aviam says. Hence the three depressions in the basalt rock.
El-Araj is a complex, multilayered site on the northern shore of the freshwater Sea of Galilee, in the Bethsaida Valley Nature Reserve. The main discovery sparking the latest round of arguing was a Roman bathhouse found in 2017 that was “typical of an urban, not a rural, culture,” Aviam told Haaretz. Together with the ornate church, he argues that el-Araj was no hillside village but a proper town. Also, it shows that during the Roman period, it hadn’t been under water as some suggest.
The competing site, et-Tell, is 2 kilometers from the lakeside. Proponents of the rival site argue there had been a lagoon that reached it, which would have meant el-Araj would have been underwater during the early Christian era. “But it wasn’t. We found a Roman-period layer too, and Roman coins. By location, el-Araj is the more appropriate location to be Bethsaida,” Aviam concludes.
The el-Araj archaeologists did not find the structure of a church, but unearthed a lot of mosaic stones – including cubes of gilded glass that only the richest churches could afford, he says. They also found a chancel screen post, which had to have come from a church, and fragments of marble furniture.
“There is no marble in Israel. It had to be imported,” Aviam says, which also attests to the putative importance of the church.
About 50 meters from the main excavation site, the researchers found a stratum from the Roman period with more bits of colored plaster, including red, and pottery oil lamps that were typical of Jewish communities in the late Second Temple period, Aviam says.
Or a Roman army base
Prof. Rami Arav, excavating the et-Tell site in the Jordan Park under the auspices of the Hebrew Union College, is unconvinced.
“We have known for the past 30 years that Bethsaida is in the Jordan Park. We’ve identified it correctly,” he avers, adding that the government committee in charge of naming sites has officially named the Jordan Park locale Bethsaida.
Arav adds that he had excavated the site where Aviam is now working and thought the remains there dated to Byzantine times, or about 300 to 400 years later than the Jordan Park site.
He adds that his team also used ground-penetrating radar to confirm the Jordan Park site as Bethsaida.
According to Arav, the Roman coins found at the Beit Habek site are later and there are no earlier finds, while Bethsaida in the Jordan Park has remains of a large village going back to the Hellenistic period.
Arav believes Aviam’s findings are “more suitable to a Roman army camp of King Agrippa II, who besieged Gamla, and where he clashed with Josephus Flavius. As far as I understand, he [Aviam] has no earlier finds. Our site is more in line with the historical data,” Arav says.
Arav argues that Bethsaida was a large fishing village founded in the first century B.C.E. by the Roman vassal king Herod the Great, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. In roughly the year 30 or a bit later, Herod’s son, Philip, upgraded the city and built a Roman temple there. But Philip died four years later and construction halted. Then in the fourth century, a powerful earthquake dammed the Jordan River, piling debris 70 meters high. Eventually, the river broke through the blockage, the debris was carried along by the raging water into the lake, and the village became separated from the shoreline by the alluvial deposit, Arav says.
“When the fishermen saw that the shoreline was receding, they abandoned the village for the place where Prof. Aviam is now digging,” he notes.
Aviam believes el-Araj existed from the first century B.C.E. to the fourth century. “The entire assemblage allows us to securely propose this as the location of the village of Bethsaida,” he says: It is “a fishermen’s village on the shore of Lake Kinneret, which during the first century expanded and became an urban settlement, to which the bathhouse belongs that is now being exposed in the excavation.”
He agrees that the early settlement from the Roman period was abandoned and covered with alluvium from the river and tributaries, and then later the beautiful church was built on the ground, now discovered in the current season. He adds that at the time the level of the lake was very low, possibly as low as it is today – about 215 meters below sea level.