Archaeologists believe they have likely found the Church of the Apostles, which Christian tradition says had been built over the home of Jesus’ disciples Peter and Andrew in the village of Bethsaida, today part of the Bteikha Nature Reserve, by the Sea of Galilee.
The archaeologists, from the Kinneret Academic College and Nyack College of New York, said the Jewish village of Bethsaida on which the Roman city of Julias had been built was much larger than had been thought, they announced Thursday.
What can be said for certain is that the excavators of Beit Habek, aka el-Araj, found the hallmarks of a large Byzantine-era church. The most distinctive indicator is gilted glass tesserae (mosaic tiles), Prof. R. Steven Notley of the private Christian college in New York tells Haaretz. “Those are for wall mosaics and only appear in churches,” he says.
So far, only the southern rooms of the church have been dug up. But the bird’s-eye view of the structure also supports the theory that this place was a church because of the west-east axis and the division into a central nave with two aisles, explains Prof. Mordechai Aviam from Kinneret Academic College.
The archaeologists also found marble fragments from the chancel screen that would have separated the congregation from the priest at the altar. The stone screen had been decorated with a floral wreath.
Other discoveries included mosaic flooring, roof tiles characteristic of big buildings and a fragment of a chalk carving featuring a cross.
Finding a Byzantine-period church is one thing, but why do the archaeologists, whose work is supported by the Israel Antiquities Authority, think it’s the Church of the Apostles, no less?
"It’s the historical tradition we possess, and there is no good reason to question it," Notley tells Haaretz. Namely, in the year 725, a Bavarian bishop named Willibald was touring the Holy Land and wrote about walking from Capernaum to Kursi, and on the way seeing the church of Peter and his brother Andrew, Aviam explains.
“No other churches have been found between those two towns,” Aviam clarifies. And the el-Araj church seems to be from the appropriate period.
The ruins have not been precisely dated yet, but based on more than 100 coins, the church seems to have been built in the fifth century, nearly 500 years after the apostles would have lived, and to have been abandoned in the late seventh century or eighth century.
Notley qualifies that the identification of the church will remain theoretical until proof can be found, such as an inscription. “It would be normal to find an inscription in a church of the Byzantine period, describing in whose memory it was built, for instance,” he says.
During the excavation of a Roman period home, 100 meters north of the main excavation area, the archaeologists found typical Jewish stone vessels and Jewish oil-lamps as well as more than 20 Roman-period coins and fishing lead weights.
Another discovery in this fourth excavation season is a Crusader “beehive” lamp, composed of two separately turned parts. At the other end of the cultural rainbow is a discovery made in 2017: The relief of a lioness carved on a basalt rock, which the archaeologists think graced a synagogue that also stood there in the early Byzantine period.
el-Araj as Bethsaida
The case of el-Araj as the long-lost city of Bethsaida, home to Peter, Andrew and Philip (John 1:44; 12:21) and elevated into the Roman city of Julias by the local Jewish governor Philip Herod (son of the great vassal king Herod), has long been touted by Notley and Aviam.
Notley notes that because no church had been found in the relevant area (until now), what has happened is that people tended to "correct" pilgrimage records, drawing the pilgrimage testimonies about Bethsaida to Capernaum. The argument was made that an 8-sided structure in Capernaum was the church mentioned that was built over the house of Peter, he explains.
"Now we have a church right where the pilgrims say was a church. The early testimonies about the church over Peter’s house described it as a basilica. Would a Byzantine describe an eight-sided structure as a basilica? This is a question that needs to be addressed more fully," Notley tells Haaretz.
Their theory competes with the nearby site of e-Tell as Bethsaida, which is argued by Prof. Rami Arav of the Hebrew Union College. It is "quite unreasonable" to think that the builders of this structure in the 8th century C.E. would know that anything, let alone Peter's house from the first century level, is buried three meters under their building, he tells Haaretz: "You would need divine inspiration and imagination, to know this."
The settlement at el-Araj dates at the very least to the Second Temple period, when it was a Jewish fishing village. Among other things, the archaeologists have found lead fishing weights.
Some had argued that the site at el-Araj had merely been a Roman army camp, based on the 2017 discovery of Roman baths there.
Not so, says Notley: In the Second Temple period, the early Jewish village which became a Roman polis had spread over a very large area, most of which remains to be excavated. The city survived into the Roman period. In the first century, the Jewish tetrarch Herod Philip decided to build a proper Roman polis based on the Jewish village. He named his new city Julias.
“The first historical witnesses to the site of Bethsaida are all Roman,” says Notley. “We assume it was part of Hasmonean expansion into the Galilee.”
Arav for his part suggests that the first century level "suits perfectly the description of Josephus Flavius of a Roman mercenary camp stationed during the First Jewish Revolt."
Now you see Bethsaida, now you don’t
The historian Josephus mentions Bethsaida once in his writings, precisely when describing its urbanization, says Notley. He adds that there are two other known examples of Jewish villages being transformed into Roman hubs: Sepphoris (Tzipori, built by Herod Antipas) and Antipatris (Tel Afek, built during the first century B.C.E. by Herod the Great, who named it in honor of his father, Antipater). Pliny, writing in the first century, also mentioned Julias.
And then something strange happened. The city of Bethsaida-cum-Julias suddenly disappeared from the historical and archaeological record at the end of the third century.
Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea who lived and wrote prolifically in the 4th century, including the Onomasticon ("On the Place-Names in the Holy Scripture "), does not provide any details about Bethsaida or the church indicating he does not personally know Bethsaida. Rabbinic testimonies about Bethsaida also go silent after the third century C.E.
Then, in the fifth century, a Byzantine settlement with a monastery and the church, now found, were built on the spot, and suddenly the literary sources began anew.
Aviam points out that the level of the Sea of Galilee (aka Lake Kinneret) fluctuates a lot. It is entirely possible that for roughly 150 to 200 years, the town was abandoned because the lake level rose and the ground became waterlogged.
The church and the town would be abandoned again, in the 8th century; following a period of later Crusader occupation, it would then disappear from sight until archaeological investigation ensued. There is not yet sign of damage in the church, from the well known earthquake of 749 CE that devastated the Jordan Valley. Aviam even points out that we don't know if the church was abandoned before or after that quake).
He adds that, possibly, silting from the nearby Jordan River mouth ruined the local fishing. By the way, scanning technology indicates that more houses lie beneath the silt.
It’s likely the church was abandoned with the rise of the Umayyad caliphate and Islamic presence in the land, from the late seventh or early eighth century, which is when Bishop Willibald toured the land and described the great church. But he didn’t mention whether or not the church was still being used.