Has the ‘Lost City’ of the Gospels Finally Been Found?

Two sites are competing for the title of the real Bethsaida. Only one can be right, one would think, and el-Araj does have a layer from the time of Jesus and the apostles – but there’s a twist to this Galilean tale

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Aerial of Area A with the southern, western and northern walls of the Byzantine Church of the Apostles together with the inundated squares of previous seasons with Roman period remains
Aerial of el-Araj showing the southern, western and northern walls of the Byzantine Church of the Apostles and inundated squares of previous seasons with Roman period remains Credit: Achia Kohn-Tavor
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Sometime between from the first century B.C.E. to the early first century, a fishing village arose where the Jordan River enters the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The name Bethsaida literally stems from that description: “house of hunting,” i.e., fishing.

In the year 30 or 31 C.E., tetrarch Herod Philip upgraded the village to a polis named Julias, according to the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. Then, in the third century, the historical record goes silent on Bethsaida-Julias until the fifth century. Archaeology shows that is when the Byzantines built a church in the town over the putative home of the apostles Andrew and Peter.

And then the city’s location was lost.

“Bethsaida is the last missing city of the gospels,” Steven Notley of Nyack College told Haaretz during a recent week-long visit to Israel. But he and Mordechai Aviam of the Kinneret Academic College of the Galilee feel quite confident they’ve found the best candidate for identifying Bethsaida, at the archaeological site called el-Araj.

The site of el-Araj after heavy winter rains caused the Sea of Galilee to rise and flood the area.Credit: Prof. Mordechai Aviam

Just over two kilometers (1.25 miles) to the northwest, situated a bit higher above the lake, is a site competing for the title of “the real Bethsaida”: e-Tell, which was excavated for over three decades by Rami Arav of the University of Nebraska Omaha. He’s also confident that he’s found the real Bethsaida.

Only one can be right, one would think. Dror Ben-Yosef, state archaeologist for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s northern district, diplomatically suggests both are right, in a sense. We shall get back to his opinion.

For the sake of simplicity, hereinafter “el-Araj” is Araj and “e-Tell” is Tell.

On a blistering summer morning in July, Notley and Aviam were back in Araj. Flooding from heavy winter rains swelling the lake and the coronavirus had conspired to frustrate work there in 2020. Come mid-2021, as Israel lifted its COVID restrictions (only to reinstate some in late July) and as the water level receded somewhat, the archaeologists resumed work. Some pits dug in previous years remain full of algae-ridden green water.

Aerial of el-Araj showing the southern, western and northern walls of the Byzantine Church of the Apostles and inundated squares of previous seasons with Roman period remains Credit: Achia Kohn-Tavor

Two teams of Kinneret College students are hard at work. One is excavating lakeside homes from the Roman period. The other is digging up the fifth-century Byzantine church previously identified at the site. They hope to find its floor.

Why? “We’re hoping to find an inscription,” citing perhaps the bishop, or the benefactors who financed the church’s construction, Aviam explains. The hope is that this could nail down the site’s identification, at least as it was perceived five centuries after Jesus.

Of course, the Byzantine fathers could have erred in pinpointing where the apostles’ homes were. But both Aviam and Notley place some, if not overwhelming, trust in local traditions.

Beit Habek is blown to smithereens

The story of Araj’s excavation starts with the construction of an Ottoman manse called Beit Habek (“House of the Bey”) in the 19th century. It had been built by Abdul al-Rahman Baasha al-Yusuf, the local bey/bek/pasha, on top of ancient ruins. Yusuf controlled the marshy and mosquito-ridden land around that part of the lake, allowing it to be farmed by Jews, and in about 1930, the German priest Rudolf de Haas found an ancient mosaic two meters below the level of Beit Habek’s foundations.

Gold-gilded glass tessera from the Byzantine Church of the ApostlesCredit: Zachary Wong

In 1948, Syria captured some lands around the Sea of Galilee, including the mansion, and held them until the Six-Day War in 1967. The Syrians used Beit Habek as an outpost, but in 1955 Israeli paratroopers shelled it, Aviam explains.

Some weathered parts remain standing, but Beit Habek was never rebuilt – to the professed regret of the archaeologists today who would have appreciated shelter from the blistering valley sun. But such is life.

In any case, the memory of the mosaic two meters lower than Beit Habek lingered. "What de Haas saw were the mosaic floors likely belonging to the Byzantine church (even though he mistakenly called them “Roman mosaics”)," Notley explains. And when he and Aviam began excavating the site in 2016, they found ornate gilded glass tesserae, tiles typical of wall ornamentation in ornate Byzantine churches, Notley explains.

Mosaic floor from the Roman period bath houseCredit: Zachary Wong
Multicolored three-strand band mosaic on the edge of the nave to the Byzantine Church of the ApostlesCredit: Zachary Wong

So even before finding the church walls, which they did, they suspected they were at the site of the church written about by the 8th century saint, Willibald, Notley says.

One key argument posed by the champions of Araj as Bethsaida is the Hodoeporicon, the itinerary of that pilgrim, St. Willibald, aka Willibrord, in the Holy Land. He tells of walking from Capernaum (Kfar Nahum) to Chorazin (Kursi) via the Church of the Apostles in Bethsaida. Notley, a historian, explains what he believes we can and cannot make of that.

Dr. Steven Notley and his daughter Kathryn removing portions of the Roman period mosaicsCredit: Zachary Wong

A matter of faith

Let us start with his and Aviam’s certitude that they have a Byzantine church, dating to the fifth century.

Archaeologist Achia Kohn-Tavor, a member of the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology, explains that in contrast to faith, architecture isn’t ephemeral. “We have hard evidence,” he says. Byzantine basilicas were oriented east-west, which is the case here, and the archaeologists can identify the bases of some of the church pillars, as well as remains of an arcade and the nave.

“The only part missing today is the east wall,” he notes, adding that the church had been medium in size – about 15 meters wide. They have the mosaic and pieces of masonry with engraved crosses, some made of white marble imported from Marmara. The church evidently had a set of luxury marble fixtures, Kohn-Tavor posits.

Not much of that marble remained, because most of it was probably burned to make lime at a later time, Aviam explains. “Someone may have quarried the ancient church,” he quips.

Decorative marble piece from the Byzantine churchCredit: Zachary Wong

Aviam and Notley believe they have found the lost Church of the Apostles, erected around five centuries after the apostles lived.

Who knows, centuries after their death, where their houses had been? Maybe there were other churches along Willibald’s path? The archaeologists do not claim the church was really built on what had been the real homes of the apostles. But they have some faith in local legends, Notley says, and he feels quite confident it is the Church of the Apostles and no other, based partly on Willibald’s report and partly on the absence of other candidates. The competing site, Tell, is a stunning Iron Age city and possibly the capital of the biblical kingdom of Geshur, but no substantial Roman layer or church have been found there to date, Notley and Aviam say. Their clincher, however, isn’t based on faith but mud.

When the river rises

Internal wall of the Byzantine church with a door thresholdCredit: Zachary Wong

The archaeologists have identified a Roman layer from the first to third centuries C.E. Above that is a layer of silt two meters thick, and above that is the Byzantine layer with the church, from the fifth to eighth centuries C.E.

What does that two-meter-thick layer of mud sandwiched between Roman ruins below and Byzantine ruins above indicate?

The Roman ruins indicate that a small polis had indeed arisen there. The silt indicates that in the third century, the lake rose for whatever reason and the site was inundated. “It was abandoned for 200 years,” Aviam says. “Then it was resettled in the fifth century, until being abandoned once and for all in the eighth century.”

Indeed, from the third to the fifth century, historical references to Bethsaida go silent, Notley points out. Now the archaeologists have found an archaeological gap fitting that hole in the record.

Supporting the contention that the site had been a polis, albeit a wee one, the Roman layer below the mud includes the remains of a bathhouse, as any self-respecting Roman settlement would have. That is the only edifice featuring monumental construction found at Araj so far, but the archaeologists have also found private homes from the Roman period, in three different places they checked around the site, where they found not only pottery and coins but glassware and fragments of delicately painted frescoes.

One of many lead fishing weights found at el-Araj indicative of local fishing industry at el-ArajCredit: Zachary Wong

It begs adding that only a fraction of the site has been explored so far: Rather than hastily uncovering more ground, the team is concentrating on reaching the floor of the church, as said. The rest can be excavated in another season, budgets willing.

The competing site at Tell may even have been, as Arav postulates, the capital of Geshur. But during the Roman period, it was in decline, Aviam explains. Nor was Tell situated on the lakeshore as a fishing village would be, but on a hill.

Yehoshua Dray measuring the depth of the bath house mosaics at -211 mCredit: Zachary Wong

Arav, Tell’s excavator and the proprietor of the theory that Tell was Bethsaida, suggests the inhabitants fished from a lagoon that reached the city’s southwest edge when the lake was high. But if this was the case, the Roman-period Jewish village and small polis were under two meters of water, Aviam says.

If Notley and Aviam are correct that Araj is the one and true Bethsaida that was turned into the polis Julius, then they should find a lot more than a church, the bathhouse and some private homes and glass from the Roman period. And indeed, they may if and when the excavation area is widened.

“My training as a historian and in historical geography addresses how well historical sources match the physical contours of the land. And one of the questions that I had to deal with was the site of Bethsaida – the last missing lost city of the gospels,” Notley sums up.

The putative site of Bethsaida before it was flooded last year.Credit: Zachary Wong

The reports on Tell don’t seem suited to the descriptions of people who had walked the streets of Bethsaida in the New Testament, or descriptions in writings by Josephus, or rabbinic references (which also go silent on the subject in the 3rd century), Notley explains.

Tell does have Hellenistic remains, but those were 200 to 300 years earlier than the Roman period, he adds – by which time the city at Tell apparently went into decline, which is the opposite of being upgraded into a polis, albeit possibly a wee one, not like the mighty Hippos or Beit She’an that were “members” of the Decapolis.

“Also, it’s too far from the lake,” Notley adds, and repeats: To fish from Tell, the lake would have to be a few meters higher, which would put every settlement around the lake under water.

Why, then, does the Israeli government recognize Tell as Bethsaida? Aviam points out that when that was done in the 1990s, it was the only candidate and Arav touted it as the place and challenged the archaeological community to find another one. Well, that has been done.

“It’s not easy to have a better candidate,” Aviam laughs. Publication is in process and, meanwhile, their site fits the facts better, in his view: Nothing can change the fact that they found a Roman period from the first century, the time of the apostles, with a bathhouse suitable to a polis, supported by coins and pottery from the time; they found the Roman-period homes. What they haven’t found is the rest of the polis, but that could come.

The monumental gate and a stele to the moon god at e-TellCredit: רות שוסטר

By the way, why would the tetrarch, Herod Philip, have upgraded the village into a polis? Aviam notes that leaders like to build new cities that they can name after the wonder that is themselves, or in flattery of their overlord. In this case, Bethsaida was renamed Julias in honor of Julia Augusta of the royal family.

Anyway, if the finds are from the first century, that suggests the village was very new when the apostles reportedly lived there. It could be so, Aviam agrees: “We knew Jewish villages were established between the first century B.C.E. to the first century C.E.” Or continued excavation could find earlier finds, from the Hellenistic period. And hopefully the theater from the Roman period; no self-respecting Roman town would be without one.

I come in peace

Dror Ben-Yosef, the archaeologist for the parks authority’s northern district, personally thinks Aviam, Notley and Rami Arav are all right, just for different periods.

First of all, he points out that a lot of mistakes have been made when identifying ancient settlements. Harosheth Hagoyim, Sisera’s fortress according to the Book of Judges, has been “identified” several times, in both Israel and Lebanon. The settlement of Kiryat Haroshet was even founded on the basis of an erroneous location.

As for Bethsaida, Arav argues that his Tell site is the best candidate for the biblical-era city named Tzer (or Zer) mentioned in the Book of Joshua as belonging to the tribe of Naphtali. How is that? Tzer begat Bet Tzer, which begat Beth-tzer, which begat Bethtzed, which turned into Bethsaida.

Ben-Yosef agrees that’s possible, because tzer and tzed may stem from the same root, TZ D, which means hunting or fishing. The city of Tyre in Lebanon (Tzur in the local lingo) also stems from the same root, Ben-Yosef points out.

But when discussing Roman-period Bethsaida-Julias, Ben-Yosef feels Aviam and Notley have the winning case with Araj. Place-names can move, he points out. He also hopes that peace can be brought to the subject of which is the real Bethsaida.

So Tell has the trappings of the Iron Age Bethsaida (Tzer) and Araj has the ruins suitable to the Roman-period Bethsaida. Period? Let’s see what Aviam and Notley find when the church floor is revealed.

And why might Israeli government websites still tout Tell as the real Bethsaida when, at the least, the question is open? For one thing, the Aviam excavation is fairly new, just a few years, so the government has still to wrap its head around the possibility of a competing site. And for another, the Foreign Ministry page on the topic is from 2000. It apparently hasn’t been updated since.

“As often happens in archaeology, both [sets of archaeologists] are right and both could be wrong,” the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a statement, clarifying that the State of Israel has not taken a position on where “the real Bethsaida” might be.

The bottom line is there’s no bottom line yet, but the issue bears revisiting in years to come as the excavations advance, the IAA stated. It added that it hesitates to “recognize” the identity of any given archaeological site, because new discoveries tend to supplant old definitions and identifications.

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