Where exactly did Saint Peter the Apostle live? Was it in Capernaum, or Bethsaida? The New Testament is inconsistent. About 1,700 years of Christian tradition place him in Bethsaida, but a theory raised by Father Gaudence Orfali in 1921 suggests Capernaum instead.
This is not an arcane question being contemplated by flickering candlelight in obscure niches of the historical debate. It’s a red-hot topic in Christian circles, and now R. Steven Notley – historian and professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Nyack College, New York City – believes he has uncovered crucial clues in the historic record. Adding to recent archaeological discoveries, he believes the case is all but closed. Peter was from Bethsaida, as has long been the belief in Christian tradition.
At el-Araj, an archaeological site on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, northern Israel, in 2016 archaeologist Prof. Mordechai Aviam of Kinneret College and Prof. Notley began to find the ruins of what seemed to be a Byzantine basilica dating to the late fifth or early sixth century. Of that they are now certain.
More speculative is their identification of it as the Church of the Apostles, which according to Christian tradition had been built atop the house of Peter and Andrew.
This basilica is not at Capernaum. It lies amid ruins on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (aka Lake Kinneret). Aviam and Notley are confident that a monastery is built over the remains of the Roman-period village of Bethsaida.
The water rises
It bears adding that heavy winter rains in Israel in recent years not only drenched el-Araj, but drowned it. Excavation had to halt, only resuming in 2021 by dint of waiting for the waters to evaporate in the summer heat. The fact that the site flooded after a few wet winters may explain something of the mystery of Bethsaida’s disappearance.
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Bethsaida appears in historical records until the late third century, then vanishes from the record for about 200 years. Eusebius Pamphili, bishop of Caesarea, mentions it in 305 C.E., but adds nothing beyond information appearing in the gospel of John, so there’s no reason to think he had been there, Notley explains. Nor does rabbinic literature mention the village after the third century.
The ruins Aviam and Notley found were thickly silted. The archaeological and historical evidence suggest that from sometime in the third century until sometime in the fifth, the village was flooded by waters from the nearby Jordan or Zaki rivers.
When they receded in the late fifth century, the Byzantines built the church where local tradition had placed Peter’s house, they posit.
It is also possible that the abandonment of Roman-period Bethsaida-Julias was a result of the rising of the level of the lake: the floors of the houses started to get wet.
They are not saying Peter actually lived at the location of the church. We may never know, even if a first-century house is found beneath the basilica – people at the time didn’t put plaques in their home saying “X lives here.” But they are quite confident that the basilica is the Church of the Apostles and the village is Bethsaida.
The site complies with historic references to Bethsaida; the structure and décor of the basilica are typical of Byzantium. Nor is there any other candidate in the vicinity – if one excludes the Octagonal Church of Capernaum, which is what Orfali proposed in 1921 as the church built on Peter’s house.
The Octagon isn’t a basilica, and therefore can’t have been the Church of the Apostles, Notley and Aviam contend.
In conversation with Haaretz, Notley raises three points based on historical analysis that shore up his and Aviam’s identification of el-Araj as Bethsaida, Peter’s hometown, and of the basilica as the Church of the Apostles:
1. The earliest mention of the Church of the Apostles is ostensibly by Saint Willibald, who visited the Holy Land in the eighth century. But Notley finds two earlier possible references to Bethsaida – by a pilgrim named Theodosius in the year 530, who referred explicitly to Bethsaida, and by the “Piacenza pilgrim’s” account from 570. We shall get back to that.
2. The identification of the Octagon as the church being atop Peter’s house is a 20th century innovation based on Orfali’s mistaken reading of the pilgrimage testimonies, Notley claims. “Orfali appropriated all these Byzantine and later traditions that identify the home of Peter at Bethsaida and redirected them to the Octagon in Capernaum,” he says. Why this version of events became so accepted in modern times is a mystery to him. “Even Pope Benedict XVI reiterated in 2006 that Peter came from Bethsaida, not Capernaum,” he adds.
3. Nearly 2,000 years of Christian tradition. Donatus Baldi’s “Handbook of Holy Places,” compiled from pilgrimage reports until the 17th century, devotes eight pages to Bethsaida and they routinely and consistently refer to it as Peter’s home. By contrast, there are no references to Peter’s house in Capernaum, Notley noticed. “[Aviam and I] have no idea why no one has brought this up since 1921 when Orfali single-handedly began the tradition about the house of Peter in Capernaum,” he says.
Peter may have been here
In Orfali’s posthumous defense, in fact the New Testament is inconsistent about Peter’s home. Mark relates that Jesus visited a synagogue in Capernaum and then went to the home of Simon and Andrew: “They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. ... As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew” Mark 1:21 … 29. (“Simon” was the apostle’s original name before Jesus renamed him “Peter.”)
Luke is less clear: “And [Jesus] came down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee; and He was teaching them on the Sabbath. … Then He got up and left the synagogue, and entered Simon’s home” (Luke 31…38).
This may have been Peter, but we can’t be certain because there were others named Simon in Luke’s gospel who are not the apostle (e.g., Luke 7:36-50).
John, however, says: “Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida” – John 1:44.
Also, when Orfali identified the octagonal martyrium as Peter’s basilica, there had been no other candidates. Now there is.
Meanwhile, excavation at el-Araj continues, at least when it isn’t flooded by the rain-swollen lake or the new course of the Jordan River that now runs only 50 meters (165 feet) from the excavation site. There is another candidate for Bethsaida: e-Tell, a couple of kilometers to the north of el-Araj but at higher altitude, which was excavated by Prof. Rami Arav of the University of Nebraska Omaha.
In fact, e-Tell had been recognized by the Israeli government as Bethsaida decades ago, but that was before the discoveries at el-Araj. E-Tell features the ruins of a magnificent Iron Age city, which Arav believes was the capital of the kingdom of Geshur. There are later, Roman-period remains, but not enough to warrant identification of the site as Julias, Notley and Amiad believe.
St. Willibald gets confused
Two thousand years after the event, specifics such as where Peter lived can be hard to tie down. As said, Bethsaida seemingly evaporated in the third century. Then in the year 724, undeterred by the Umayyad conquest of the Holy Land, a Bavarian bishop named Willibald made a pilgrimage to the Sea of Galilee. His itinerary states:
“From [Tiberias] they went around the sea, and by the village of Magdala to the village of Capernaum. … And [from Capernaum] they went to Bethsaida, from which came Peter and Andrew. There is now a church (ecclesia), where previously was their house. They remained there one night, and the next morning went to Chorazin where our Lord healed the demoniacs, and sent the devil into a heard of swine. “
Snag: Jesus is supposed to have performed the exorcism miracle at Kursi, not Chorazin. Notley thinks the good Willibald confused Kursi – Chorsia in Latin, with Chorazin, and wasn’t the only one to do so.
There is no Christian tradition of exorcism at Chorazin, only at Kursi; nor did Chorazin have a church, it seems. Why does Willibald’s mistake matter? Because modern scholars, inspired by Orfali, tend to “correct” Willibald’s description of a Byzantine church in Bethsaida to the Octagon in Capernaum, Notley explains. They assume the Bavarian pilgrim did not remember correctly where he had traveled.
Notley is confident that Willibald did not err in course of his itinerary, only confusing the names Kursi (Chorsia) and Chorazin. He did visit an “ecclesia,” not in Capernaum but in Bethsaida. As he wrote.
But before him are two possible mentions. Theodosius in 530 explicitly referred to Bethsaida, which means there was already something there in his day that served to draw his attention to the location. Four decades after him, another pilgrim – whose name is lost to time – went to the Sea of Galilee. This unknown pilgrim hailed from Piacenza, Italy, and wrote:
“Then we came to the city of Tiberias, where there are hot baths filling naturally with salt water, though the water of the sea itself is fresh. It is 60 miles around the sea. We also came to Capernaum, and to the house of Saint Peter, which is now only a basilica.”
Rats. Pretty explicit, isn’t it? Saint Peter’s home and basilica in Capernaum?
No, the Latin report “could indicate that when he comes to Peter’s house, it’s in Bethsaida, not Capernaum,” Notley contends.
Why? We don’t have the Piacenza pilgrim’s original itinerary. What historians have is copies of it, which vary in their wording, Notley explains. Some of these variants plausibly read this: “We came to Caperneum and then to the house of Peter which is today a basilica.”
“Whenever this [“and then”] conjunction is used in travel by the Piacenza pilgrim, it denotes moving onto the next place. It’s not just a pause in time – it’s also a spatial separation,” he posits.
Also, the weight of long-standing Christian tradition, including the Greek, Latin, and Syriac traditions, consistently speak of Peter hailing from Bethsaida.
So in Notley’s opinion, the Piacenza pilgrim was referring to the basilica built on Peter’s home, in Bethsaida, not Capernaum. If so, his and not Willibald’s is the earliest known reference to the basilica built on Peter’s home.
Reinforcing the credibility of the Piacenza pilgrim, Notley notes that his descriptions of where he saw basilicas fit with the famed sixth-century Madaba Map of the Holy Land. In other words, when the Piacenza pilgrim speaks of a basilica, he means a building in the architectural style of a basilica and not an octagonal church.
Peter the Deacon waxes imaginative
But if the Octagon isn’t a basilica, what is it? Well, it has eight sides. The Byzantines had rigid structures for their basilicas, which the el-Araj structure complies with. Notley feels the Octagon is a fifth-century church, possibly commemorating Jesus’ ministry in Capernaum, but it is not associated with Peter or his house. Or it could have been built to commemorate the house of Peter’s mother-in-law, or the disabled who were healed by Jesus, according to scripture.
Orfali may also have had a mental leap inspired by St. Epiphanius (~310-403), the bishop of Salamis in the late fourth century, who wrote about the Emperor Constantine allowing churches to be built around the Sea of Galilee. Epiphanius mentions a church built in Capernaum, but never mentions it in association with Peter, Notley points out.
One final piece of misleading “evidence” stemmed from Peter the Deacon (1115–1159), a librarian and collector and redactor of materials in the 12th century, a time of the Crusaders. Peter the Deacon quotes the Venerable Bede, who supposedly possessed missing portions of the itinerary of the early fourth-century pilgrim Egeria (aka Etheria). In these missing portions, Egeria supposedly speaks of a church built over the house of Peter in Capernaum.
Peter the Deacon may not have been the most reliable of historical sources. “Many of Peter’s writings are careless excerpts from the works of others … or outright forgeries,” according to an encyclopedia of religion.
“Egeria supposedly also spoke about a church in Tiberias built over the house of James and John. Nobody gives any credence to that tradition. They reject that testimony, but accept the Capernaum tradition sight unseen,” Notley says in exasperation. “People say Egeria talks about this church but I say ‘No, it was Peter the Deacon.’ The more I look, the thinner the evidence is for Peter’s home in Capernaum’s Octagon.”
And by the time of the Crusaders, any real evidence of events in Jesus’ time was gone – destroyed by the Persians or Muslims.
Will we get categorical evidence that el-Araj is Bethsaida, which was the home of Peter the Apostle? Maybe, as excavations proceed.