For over a thousand years, the fabled Church of the Apostles was lost, if not forgotten. According to Christian tradition it was erected in the village of Bethsaida, the home of Jesus’ apostles Peter and Andrew, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Now archaeologists argue they not only found Bethsaida but the church itself – and a mystery.
During the summer excavation just completed under the direction of Steven Notley of Nyack College and Mordechai Aviam of Kinneret Academic College of the Galilee, the researchers found categorical proof that the Byzantine-period edifice was a church, and a major one at that. This was no picayune chapel for kneeling by the wayside but an elaborately decorated house of worship built in the late fifth or early sixth century with gorgeous mosaic floors and inscriptions.
But at some point after the church was destroyed by an earthquake in 749, it was mysteriously “buried.” Walls were built atop it along the exact path of the building’s original structure – so their location was clearly no coincidence – but they had no doors. There was no way to get in. Why this could have been done is quite the head-scratcher.
Until recently, not only the Church of the Apostles but the whole biblical village of Bethsaida was lost. “All the smaller places holy to Christianity which weren’t superstars like Jerusalem or Nazareth were lost after the Muslim conquest,” Aviam says.
Then in 1930 a German priest named Rudolf de Haas observed an ancient mosaic 2 meters (over 6 feet) below an Ottoman mansion known as Beit Habek on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee. De Haas assumed the mosaic was from the Roman period preceding the Byzantine time.
It wasn’t. Fast-forward almost a century, to 2016, when Aviam and Notley began excavating between Beit Habek and the Galilee. Among their first finds were gilded tesserae – mosaic tiles, which were hallmarks of the ornate Byzantine style of church architecture.
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The subsequent discovery of yet more flowing mosaics and walls, oriented in typical east-west church fashion as well as Christian tradition, strengthened their suspicion that they had found the Church of the Apostles and therefore, that their site is the lost city of the gospels, Bethsaida. But they had no proof.
Now they have proof, found in this summer excavation, Aviam says. Proof of what? That they have a Byzantine church, a major one, from the appropriate time mentioned by Saint Willibald – more on him later.
The researchers cannot categorically prove – not yet at least – that it is the Church of the Apostles, but no other suitable structure has been found in the appropriate area of the lake, they explain. It’s the only candidate and would befit a grand tradition, being 27 by 16 meters large and richly decorated.
What proof did they find? Two inscriptions, albeit incomplete. It was typical of Byzantine churches to have mosaic inscriptions and this one did, though only parts remain sort of intact. One is a dedication to the bishop that describes a renovation of the church during his time in office. This indicates that the church was major enough to warrant fixing up, Aviam says. The second inscription mentions the church deacon who built the compound.
It bears adding that this site, known as el-Araj, is not the only candidate for “the real Bethsaida.” A competing hillside site known as e-Tell, only a few kilometers to the north, has been under excavation for 35 years by Prof. Rami Arav of the University of Nebraska at Ohama. Arav believes e-Tell is not only the (also long-lost) capital of the biblical Kingdom of Geshur, but was the Jewish fishing village of Bethsaida.
Dealing with the devil
E-Tell evokes awe. The remains from the biblical era are stunning, but no remains from the Byzantine period have been found there, Notley and Aviam argue, while their site – el-Araj – does have remains from the Roman period, when the place would have been a Jewish fishing village, and from the Byzantine time. So they’re sticking with their argument that they actually have “the real Bethsaida” and have faith that they have found the church written about by Bavarian Bishop Willibald, aka Willibrord.
In 724 C.E., after the Umayyad conquest, Willibald made a pilgrimage to the Sea of Galilee, trekking along the northern shore of the sea, known to Israelis as the Kinneret. “And thence they went to Bethsaida, the residence of Peter and Andrew, where there is now a church on the site of their house,” says his travelogue known as the Hodoeporicon. “They remained there that night, and the next morning went to Chorazin, where our Lord healed the demoniacs, and sent the devil into a herd of swine.”
Notley and Aviam argue that their discovery is the only church that fits the description of the journey, though they add that the bishop’s transcriber may have mistakenly written Chorazin when he perhaps meant Kursi on the eastern side of the lake.
Scribes err, such is life. The point is that according to the travelogue, Willibald saw the Church of the Apostles at Bethsaida between Capernaum and Chorazin/Kursi, and then about 20 years later, in 749 C.E., a massive quake rocked the Holy Land, which sits smack on the Great Rift starting in East Africa and technically ending in Lebanon. The Sea of Galilee sits right in the fault.
That quake put paid to the church and much else as well. But then something strange happened.
Walls were built atop the original basilica walls, and their ruins stand to this day, up to about 1 meter high. But the archaeologists couldn’t find any doors. And the mosaic floor was covered in dirt. The ruins of the church were sealed off, technically.
At this point, subject to further archaeological investigation, the researchers have two hypotheses. The mundane one is that during the Middle Ages a sugar factory was built there. The philistine industrialists simply built its foundations over the church, ignoring the mosaics as they laid the foundation, thus that beautiful ancient flooring was covered in dirt littered with broken sugar vessels. Maybe that doorless structure was the basement of this factory.
Or the church was intentionally, ritually buried, laid to rest, after its destruction. Why would anybody bury a church, like a dead body? For much the same reason: out of respect, perhaps, Aviam suggests.
The date of the walls is unclear. The archaeologists hope that in the coming excavation seasons they will find evidence to date those strange walls, to investigate the Roman-period village where they believe Jesus’ apostles lived, and to discover yet more evidence shoring up their belief that this, and no other, was the famed Church of the Apostles.