Anyone who has spent significant time reading the New Testament has probably tried to imagine the small village of Bethsaida.
According to the Gospels, the town was the home of brothers Peter and Andrew, as well as their fellow apostle Phillip. It was there, along the banks of the Sea of Galilee, that the pair were fishing when Christ called them to leave their nets and follow Him. It’s also where Jesus cured a blind man. Just outside the town is where he performed the miracle of feeding the 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish.
But up until recently, though other tourist areas have claimed the title of Bethsaida, archaeologists and historians weren’t certain of its location. That may finally have changed as researchers continue to uncover a site in northern Israel known today as el-Araj.
Taking the travel writings of an 8th century Bavarian bishop as one of their guides, a team led by historian Steven Notley believes they have found not only the last missing city mentioned in the Gospels, but also the church that was built over Peter and Andrew’s home some time in the fifth century.
Notley, a distinguished professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Nyack College, is acting as academic director of excavations at el-Araj, a project sponsored by the Museum of the Bible and the Center for the Study of Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins. Notley tells The Daily Wire that the dig is entirely privately funded, and no one expected his team to find the extensive amount of remains they have on the site. “I think there’s been general shock,” he says.
His search began in 2007, when he authored a peer-reviewed article in the journal Near Eastern Archaeology, presenting evidence that the surmised location of Bethsaida was incorrect. Notley’s critique caused a bit of a firestorm in archeological circles, and he says those arguing for the first presumed location challenged him: “’If you think it’s someplace else, go excavate it,’ they said.” So he did.
One of the primary sources Notley and his partner Mordechai Aviam, a professor of archaeology and senior lecturer at the Kinneret Academic College of the Galilee, relied on was Saint Willibald’s account of his pilgrimage to Israel in 724 CE.
Willibald himself is a fascinating figure — born to an Anglo-Saxon nobleman in Wessex, he miraculously survived a bout of the Black Plague in Rome and imprisonment by the Saracens in Asia-Minor. From there, he spent seven years wandering the Holy Land, later recording his experiences in what is now known as the “Hodoeporicon,” the first travel book written in English.
Before his death, he dictated a description of his visit to the famed Church of the Apostles to a nun who recorded, “And thence they went to Bethsaida, the residence of Peter and Andrew, where there is now a church on the site of their house. 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.”
Other scholars had dismissed the saint’s account, believing him to be mistaken or confused about the location of the church. “They argued that when this bishop talked about the church built over the house of Peter, he was talking about the octagonal church in Capernaum,” Notley explains. But he and his team weren’t willing to write off the ancient Willibald so easily. “I said, ‘We have the evidence, right in our hands,” Notley remembers countering at the time. “I said, I don’t know where the walls are. But we do know, there’s a church there somewhere.”
So in 2014 they began a survey of the area, pinpointing a site that looked promising and began excavating in 2016. Almost immediately, they realized they had a significant find on their hands. Each year, Notley says, has unfolded new discoveries.
The first layer revealed what may have been a Crusader-era sugar factory, and when they dug down beneath that they found small glass tubes gilded with gold. “You don’t find those in synagogues,” Notley says. “The only place you have them is in ornate, important churches. So a discussion began and we asked ourselves, ‘What can this be?’ And I said, ‘Well, we have an eighth century pilgrim, who was a Bavarian bishop, who came traveling to this area, and he says saw a church built over the house of Peter and Andrew. He actually described it as a basilica, so not a small church.”
But it wasn’t until they excavated beneath the Byzantine layer and found the mosaic tiles of a Roman bath that Notley was certain they’d found something of incredible significance.
“You would not have a Roman Bath in a Jewish village,” he explains. Where you would have a Roman bath is in a town transformed to Roman polis by a Jewish client king in order to demonstrate his influence and loyalty.
The first-century Romano-Jewish historian Josephus records that Herod Philip the Tetrarch, the son of Herod the Great (the ruler known for ordering the executions of infant boys in the Gospel of Matthew and for extensive building projects of his own) transformed the sleepy fishing town of Bethsaida into a city. (Another intriguing side note for Bible lovers — Philip Tetrarch is mentioned in Luke 3:4, and married Salome, the girl whose dancing talent led to John the Baptist’s beheading).
Those mosaic tiles were the team’s first evidence that the area they’d been searching had been urbanized during the apostles’ time. “It just sort of stunned everybody because no one expected it,” says Notley.
Josephus mentions Bethsaida only once in his writings. The rest of the time, likely because he’s writing for a Roman audience, he calls the city Julius, the name Herod Philip gave it in honor of the mother of Emperor Tiberius. But that mention lends serious historical weight to the argument for el-Araj as the lost Gospel city. Suddenly, Notley says, scholars who’d claimed Bethsaida might be in some other location had to explain the presence of Roman remains. From there, he and his team went on to excavate Roman houses, and an electromagnetic scan of the area revealed that it is full of residences and streets that wouldn’t accord with a village community.
Notley explains that one of the of the difficulties archaeologists face in trying to identify ancient sites is the fact that they rarely come with inscriptions bearing the names of towns or cities. There are no road signs saying, Bethsaida, one mile on the right. Instead, they have to rely on piecing together clues from artifacts and possibly-flawed historical accounts. Between Willibald and Josephus, he believes the evidence found at el-Araj dovetails seamlessly with both types of evidence.
Notley says he and his team will resume work on the site in 2022. With relics from Middle Age sugar pots to Roman coins to basilica ornaments that speak of a thousand years of Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, and Crusader settlement, there’s no question Bethsaida-Julius-el Araj has mysteries yet to reveal.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.