The Church of the Apostles Discovered at Bethsaida, Says CSAJCO

New discoveries strengthen the identification of first-century Bethsaida-Julias at el-Araj

Stone Cross from Byzantine Church

A large church from the Byzantine period was unearthed during the fourth season of archaeological excavations, carried out by Kinneret College and the Center for the Study of Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins, at the site of Beit Habek (el-Araj), near the Jordan River estuary on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The excavators have identified it with the Church of the Apostles visited by a Bavarian bishop named Willibald in 725 C.E. He described his journey in which he traveled around the Sea of Galilee visiting Tiberias, Magdala, Capernaum and Kursi. On his way, he passed through a place called Bethsaida where he saw a church built over the house of Peter and Andrew. These two brothers were numbered among the first disciples of Jesus. The New Testament also records that they came from the village of Bethsaida, which in the first century was located on the lakeshore and today is in the Buteiha Valley Nature Reserve.

Thus far, only the southern rooms of the church have been excavated. The church belonged to a monastery complex. It had ornate mosaic floors, some of which are well preserved. A fragment of the marble chancel screen, decorated with a wreath, was found, as well as glass tesserae gilded in gold that belonged to a wall mosaic. These decorative elements testify to a large and magnificent church.

The excavation was conducted by the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archeology in the Kinneret College, headed by Prof. Mordechai Aviam in collaboration with Prof. R. Steven Notley with the Center for the Study of Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins and Nyack College in New York, and under the auspices of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Students from both institutions and volunteers participated in the excavation.

This discovery strengthens the possible identification of the village of Bethsaida at the site of el-Araj. In addition, this year the excavators demonstrated that the ancient Jewish village, which was re-founded by the Jewish tetrarch Herod Philip as a polis and re-named Julias, had spread over a very large area. The remains of a private house from the Roman period were excavated 100 meters from the main excavation area. Finds from the house dated from the first to the third centuries CE included pottery, coins, fishing net weights and a cooking oven. A geophysical study was conducted in the vicinity using electromagnetic sensors operated on the ground and from a drone by the Terralog Innovation Company. The results indicate that there are many houses buried under the erosion of the delta of the Jordan River.

In addition to these important discoveries, a hoard of 20 Ottoman silver coins and five French gold coins were found together under the concrete floor of the “Bek's House.” The house was built in the 19th century by Abdul Rahim Bek, a wealthy landlord who owned the entire Beteiha Valley and part of the Golan. Apparently, the coins were a “foundation cache” placed under the floor for good luck.

For more information, contact Dr. R. Steven Notley: (tel.) 845-300-5797, (email)

Source: Center for the Study of Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins

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