New Excavations Suggest el-Araj was New Testament Bethsaida

For years, some scholars have doubted the claim of excavators working at et-Tell that they had discovered Bethsaida (see my explanation here). But as the years went by, and archaeologists continued to come up empty (of significant remains from the right time period), they doubled down and their voices became more shrill in their defense. Succeeding excavation reports were titled Bethsaida I, Bethsaida II, Bethsaida III, Bethsaida IV, etc.
Bethsaida aerial from northeast, ws053016297
  The site of et-Tell, proposed by excavators to be Bethsaida, with el-Araj and the Sea of Galilee in the distance

But they had this in their favor: there was not a better alternative. That may be changing, as another archaeological team has begun work at a site closer to the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Early word out from the el-Araj team this summer was that they had discovered Roman-period remains. That’s a big step forward. Today’s Haaretz carries a report of the latest finds. Here are a couple of important sections:

Archaeologists think they may have found the lost Roman city of Julias, the home of three apostles of Jesus: Peter, Andrew and Philip (John 1:44; 12:21). A multi-layered site discovered on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, in the Bethsaida Valley Nature Reserve, is the spot, the team believes.
The key discovery is of an advanced Roman-style bathhouse. That in and of itself indicates that there had been a city there, not just a fishing village, Dr. Mordechai Aviam of Kinneret College told Haaretz.


What the archaeologists found at el-Araj is an older layer dating from the late Roman period, the 1st to 3rd centuries C.E., two meters below the Byzantine level. That Roman layer contained pottery sherds from the 1st to the 3rd centuries B.C.E. [sic; should be C.E.], a mosaic, and the remains of the bathhouse. Two coins were found, a bronze coin from the late 2nd century and a silver denarius featuring the Emperor Nero from the year 65-66 C.E. 
And has a major missing church been found too? The excavators found walls with gilded glass tesserae for a mosaic, an indication of a wealthy and important church. Willibald, the bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria, visited the Holy Land in 725 C.E., and in his itinerary, he describes his visit to a church at Bethsaida that was built over the house of Peter and Andrew. It may well be that the current excavations have unearthed evidence for that church, say the archaeologists.

The article continues to discuss significant evidence that indicates the level of the Sea of Galilee was 6 feet (2 m) lower than previously believed.

El-Araj, Jordan River, and Sea of Galilee aerial from north, ws040617534
The site of el-Araj, located in the area of the trees near the shore of the Sea of Galilee

Personally I think it’s best to continue to be cautious. There’s no sense (for those not writing headlines or raising funds) in making the same mistake again in the identification of Bethsaida. But it’s certainly fair to say that the geographical and archaeological stars seem to be in alignment.

UPDATE: The story is also reported in the Jerusalem Post and Ynet (Hebrew).

HT: Jared Clark, David Bivin


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