Every year millions of Christians travel to the Holy Land in their desire to visit places mentioned in the Bible. They journey the biblical land from Dan to Beersheba with their Bibles in one hand and their cameras in the other. Most pilgrims are unaware that not long ago, no one even knew these places existed. Yet today the locations are signposted to inform visitors that they are standing at Chorazin, Hazor, Magdala, etc. How did this all happen?
The rediscovery of the land of the Bible began in earnest in the middle of the nineteenth century. Advances in transportation made these distant lands more accessible to European and American travelers. Edward Robinson, a biblical scholar from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, was among the first to attempt to locate the lost cities of the Bible. He traveled the region by horseback in 1838 and 1852, accompanied by Eli Smith, a missionary and Bible translator living in Beirut who is considered “America’s first Arabist.” Robinson and Smith found that the Hebrew place names from long ago have often been remembered by their Arabic equivalents. Robinson is today considered the father of modern historical geography in the Holy Land, a multi-disciplinary approach that takes into account history, geography, archaeology, philology, and toponomy (i.e., the study of place names).
Having lived for 16 years in Israel, I am very familiar with the rich interplay between the Bible and topography. One opportunity I had was to spend time with the late Mendel Nun, a member of the Ein Gev kibbutz and a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee for over 50 years. He knew the area like the back of his hand. Walking the lakeshore with Mendel was illuminating. It was on a visit to Khirbet el-A‘raj that he introduced me to the question of New Testament Bethsaida.
Figure 1: Khirbet el-A‘raj near the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee (looking south). Photo courtesy of Zachary Wong.
Figure 2: 2020 aerial photograph of El A‘raj on the Jordan River (looking north). Photo courtesy of Achia Kohn-Tavor.
The process involves shallow digging and sifting the soil from several five-meter by five-meter squares to a depth of 30 cm (nearly 12 inches). Archaeologists then examine the datable pottery, glass, and coins to create a historical profile of the site. On the basis of the survey, it was determined that there was settlement at el-A‘raj in the Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, and Crusader periods — precisely the description one finds of Bethsaida in the historical sources.
Archaeological excavations at el-A‘raj began in 2016 under the direction of Professor Mordechai Aviam from the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archeology at Kinneret College, Israel. With a limited budget, the scale of our efforts was initially small. The team was fewer than 20 students/volunteers, working for only two weeks.
Figure 3: Professors R. Steven Notley (left) and Mordechai Aviam (right), lead archaeologists at El-A'raj. Photo courtesy of Zachary Wong.
In the upper strata we found remains from a Crusader sugar factory. The Crusaders had mostly reused still-standing Byzantine walls for their buildings. In 2017, we continued to excavate what we now know was a Byzantine monastery that adjoined a church. This is a common pairing for churches in Galilee. Although we were not yet able to identify the walls of the church, its existence was unmistakably signaled each season by the discovery of individual gold-gilded glass tesserae, which are only to be found in wall mosaics of ornate churches.
Figure 4: Gold-gilded glass tessera from a mosaic in the Byzantine Church of the Apostles, fifth century AD.
We decided to dig two deeper probes to see if there were Roman remains under the Byzantine floors. The results were remarkable and shed light on the history of the site. Beneath the Byzantine pavement, dated with numerous coins, we encountered a layer of about 40 cm of silt, later identified from the Jordan River. There were no archaeological artifacts in this layer. Below the alluvial soil, we immediately found a compacted dirt floor with Roman pottery, coins, and lacking any Byzantine objects. The most amazing discovery was a mosaic floor that belonged to a Roman bath, indicated by accompanying ceramic vents and roof tiles.
Figure 5: Mosaic from the floor of a Roman bath, first century AD. Photo courtesy of Zachary Wong.
Discovery of the Roman bath captured the imagination of the international media and for good reason. This was the first evidence of urbanization in the region. A Roman bath is not a common feature in a Jewish village. However, Josephus reports that Herod Philip, son of Herod the Great, transformed the village of Bethsaida into a city and renamed it Julias, after the wife of Caesar Augustus and the mother of Tiberius (Jewish Antiquities 18:28). The bath house is a feature we would expect from Herod Philip’s urbanization. In light of these discoveries el-A‘raj is now widely considered the leading candidate for Bethsaida-Julias, and the finds in every subsequent season have only strengthened this claim.
The new finds encouraged us to enlarge our excavation. In 2018–2019, we excavated outside of the main excavation area to see how far the settlement reached. In these outlying areas we found no Crusader or Byzantine settlement. Instead, immediately under the surface are Roman-period (i.e., New Testament) houses with walls, pottery, and coins.
Figure 6: Discus lamps in situ in a Roman-period house in Area B (2018), first century AD. Photo courtesy of Zachary Wong.
Everywhere there is evidence of Jewish life: distinctive limestone dishes used only by Jewish communities and knife-pared Herodian lamps made only in Jerusalem prior to AD 70. These finds have added to the mounting evidence that at the site of el-A‘raj a Jewish village was transformed into a city in the Roman period, precisely as it is reported in the New Testament and early Jewish sources.
During the 2019 season, we finally uncovered the walls of the Byzantine church and its decorated floor mosaics. During the final week, we began to transition from the southern aisle of the basilica into the central nave. The change in the mosaic design was stark. The floor of the aisle was decorated with a two-colored geometric pattern, while the mosaics marking the border of the nave present the well-known multicolored braid design seen in other Byzantine churches.
Figure 7: Mosaic design in the southern aisle of the Byzantine Church of the Apostles. Photo courtesy of Zachary Wong.
Figure 8: The multicolored three-strand band mosaic on the edge of the nave of the Byzantine Church of the Apostles. Photo courtesy of Zachary Wong.
By itself the church should not be considered evidence for the location of first-century Bethsaida. Examples of Byzantine misidentification are not uncommon. However, coupled with the extensive and increasing archaeological evidence from the earlier Roman period, the church takes on added significance. Memories are long in the East, and it seems the Christian community had not forgotten the location for the hometown of the apostles when they reestablished a Christian presence at the site of el-A‘raj in the fifth century AD.
Like other archaeological excavations in Israel, our work was thwarted last year by the travel restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. This summer we resumed our excavations and intend to fully uncover the Byzantine church this autumn.
Figure 9: 2019 excavation team outlining the Byzantine Church of the Apostles with the apse in the distance and six individuals standing in the locations of the pillar bases. Photo courtesy of Zachary Wong.
Figure 10: Internal wall of the Byzantine church with a door threshold (bottom). Photo courtesy of Zachary Wong.
Our hope is to bring to light for the first time in a thousand years the Church of the Apostles’ ornate mosaics and dedicatory inscription. We also continue to excavate first-century homes in the outlying areas. These confirm the electromagnetic imagining survey of the area in 2019, which indicated numerous houses, walls, and streets lay under the surface waiting to be excavated.
Figure 11: 2020 aerial photograph of Area A with the southern, western, and northern walls of the Byzantine Church of the Apostles together with the inundated squares of previous seasons with Roman period remains. Photo courtesy of Achia Kohn-Tavor.
Why should those interested in the Bible care about the archaeological efforts at el-A‘raj and the search for first-century Bethsaida? It is worth repeating that this is the last, lost city of the Gospels. The setting for biblical stories can sometimes influence how we read them. Not in the sense of proving or disproving what is written, but in providing a greater understanding of the world in which sacred history unfolds. Bethsaida is the third most frequently mentioned city in the Gospels, home to at least three of Jesus’s disciples — Andrew, Peter, and Philip (John 1:44) — and a location for his ministry (Mark 8:22). Jesus repeatedly traveled there by boat (Luke 9:10), and, according to Luke, the countryside near Bethsaida was the location for the feeding of the multitudes (Luke 9:12–17). In other words, Bethsaida was not an insignificant location in the life of Jesus. The more we can discover about this city, the better we can understand its place in the Gospel story. Hopefully, in the coming seasons, we can gain new insights into this fascinating town and how it served as a crossroads for Jewish and Christian history.