One of the long-standing debates in biblical archaeology has been that of the location of Bethsaida, home of the disciples Peter and Andrew, who were brothers (Jn 1:40, 1:44), and Philip (Jn 1:44). Not only was it the hometown of three of the disciples, but Jesus healed a blind man there (Mk 8:22–26) and fed 5,000 people nearby (Lk 9:10–17). It also was one of the three cities cursed by Jesus for their failure to repent (Mt 11:20–24; Lk 10:13–15). Two sites are vying for the name, both located at the northeast end of the Sea of Galilee: et-Tell, a mile and a half from the shore, and el-Araj, just 220 yards from the shore. The name means “house of the fisherman.” There are two main requirements for identifying Bethsaida. First, of course, it must have evidence of occupation in the early first century. Both of the suggested locations meet this requirement. The second requirement is more specific. In about AD 724, “a Bavarian bishop1 named Willibald made a pilgrimage to the Sea of Galilee” (Schuster 2022a). It is stated in the record of his itinerary:
From [Tiberias] [on the west side of the sea] they went around the sea, and by the village of Magdala to the village of Capernaum. … And [from Capernaum] they went to Bethsaida, from which came Peter and Andrew. There is now a church (ecclesia), where previously was their house. They remained there one night, and the next morning went to Chorazin [probably Kursi] where our Lord healed the demoniacs, and sent the devil into a herd of swine. (As quoted in Schuster 2022a; ellipsis and first and third brackets original)
Although evidence has been found for a small first-century village at et-Tell, after 30 years of excavation no evidence for an eighth-century church has been found. This, plus the fact that it is a mile and a half from shore, rules out et-Tell as a serious contender for Bethsaida. At el-Araj, on the other hand, after six seasons of work, evidence has been accumulating that it is the correct location.
Already in the second season of excavation in 2017, evidence was found for occupation in the Roman period in the first–third centuries and in the Byzantine period in the fourth–seventh centuries. In 2018, architecture from a Byzantine church began appearing. In 2019, it was determined that the church was large and magnificent. It was dubbed “The Church of the Apostles” by the excavators. Ornate mosaic floors were found, as well as fragments of a marble chancel screen which divided the chancel, or sacred area around the altar at the eastern end of the church, from the nave, the central space where the congregation gathered. The richness of the church was evidenced by glass tesserae (small pieces that make up a mosaic) from wall mosaics that were gilded in gold. In the sixth season in 2021, the apse at the east end was excavated, resulting in overall dimensions for the church of 52 × 89 feet. Two partial mosaic Greek inscriptions also were revealed, one commemorating a deacon who funded a building project and the other a bishop who sponsored reconstruction of the church.
In the 2022 season, the team hit the jackpot. They discovered a complete mosaic Greek inscription in the sacristy, a vestry or preparation room behind or next to the altar, where vestments and liturgical accoutrements were kept. It is framed by a round medallion comprised of two parallel lines of black tesserae. The text speaks of a donor, “Constantine the servant of Christ,” not the emperor Constantine, but a church member with the same name. It continues with a petition for intercession by the “Chief and Commander of the Heavenly Apostles,” a title Byzantine Christian writers used for the apostle Peter (CSAJCO 2022). R. Steven Notley of the New York City campus of Alliance University, where he is Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins, as well as director of the graduate programs in ancient Judaism and Christian origins, academic director of the dig, had this to say concerning the significance of the inscription:
This discovery is our strongest indicator that the basilica had a special association with St. Peter, and it was likely dedicated to him. Since Byzantine Christian tradition routinely identified Peter and Andrew’s home in Bethsaida, it seems likely that the basilica commemorates their home. (Schuster 2022b)
The find was number three on the bibleplaces.com list of the top ten discoveries in biblical archaeology in 2022, number five on ABR staff member Bryan Windle’s Bible Archaeology Report list, and number six on Christianity Today’s list. On January 26 the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC hosted a presentation on “St. Peter’s Home in Bethsaida,” by Prof. Notley and Dr. Mordechai Aviam, Professor of Archaeology at the Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee, and archaeological director of the dig. A January 24 press release for the event stated,
The professors will demonstrate that there is little doubt that the newly excavated basilica at Bethsaida/el-Araj should be identified with the basilica visited by centuries of Byzantine pilgrims to commemorate the house of St. Peter in Bethsaida. (Museum of the Bible 2023)
Your servant in Christ,
1 While born in Wessex in England, Willibald was made bishop of Eichstätt in the 740s, well after his pilgrimage to Palestine.
The Center for the Study of Ancient Judaism & Christian Origins. 2022. “Press Release for Season 6: New Inscription with Petition for Intercession by Apostle Peter Discovered at the Suggested Biblical Bethsaida.” El Araj Excavation Project. August 10. https://www.elarajexcavations.com.
Govier, Gordon. 2022. “Biblical Archaeology’s Top 10 Discoveries of 2022.” Christianity Today. Special Series. December 20. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2022/december-web-only/top-10-archaeology-discovery-2022-list.html.
Museum of the Bible. 2023. “Museum of the Bible Hosts Archaeological Presentation on St. Peter’s Home in Bethsaida.” Press Release. January 24. https://www.museumofthebible.org/newsroom/museum-of-the-bible-hosts-archaeological-presentation.
Schuster, Ruth. 2022a. “Where Did Peter the Apostle, Disciple of Christ, Really Live?” Haaretz. February 27. https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/2022-02-27/ty-article/where-did-peter-the-apostle-disciple-of-christ-really-live/0000017f-f3ff-d887-a7ff-fbfff9c80000.
Schuster, Ruth. 2022b. “Archaeologists Find Entreaty to St. Peter in Early Church by Sea of Galilee.” Haaretz. August 12. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2022-08-12/ty-article-magazine/archaeologists-find-entreaty-to-st-peter-in-early-church-by-sea-of-galilee/00000182-8762-d8ab-a3b3-e77f7f870000.
Windle, Bryan. 2022. “Top Ten Discoveries in Biblical Archaeology in 2022.” Bible Archaeology Report. December 27. https://biblearchaeologyreport.com/2022/12/27/top-ten-discoveries-in-biblical-archaeology-in-2022/.