Biblical Sites: Is el-Araj Bethsaida?

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Has the lost village of Bethsaida finally been found?  People point to one of two main sites to proclaim that it has.  In this two-part blog series, we’re analyzing the geographical, topographical, and archaeological evidence of both sites to determine which is the best candidate for biblical Bethsaida. In our first article, we explored the claims made by the excavators at et-Tell; in this blog we’ll consider the evidence for el-Araj.

Map of Bethsaida Sites
This map shows the locations of et-Tell and el-Araj, the two leading candidate as the site of Bethsaida. Photo Credit: A.D. Riddle/BiblePlaces.com This image is part of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands – Galilee and the North – Vol. 1 – https://www.bibleplaces.com/01-galilee-and-the-north-revised/

Before we begin, let’s remind ourselves of the criteria the site of biblical Bethsaida must meet, as derived from the Gospels and other ancient writings.  For a more complete discussion of these criteria, please read the first blog.

Geography: Located on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 6:45, Matt. 11:21-24, and John 6:17).

Topography: Located near a desolate hill or mountain (Luke 9:10-17, Matt. 14:13, Mark 6:35, and John 6:3)

Archaeology: Artifacts/Structures related to fishing, evidence of a Jewish village that was transformed into a Roman polis and renamed Julias, and a Byzantine Church (Mark 8:22-23, John 1:44, Josephus, Antiquities28, and the writings of Willabald, Bishop of Bavaria in 725 AD).

The Case for el-Araj

In the 19th century, Gottlieb Schumacher, countered Edward Robinson’s claims that et-Tell was Bethsaida, by suggesting that el-Araj was a better candidate, as it was not located so far away from the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Early archaeological surveys produced conflicting reports.  In 1987, Rami Arav conducted a shovel survey and a ground-penetrating radar survey at el-Araj and declared that, “The excavations at el-Araj yielded only one stratum dating to the Byzantine period. Under that single stratum there was only sterile sand without any remains indicating human inhabitation.”2  In 1990, the Israel Antiquities Authority commissioned a surface survey of el-Araj, which found pottery and architectural elements that dated to the Late Hellenistic and Roman Periods.3  Since 2016, systematic excavations have been taking place at el-Araj under the direction of Professor Mordechai Aviam, of the Institute for Galilean Archaeology at Kinneret College, Israel, which have provided a better understanding of the site.

AreaA
The main excavation site (Area A) at el-Araj. Photo Credit: El-Araj Excavation Project

Geography

El-Araj is located on the north-eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, approximately 200 meters inland.  In the spring, due to the winter rains, the sea level rises to its maximum seasonal level so that the water table rises and seeps into some of the lower portions of excavated squares.  Mendel Nun, a fisherman and expert on the ancient shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, believed that the water level of the Sea of Galilee is one meter higher today than it was in ancient times.  Nun explained that, according to ancient sources, about 1000 years ago a second outlet for the Jordan river opened near Kibbutz Degania, and the older one silted up.  This newer outlet was smaller and was unable to handle the increases in the lake’s water level, which caused the rise.4 Thus, the ruins of el-Araj would have been slightly farther from the shore in ancient times and not as prone to flooding.

AerialSeaofGalilee
In this screen-capture from video, “Why el-Araj?” one can see the proximity of el-Araj to the Sea of Galilee. Photo Credit: HaDavar Yeshiva, El-Araj Excavation Project, http://www.elarajexcavations.com

Topography

There are numerous plains and hills in the surrounding area which could hold large numbers of people.5  Thus, the account of the feeding of the five thousand and the battles Josephus describes taking place on the plains near Bethsaida-Julias could have occurred in the area.  It should be noted that, while et-Tell would have been situated about 3 km (1.5 miles) and about 20 feet (7 m) above the level of the lake in ancient times,6 the topography of el-Araj seems to match what one would expect of a fishing village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Archaeology

NeroCoin
A coin minted by the emperor Nero dates the occupation of el-Araj to the first century AD. Photo Credit: El-Araj Excavation Project

The El-Araj Excavation Project (EAEP), which began to dig in 2016, has unearthed numerous finds which clearly demonstrate the site was occupied in the first-century AD.  Archaeologists dug beneath the Byzantine layer and initially encountered 40 cm of loose soil and silt from the Jordan River.  As they continued to excavate, they discovered a Roman layer immediately beneath the layer of silt.7  Both pottery and coins have securely dated the occupation of this level from the 1st to 3rd centuries AD.8  Significant finds included a coin minted by the Emperor Nero9 and portions of several knife-paired Herodian oil lamps.  Since these types of oil lamps were only produced in Jerusalem during the Second-Temple period, they indicate Jewish occupation at the site during the first century.10 In addition, numerous fishing weights and even a chalk limestone fishing weight mold have been unearthed.11

Lead Fishing Weights
In addition to numerous fishing weights, this fishing weight mold was also unearthed at el-Araj. Photo Credit: Zachary Wong

In 2017, the excavators at el-Araj uncovered the remains of a Roman-period bathhouse.  A Roman brick, tesserae, a partially-intact mosaic and broken clay tubules all point to the fact the site grew beyond being merely a first-century fishing village.  For Steven Notley, Academic Director of the EAEP, this is evidence of the type of urbanization that one would expect to see in a Roman polis, as one doesn’t find Roman bathhouses in Jewish villages.12  The implications of this find have had far-reaching effects.  The Roman-era mosaics from the bathhouse were discovered at -211 m (654 ft) below sea level, 3 m (9 ft) lower than the level of the Sea of Galilee in the first century was believed to be.  The EAEP concludes: “Quite literally, our geographical understanding of the Sea of Galilee in the first century CE must now be rewritten in light of this season’s results.”13

RomanBathhouseMosaic
A portion of a mosaic from a structure identified as a Roman-period bathhouse. Photo Credit: Zachary Wong

In 2019, the excavators of the EAEP announced that they had unearthed a Byzantine structure, which they identified as the Church of the Apostles, written about by the Bavarian bishop, Willibald, in 725 AD.14  Well-preserved mosaic floors, a fragment of the marble chancel screen decorated with a wreath, and many gold-gilded glass tesserae, likely from a wall mosaic, all point to the structure being a Byzantine church, say the archaeologists.15  In the structure, which faces east-west, the mosaics unearthed this past season were mostly black and white, but began to transition to more complex colored mosaics, which Notley says indicates they are transitioning from the southern rooms of the aisle into the nave of the church.16

ElArajMosaic2
Part of the mosaic floor unearthed at el-Araj in a structure the excavators identify as a Byzantine church. Photo Credit: Zachary Wong

Problems with El-Araj

Numerous objections have been raised to identifying el-Araj with biblical Bethsaida, although with each season of excavations, they appear to be falling one-by-one.

Rami Arav, the lead excavator of the rival site, et-Tell, was vocal for many years that his probes at el-Araj revealed no evidence of occupation beneath the Byzantine structures.  He wrote: “Of the various candidates for Bethsaida, only et-Tell was occupied around the time of Jesus, in the Hellenistic (332–37 B.C.E.) and early Roman (37 B.C.E.–324 C.E.) periods. This past season we conducted a ground-penetrating radar survey of the alternative site of el-Araj. Beneath the Byzantine (324–638 C.E.) level lies nothing more than beach sand.”17  The discoveries at el-Araj have clearly demonstrated that the site was occupied in the first century AD.  Arav himself now admits his fact, but suggests that the site was the camp of a group of Roman military mercenaries under King Agrippa II, which he says Josephus describes as being in the area.18  Further excavations will clarify whether this was the site of a temporary military camp or a village that had been promoted to the status of a Roman polis.

AreaC
A Roman-era dwelling unearthed in Area C, about 100 meters north of the main site, is evidence of the size of the settlement at el-Araj in the first century AD. Photo Credit: El-Araj Excavation Project

Another argument raised against el-Araj is that the site is too small to be identified as Bethsaida-Julias. The excavators of the EAEP have responded to this objection by excavating in new squares that are farther away from their initial excavation squares.  In 2018, they excavated a new area about 50 meters east of the Roman bathhouse and discovered the remains of Roman-era structures 3 meters below the surface.19  In 2019, they moved 100 meters north of the original excavation squares to what they call “Area C” and again immediately found Roman-era structures.20  They have concluded, “These findings indicate that el Araj was, in fact, a large settlement and not merely a single bathhouse on the shore of the lake as some have claimed.”21

Others have suggested that any pre-Byzantine archaeological remains at el-Araj washed down from et-Tell.  This may have been a viable theory when the only Roman-era remains were visible on the surface.  However, the discovery of a Roman bathhouse and other structures from the same era that were unearthed in-situ have put an end to this argument.  Moreover, it would seem strange that only the Roman-era remains washed down from et-Tell and none of the Iron Age remains did (there are no Iron Age remains at el-Araj).  Whatever the site was, it was clearly occupied in the first century AD.

RomanPeriodPottery
The remains of a Roman-era pottery jar unearthed at el-Araj. Photo Credit: Zachary Wong

Finally, numerous scholars have urged caution in jumping to the conclusion that the Byzantine structure is in fact the Church of the Apostles.  In the column, Bible History Daily, for the Biblical Archaeological Society, Samuel Dewitt Pfister wrote:

“Are the architectural remains uncovered at el-Araj the historical Church of the Apostles? It certainly could be; there is no competing archaeological evidence to suggest the historical church could be at another site, and indeed the location of this church appears to synchronize with Willibald’s. However, there is no incontrovertible evidence pointing to the remains uncovered at el-Araj as the Church of the Apostles and I would be skeptical of making such a claim before archaeologists can conduct further excavation of the structure.”22

The EAEP have plans to address this issue by unearthing the rest of the Byzantine structure, beginning next season.  Mordechai Aviam, the lead archaeologist of the EAEP, has excavated 20 Byzantine churches in his career, and most of them have had inscriptions, which held clues as to which biblical people or events the church was honoring.23  He is hopeful that future excavations at el-Araj will produce a similar inscription.

ByazntineChurchPerimiter
The dig team at el-Araj stand along the perimeter of the structure they identify as a Byzantine church. Photo Credit: El-Araj Excavation Project

Summary

The El-Araj Excavation Project has only four seasons of digging under their belts, but have made promising progress.  It’s clear the site was occupied at the time the Bible and Josephus describe Bethsaida being an active village.  Some of the finds also point to some sort of urbanization in the Roman period.  The excavations are still in their infancy, however, and much work is needed before a positive identification can be made that el-Araj is indeed Bethsaida-Julias.  At this point, there have been no significant finds that would contradict such an identification, and several that may point to it.  For now, it is best to conclude that el-Araj is the leading candidate as Bethsaida, the hometown of Peter, Andrew and Philip (John 1:44) and the village that Jesus actively ministered in (Matt. 11:21).

 

Title Photo Credit: Zachary Wong / El-Araj Excavation Project / http://www.elarajexcavations.com

Endnotes:

1 Mendel Nun, “Has Bethsaida Finally Been Found?” Jerusalem Perspective. July 1, 1998. https://www.jerusalemperspective.com/905/ (Accessed Aug. 29, 2019).

2 Rami Arav, “Bethsaida – A Response To Steven Notley.” Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 74, No. 2 (June 2011), 92.

3 Mendel Nun, “Has Bethsaida Finally Been Found?” Jerusalem Perspective. July 1, 1998. https://www.jerusalemperspective.com/905/ (Accessed Aug. 29, 2019).

4 Ibid.

5 Todd Bolen, “Bethsaida,” BiblePlaces.com. https://www.bibleplaces.com/bethsaida/ (Accessed Aug. 9, 2019).

6 Ibid.

7 Steven Notley.  Interview by author. Skype. North Bay. Aug. 8, 2019.

8 “Report on Season Three,” El-Araj Excavation Project. https://www.elarajexcavations.com/ (Accessed Sept. 5, 2019).

9 Steven Notley.  Interview by author. Skype. North Bay. Aug. 8, 2019.

10 “Report on Season Three,” El-Araj Excavation Project. https://www.elarajexcavations.com/ (Accessed Sept. 5, 2019).

11 “El Araj Season 4: Day Five (Week 3)” El-Araj Excavation Project. https://www.elarajexcavations.com/post/el-araj-season-4-day-five-session-2 (Accessed Sept. 5, 2019).

12 Steven Notley.  Interview by author. Skype. North Bay. Aug. 8, 2019.

13 “Report on Season Two,” El-Araj Excavation Project. https://www.elarajexcavations.com/ (Accessed Sept. 5, 2019).

14 “Report on Season Four,” El-Araj Excavation Project. https://www.elarajexcavations.com/ (Accessed Sept. 5, 2019).

15 Ibid.

16 Steven Notley.  Interview by author. Skype. North Bay. Aug. 8, 2019.

17 Rami Arav, Richard A. Freund and John F. Shroder Jr., “Bethsaida Rediscovered,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 26:1 (January/February 2000): 49.

18 “The Long Dispute on the Birth Place of Jesus’ Apostles,” YouTube video, 4:03, “
i24NEWS English,” Jul 28, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35u4p6hIvSI&t=3s.

19 “Report on Season Three,” El-Araj Excavation Project. https://www.elarajexcavations.com/ (Accessed Sept. 5, 2019).

20 Steven Notley.  Interview by author. Skype. North Bay. Aug. 8, 2019.

21 “Report on Season Three,” El-Araj Excavation Project. https://www.elarajexcavations.com/ (Accessed Sept. 5, 2019).

22 Samuel Dewitt Pfister, “Archaeologists Say They May Have Found the Church of the Apostles at el-Araj,” BiblicalArchaeology.org,  August 7, 2019. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/uncategorized/archaeologists-say-they-may-have-found-the-church-of-the-apostles-at-el-araj/ (Accessed Sept. 6, 2019).

23 “The Long Dispute on the Birth Place of Jesus’ Apostles,” YouTube video, 2:08, “
i24NEWS English,” Jul 28, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35u4p6hIvSI&t=3s.

 

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