Lost Church of the Apostles in Bethsaida may have been hidden on purpose

A team of American and Israeli archaeologists unearthed a large doorless wall surrounding the remains of a large basilica on the northern shore of the Kinneret.

 5th century Christian basilica in the Galilee. (photo credit: Mordechai Aviam)
5th century Christian basilica in the Galilee.
(photo credit: Mordechai Aviam)

Several centuries ago, a doorless wall might have been erected for the purpose of hiding a prominent fifth-century Christian basilica, a team of Israeli and American archaeologists have discovered. And while the reason behind the construction of the wall, as well as the identity of the builders, remain a mystery, the researchers say that now they can be sure that the basilica is to be identified as the lost Church of the Apostles at Bethsaida, as mentioned in the chronicles by Bavarian bishop Willibald who visited the area on a pilgrimage in 724 CE.

The New Testament describes Bethsaida as the birthplace of three of Jesus’ Apostles – Peter, Andrew and Philip – on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. According to the Gospels, Jesus performed some of his miracles there.

“On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida. When the crowds found out about it, they followed him, and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured,” reads a passage in the Gospel of Luke.

For over a century, researchers have offered several suggestions of archaeological sites that could be identified as the lost town, including a hill known as a-Tel in the Jordan Park excavated by Prof. Rami Arav from the University of Omaha, Nebraska.

However, another team of archaeologists from the Kinneret Institute for Galilee Archeology at Kinneret College, and Nyack College, New York, led by Prof. Mordechai Aviam and Prof. Steven Notley, have been exploring the area known as Beit HaBek (al-Araj) on the northern shore of the Kinneret, based on Willibald’s description.

5th century Christian basilica in the Galilee. (credit: Mordechai Aviam)5th century Christian basilica in the Galilee. (credit: Mordechai Aviam)

“And thence they went to Bethsaida, the residence of Peter and Andrew, where there is now a church on the site of their house,” the bishop wrote as he was traveling along the shores of the Kinneret. “They remained there that night, and the next morning went to Chorazin, where our Lord healed the demoniacs, and sent the devil into a herd of swine.”

A few decades later, a major earthquake hit the region and the Muslim ruling dynasty changed. In the period that followed, many Christian sites, and the memory of their exact location, were lost.

“At the end of the 19th century, al-Araj was already known as a strong candidate for Bethsaida,” Aviam said. “Five years ago, we decided to check the site properly and we started to excavate it. Soon we discovered the Roman layer dating back to the time of Jesus, unearthing houses, pottery, coins and so on. Since the beginning, some finds suggested us that there must be a church somewhere, such as pieces of mosaics.”

AVIAM STRESSED that in consideration of the 8th century chronicle they were familiar with, it was important for them to locate the church.

“We wanted to prove the story,” he noted, adding that because al-Araj is on the shores of the lake, while a-Tel is some two kilometers away, they thought it was a more convincing site for the New Testament settlement.

Indeed, a large basilica was uncovered, about 27x16 meters.

“We found mosaics, two inscriptions, the apses, all dating back to the Byzantine period,” Aviam said. “The church was built at the end of the fifth or beginning of the sixth century and probably remained in use until the eighth century.”

During the latest season of excavations – which ended last week – the archaeologists unearthed what they presumed to be the outer walls of the church. However, they were surprised to determine that although the walls survived to a height of about one meter, not a single entrance was uncovered.

“There are only two explanations for this structure,” Aviam said. “It is possible that the wall belonged to a later structure built on the same frame of the church. We know that during the Crusaders period in the 13th century a sugar factory operated at the site. Maybe the wall was connected to it.”

The second suggestion however opens up even further mysteries.

“It could be that someone decided to build a wall around the remains of this important church to commemorate it or maybe bury it,” Aviam noted.

According to the archaeologist, after the earthquake destroyed the church and since no Christian community was living in its proximity or visiting it, it is possible that someone wanted to protect the remains of the building.

Next year, the archaeologists intend to excavate around the church to reach the foundation, which will likely allow them to date the wall. And possibly the answer to some of its mysteries.