Archaeologists excavating an ancient church in Israel say they have found evidence supporting the theory that the archaeological site at el-Araj, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, marks the birthplace of St. Peter, Jesus’ most important disciple and, according to Catholic tradition, the first bishop of Rome, The Times writes.
In John’s Gospel, the birthplace of Simon Peter, his brother Andrew and a third apostle, Philip, is associated with Bethsaida. Luke’s Gospel is about a place near Bethsaida where Jesus performed the miracle of feeding 5,000 people, also known as the “miracle of the five loaves and two fish.”
An inscription with a prayer for St. Peter was found in the archaeological site of el-Araj, supporting the theory that the biblical village of Bethsaida is located here and that the basilica discovered there is the Church of the Apostles, a revelation that is sure to boost tourism in the Sea of Galilee region among Christians, according to Haaretz.
The mosaic was covered in mud, as were the inscriptions that had been buried in el-Araj for more than 1,500 years. Cleaning them up under the hot summer sun at the archaeological site near the Ottoman villa Beit HaBek was the highlight of the summer for archaeologists Mordechai Aviam and R. Steven Notley. Located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, El-Araj is not the only place where Bethsaida was found and where the Roman Polis Julias later stood.
In the New Testament, it is not entirely clear where the apostles Peter and his brother Andrew came from, but there is evidence that Bethsaida is their home, rather than the fishing village of Capernaum, researchers say.
Among the most important discoveries archaeologists have made at el-Araj are the ruins of the Roman settlement, the houses of the Jewish village and those of a 5th-century Byzantine basilica.
For several years after the discovery of the ancient church in el-Araj, archaeologists hoped to find an inscription with a dedication typical of Byzantine churches. Now they have found it. The inscription begins with the words, “Constantine, servant of Christ.”
The dedication refers to the founder of the church according to the Byzantine mosaic tradition. It is not a reference to Constantine, the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity, archaeologists explain.
According to Leah Di Segni of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Jacob Ashkenazi of Kinnaret University, the inscription continues with a request for prayer to the “Supreme and Commander of the Holy Apostles.”
Why Bethsaida was forgotten for more than 1,500 years
Simon Peter was the first to declare that Jesus was the Messiah, and therefore, according to tradition, is considered the most important of the apostles. His importance is evident in the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome over his tomb.
During the excavation season this fall, archaeologists hope to find the inscription dedicated to St. Andrew. Since he also lived in Bethsaida, the church is likely dedicated to both brothers.
The inscription with the dedication and the prayer for St. Peter are part of the mosaic on the floor of the sacristy of the old church. Does this end the debate about the location of Bethsaida and the Church of the Apostles? “I would say yes, in both cases,” Notley said. “I think the evidence clearly shows that the site we are excavating represents what St. Willibald refers to [in the 8th century] as the church that was built over the house of Sts. Peter and Andrew.”
One of the reasons the site of Bethsaida remained unknown for so long is its proximity to the Sea of Galilee, an inland lake whose water flow fluctuates.
In 2020, for example, the archaeological site sank into the lake’s waters after heavy rains. The name of the settlement remained in Christian and Jewish history books until the end of the 3rd century, when it suddenly disappeared. Research has shown that the waters of the lake rose at that time and Bethsaida was probably flooded and buried in the mud along with other settlements around the lake.