One frustrating aspect of archaeology is that it takes time: no matter how large the team, you can’t descend on a promising tel and uncover all of its secrets in one season — or even in twenty. Archaeology is a meticulous business that requires careful digging and constant documentation.
The field work for most digs takes place for only a few weeks each summer. Sometimes we begin to uncover an interesting pot or installation near the end of a season, and it’s tempting to dig it out quickly, but we have to be disciplined enough to cover it back up and wait until next year.
We also have to be tentative about interpreting what we find, but writers in search of an attention-grabbing headline often get ahead of themselves. This summer, for example, a team from Israel’s Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology began uncovering a small part of a previously unexcavated site (called el-Araj) near the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, a few miles northeast of Capernaum.
The team worked through remains from the Byzantine period, which included evidence of walls and some pieces of gilded glass that may have been used in a mosaic, suggesting the presence of a fifth-century church. Two meters further down, they discovered evidence of Roman occupation from the first to third centuries, C.E., including roof tiles, vents, and a mosaic floor typical of Roman bath houses — a clear indication that it was once an urban area.
Comparing this to sketchy (and not always reliable) historical records, the excavators proposed that they may have found the site of ancient Bethsaida, because the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus wrote that Philip the Tetrarch, the son of Herod the Great, turned the Jewish fishing village of Bethsaida into a Roman city, or polis, in 30 C.E. Seeking to ingratiate himself to Emperor Tiberius, he renamed the place Julias in honor of Tiberius’ mother.
Around 725 C.E., a Bavarian bishop named Willibald made a pilgrimage to Israel, and later wrote that he had visited Bethsaida, where a church had been built over the home of Peter and Andrew. Excavators wondered if the evidence of a fifth century church they discovered could be the same church Willibald described, and thus further evidence that el-Araj is indeed the site of Bethsaida.
It didn’t take long for the archaeologists’ speculation to turn into overblown headlines: “The Lost City of Jesus’ Apostles Has Just Been Found, Archaeologists Say” (Haarezt, Aug. 8), “New Evidence of Lost City of Julias Unearthed Near Sea of Galilee” (The Jerusalem Post, Aug. 6), “Archaeologists May Have Found Apostle Peter’s Hometown” (Baptist Press, Aug. 11), among others.
Not so fast. The site may indeed be the location of ancient Bethsaida, and its location fits better than the hilltop site at et-Tell, a mile and a half north of the Sea of Galilee, that has also been proposed as Bethsaida. Likewise, though some Roman period ruins have been found at et-Tell (which was the fortified capital of Geshur a millennium before), they are not yet substantial enough to call it a polis.
Over the years, as archaeologists at el-Araj dig deeper and more widely, they may well find remnants of a first century fishing village, but but for now it’s still a matter of speculation.
And even if they do find compelling evidence that the site is what remains of Bethsaida/Julias, does that make it the home of Peter and Andrew? This is one of those places where the Bible offers a mixed message: Mark says clearly that the two disciples had a home in Capernaum (Mark 1:21-22). Luke and Matthew follow Mark’s lead (Lu. 4:31-38; Matt. 8:5-14). Visitors to Capernaum today can’t miss a modern Catholic church on massive stilts, built over the remains of a Byzantine church, which was built over a Roman-era house that appears to have become a sacred site as early as the first century, possibly thought of as the home of Peter and Andrew.
It is the gospel of John, written later than the other gospels, that throws a wrench in the works: John 1:44 says that “Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.” That provides the angle for some publications to juice their headlines by connecting the possible discovery of Bethsaida/Julias to Peter and Andrew, though the preponderance of biblical evidence has them living in Capernaum.
We have good reason to be excited about the new dig at el-Araj, which might well turn out to be the site of Bethsaida — but that’s a far cry from claiming anyone has found Peter and Andrew’s home.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.