Does this Mosaic Prove Site is the Fabled Church of the Apostles?
Archaeologists from Israel and the United States claim they have unearthed the ruins of the long-lost Church of the Apostles . This famed religious building was said to have been built sometime in the fifth or sixth century AD in the ancient fishing village of Bethsaida in Palestine, on top of the foundation of the former home of Jesus’ apostles Peter and Andrew .
Until now, neither the village nor the church had ever been confirmed found. But archaeologists affiliated with the El-Araj Excavation Project , who’ve been digging for years at a site near the confluence of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee , are convinced the search for both is over.
During the most recent excavations at El-Araj, the archaeologists were delighted to unearth a beautiful and well-preserved red, yellow, and orange mosaic floor, made in the Byzantine style . It was estimated to be approximately 1,500 years old, and it was inscribed with a pair of messages written in ancient Greek .
"We identified a large apse in the east and uncovered two inscriptions,” the archaeologists explained, in a press release issued by the New York-based Center for the Study of Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins. “While the smaller one mentions a deacon and a building project, the larger inscription is a half medallion and speaks of the bishop and reconstruction of the building."
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Half medallion mosaic inscription at el-Araj. (Achia Kohn-Tavor / CSAJCO)
All of this is proof positive that the building was a Christian church, and that it was built during the period when the lands of ancient Palestine were under Byzantine (Eastern Roman Empire) authority. While the inscriptions don’t offer any historical facts about the church, the archaeologists are virtually certain they’ve found the long-lost Church of the Apostles, based on a multi-year accumulation of circumstantial evidence.
Is El-Araj Really Bethsaida? Laying Out the Evidence
The most recent excavations at El-Araj were led by Mordechai Aviam from Israel’s Kinneret Academic College, and Steven Notley from Nyack College in New York City. These two archaeologists have been leading the El-Araj Excavation Project since 2016, and during the past several years have uncovered an impressive collection of ruins and artifacts that show the site was once home to a thriving Roman village.
Nothing in the ruins specifically identified the village as the biblical Bethsaida, which was renamed Julias by its Roman conquerors. But the first century Roman historian Flavius Josephus once visited the village, and his description of its characteristics and location support the assertion that El-Araj and Bethsaida are one and the same, the El-Araj Excavation Project archaeologists claim.
It was in 2019 that Aviam and Notley first uncovered the remains of the building they came to suspect was the legendary Church of the Apostles . That church was said to have been built in approximately the sixth century AD, and the ruins seemed to possess characteristics consistent with such a construction date.
“The plan is of a church, the dates are Byzantine, the mosaic floors are typical... chancel screens, everything that is typical of a church,” Aviam told the global news agency AFP in 2019.
The site in March 2020. ( R. Steven Notley )
The Church of the Apostles was only mentioned once in historical literature. That was by Saint Willibald, a Bavarian bishop from Eichstaett who traveled through the area in the year 725 while on pilgrimage.
Willibald wrote that a church had been built at Bethsaida, on a site that was identified as the historical home of the apostles Peter and Andrew. These two, along with the apostle Philip, were all from Bethsaida, according to the Gospel of John. Jesus was said to have performed miracles at Bethsaida , which further enhanced its reputation as a spiritual mecca in biblical times.
As for the location of the village, Willibald said it could be found between the Palestinian settlements of Capernaum and Kursi, which were separated by just 11 miles (18 kilometers)—and that is precisely where the El-Araj site was discovered.
“Between Capernaum and Kursi there is only one place where a church is described by the visitor in the eighth century and we discovered it, so this is the one,” Aviam asserted confidently in 2019.
It is believed the church was destroyed by an earthquake in the year 749. It may have been intentionally buried after that, making its discovery an enormously challenging task for archaeologists eager to prove it really did exist.
A Contentious Issue Resolved? Not Likely
Aviam and his colleagues were already convinced back in 2019 that they’d found the fabled Church of the Apostles, based primarily on the location where the ruins were unearthed. They are certain the written records they uncovered in 2021 add more weight to that conclusion.
Others, however, may disagree. In fact, they are almost certain to.
There has long been a dispute in the Biblical archaeology community about the true location of Bethsaida. Avium and Notley have long argued in favor of El-Araj as the most likely site, because of its Roman heritage and location right next to the Sea of Galilee (Bethsaida was an ancient fishing village, after all). But another faction has argued in favor of a different site , which is in the Golan Heights and is also reasonably close to the mouth of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee.
This site is known Et-Tell, and past excavations there have found clear signs of ancient occupation. The artifacts discovered have included fishing equipment, as would be expected if the buried ruins had once been a fishing village.
This theory has been popular, but it faces one major problem. Et-Tell is located about 1.2 miles (or two kilometers) from the Sea of Galilee, which would seem to be too far away for it to have been an actual fishing village.
But advocates have developed theories to explain this inconvenient fact. Some say earthquakes caused significant geographical changes in the region, lifting the village up and carrying it back away from the sea. Others believe residents in the region relied heavily on the Sea of Galilee for water resources, primarily for irrigation, and as the population grew over time the water line gradually receded. Another theory is that sedimentation flowing down the Jordan River caused a dramatic expansion in the size of its delta, creating new land where once there had been only water.
It seems unlikely that those who support the Et-Tell hypothesis will give up easily. As of right now, however, El-Araj supporters have definitely gained the upper hand, since they’re the ones who have actually found the remains of what could be the famous Church of the Apostles, the village of Bethsaida’s most sought-after ancient structure.
Top image: Mosaic Source: Achia Kohn-Tavor / CSAJCO
By Nathan Falde