Church of the Apostles Found? Maybe, But It’s Underwater for Now
Archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority have made what they claim to be a major discovery. They believe that they have found a Byzantine-era church that was built on the site of the home of two of Jesus Christ ’s earliest disciples, Peter and Andrew. If this is true then it could help to settle a long-running dispute over the location of the biblical village of Bethsaida, later a city known as Julias. But there’s a catch – excavations have been put on hold because much of the site is currently submerged in water from the Sea of Galilee.
Finding the Byzantine-era Church
A team of Israeli and American archaeologists from the Kinneret Academic College and Nyack College, New York made the discovery near Lake Galilee in Northern Israel. In 2019 they announced that they had found what they claim are the remains of a Byzantine-era church (330-700 AD) at Beit Habel, which is also known as el-Araj.
They have been working at this site for years and in 2017, according to the I AM Nyack website, the archaeologists “uncovered evidence of the ancient city, Bethsaida-Julias”. El-Araj has been inhabited since the period of the Second Temple . According to Haaretz, the experts found “gilded glass tesserae ( mosaic tiles )”. These are from wall mosaics - one of the distinguishing characteristics of a Byzantine church .
Mosaic tiles were discovered at the unearthed Byzantine church. Shown is a mosaic of Christ from the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. (Dianelos / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
They have also found some evidence of floor mosaics , roof-tiles, and a carving in chalk with a Christian symbol . The building has a west-east axis - this and the presence of the outline of a nave indicates that it was a Christian place of worship.
A Lost Byzantine Church
The team believe that the structure is lost Church of the Apostles. According to Christian tradition, it was constructed on the home of the apostles Peter and Andrew. The ruins have not been dated but they are believed to be from the 5th century AD, some 500 years after Peter and Andrew became followers of Jesus.
Painting of Saints Peter and Andrew, the Byzantine church was discovered at the site of their home. ( Public Domain )
It appears that the site was abandoned in the 7th or 8th century after the Muslim conquest of the region. However, the ruins have not been definitively identified as the Church of the Apostles as no inscriptions have been found yet indicating that it was built to honor the two saints.
The experts believe that they found the church because of the writings of a southern German bishop from 725 AD. The prelate, who was named Willibald, stated that he saw the church while traveling from Capernaum to Kursine, near the Lake of Galilee.
The archaeologists believe that this is the only church ever found or documented in this location. This they claim means that they have discovered the church that marked the home of St. Andrew and St. Peter , the first Pope .
The Bethsaida-Julias Debate
Professor Mordechai Aviam from Kinneret Academic College and his colleague R. Steven Notley of Noyeck College, believe that the discovery of the Church of the Apostles provides further evidence that el-Araj was the location of ancient Bethsaida, which is mentioned in the New Testament . This was a small Galilean fishing village before one of the descendants of Herod the Great turned it into a city, known as Julias, in the 1st century AD.
But not everyone in the archaeological community accepts this and Haaretz reports that some believe that the nearby site of e-Tell is the location of Bethsaida, which is argued by Professor Rami Arav of the Hebrew Union College. He believes that the probable church at el-Araj was not the same as that seen by the German bishop in the 8th century AD.
This pilgrim referred to it as a basilica, but the structure uncovered by the Israeli-America, archaeologists was an eight-sided building. There are those who argue that el-Araj was nothing but a Roman legionary camp . This is rejected by Notley, who stated that it was built as “part of Hasmonean expansion into the Galilee” in the 2nd century BC and that it was transformed into a city in the 1st century AD.
Sea Levels Rose and Work is Postponed
All of this means that the next season of excavations at the site will be important. So, as you can imagine, having the possibility of being on the brink of a big find, but having to hold off is probably very frustrating for the archaeological team. But when the rains came to the region, the Sea of Galilee rose and submerged much of the site.
While some of the ruins are still visible, according to Haaretz, the focal point of the site is underwater. Aviam explains, “At the moment, the water is 80 centimeters [2 feet, 7 inches] above the mosaic of the Byzantine church, which was built 500 years after Jesus’ time.” When the site was explored in March this year and there was just a little rainwater over the mosaic, there were hopes that the excavations in July 2020 could continue. Those hopes were dashed as the water levels rose.
The Byzantine church is currently under more than two feet of water. ( R. Steven Notley )
As Aviam says, the mosaic itself is safe, but excavations will have to wait, “The lakewater rises and falls over the ages, and no damage has been caused. We conserved the mosaic floor of the church and the water standing on it won’t harm it. But even if the water level recedes by July, we won’t be able to continue excavation work because of the mud.”
Submerged Ruins Support the Belief that this was Bethsaida?
The controversy over the location of Bethsaida/Julias has arisen because it completely disappeared from history in the 3rd century AD. There are no written records of the city after a reference to it by Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, the Christian historian. It may have been abandoned because of the rising waters of the Sea of Galilee and was later reoccupied when the waters receded.
If it can be proven that the recent discovery is the Church of the Apostles, then the controversy over the location of Bethsaida-Julias could be settled. Moreover, it could also boost the number of visitors in the area. This is why Aviam suggests the inundation of the site may be a blessing in disguise, “In my opinion, the flooding now strengthens our theory that el-Araj was the site of Bethsaida.”
According to Haaretz, “The water level at the start of the 2019 rainy season was 211.8 meters below sea level. This week, the water level is 208.9 meters below sea level.” During the time period of interest (Roman and Byzantine times), Aviam says that the sea level at the site was similar to last summer – “around 211 to 215 meters below sea level.”
The site in March 2020. ( R. Steven Notley )
Since the proposed Byzantine era church is said to be located at 209 meters below sea level, it would have been on dry land. As Aviam points out , “obviously, the villagers weren’t living in the water. Their lagoon then couldn’t have reached their homes, which would have been 100 or 200 meters from the water, where their boats were.”
But, we’ll have to wait until next year to see if the archaeological team will find more support for their beliefs that this is the home to the Church of the Apostles and the lost city of Bethsaida…as long as the weather cooperates.
Top Image: The discovery of a Byzantine church by archaeologists could be the Church of the Apostles…but it’s currently underwater. Source: Nir-Shlomo Zelinger
By Ed Whelan
Hi/Dia dhuit Ed Whelan. Great to see another Shannonsider in print in such an august journal. Treise leat! Very interesting and stimulating article. Incredible that the clinching clue to rediscovering this significant site was provided by a Pilgrim in 725 AD, Bishop Willibald from Southern Germany no less. Nothing is lost or totally forgotten, merely misplaced!