Archaeologists Believe They Have Found the Church of the Apostles

Aerial view of the excavation site at el-Araj. (Zachary Wong)

A team of Israeli and American archaeologists claim to have discovered The Church of the Apostles, near Israel’s Sea of Galilee. The church is said to have been built over the house of Jesus’ disciples Peter and Andrew, in the ancient Jewish fishing village of Bethsaida, which later became the Roman city of Julias.

The el-Araj site, in Beit Habek near the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, has been excavated by experts from the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology at Kinneret College in Israel and Nyack College in New York.

Excavation of the el-Araj site on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. (Zachary Wong)

Lead archaeologist Professor Steven Notley of Nyack College told Fox News that they had found evidence of the church’s existence, including pieces of marble from its chancel screen, and small gilded glass blocks called tesserae which were used in ornate mosaics on the church wall.

“These discoveries already informed us that the church was waiting to be found somewhere nearby,” the archaeologist explained, via email.

The archaeological team followed the clues piece by piece, eventually uncovering the church’s mosaic floors. “It is always remarkable to bring these beautifully-decorated floors to light after being buried for almost 1500 years,” Notley said.

The church’s discovery is important for at least two reasons, the professor explained. “First, until its recent discovery, many scholars questioned its existence. Although it is mentioned in Byzantine pilgrimage itineraries, many thought these reports mistaken,” he said.

“Of equal importance, the church indicates that there existed a living memory in the Christian community about the location of Bethsaida, home of Peter, Andrew and Philip (according to the Bible’s Book of John 1:44),” he added.

The beautifully-patterned mosaic floor of the Byzantine church at el-Araj. (Zachary Wong)

The Byzantine church had been mentioned in early Christian pilgrimage itenaries, notably those of the Bavarian bishop (and saint) Willibald in 725 AD. “[Willibald] states that the church was in Bethsaida built over the house of Peter and Andrew, among the first disciples of Jesus,” Notley related to Fox News.

According to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who wrote his works during the first century AD, the Roman city of Julias was once the Jewish fishing village of Bethsaida. It is mentioned in the New Testament that Bethsaida was the home of Jesus’ apostles Peter, Andrew and Philip.

Jesus also healed a blind man at Bethsaida, according to the Gospel of Mark, 8:22-26.

For approximately two centuries, during the fourth and fifth centuries AD., the site appears to have been unoccupied. However, according to Notley, the local Christian community amazingly still remembered the location of the New Testament-era village.

“The discovery of the church strengthens our position that el-Araj should be considered the leading candidate for New Testament Bethsaida-Julias,” the archeologist stated.

A Roman bathhouse was discovered at el-Araj in 2017, which provided a significant look into the ancient urbanization of the area, and a site over 100 yards from the main excavation site was selected by Motti Aviam of Kinneret College for a subsequent dig. Roman-era homes and pottery were discovered from the excavation, indicating the existence of a small city.

Experts plan to entirely excavate the Byzantine church, and they are confident that the next excavation that will take place at el-Araj will uncover more of the ancient site’s secrets.

“Thus far, we have only uncovered some of the southern rooms of the church, likely the southern aisle,” Notley explained. “At the end of this season, we were just beginning to uncover the mosaics of what is likely the nave, the center section of the church.”

Electromagnetic imaging suggests that there are additional structures and buildings to be excavated at el-Araj. “At the end of next season we expect to be able to publish a preliminary report on our first five seasons and definitely answer the question of the location of New Testament Bethsaida-Julias,” Notley declared.