Could a 1,500-year-old mosaic inscription at the El-Araj site in northern Israel be the ‘smoking gun’ archaeologists are looking for to determine the true location of biblical Bethsaida? According to a team of US researchers, yes. The mosaic, discovered during the excavations of a Byzantine basilica, refers to the donor “Constantine, servant of Christ” and continues with a petition to St. Peter “head and commander of the heavenly apostles”. This mosaic joins a long list of other finds from the site, which according to the team provides definitive proof that the site is indeed the city of Bethsaida, mentioned in the Gospels, north of Lake Tiberias, the birthplace of the apostles Peter. Andrew and Philip, among the first followers of Jesus.
Digging a few meters from the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the team of archaeologists in El-Araj, reports the online newsletter of the Biblical Archeology Society, made an incredible discovery: a round mosaic medallion with a Greek inscription on two lines . It is certainly not the first mosaic inscription that the team, led by professors Mordechai Aviam and Steven Notley, has discovered in the Byzantine basilica. However, it may be the most important. The inscription is part of a larger mosaic floor in the sacristy of the church (a room for the preparation of the religious service), partly decorated with floral motifs. According to Notley, “this discovery is our strongest indicator that Peter had a special association with the basilica, which was probably dedicated to him.” Because the Byzantine Christian tradition usually identified Peter’s house in Bethsaida, and not in Capernaum as is often thought today. This identification is supported by many Byzantine travel journals, including the 8th-century writing of Willibald, Bishop of Eichstätt, who stopped in Bethsaida to visit the Church of the Apostles, built over the 1st-century house of St Peter.
But does an inscription prove that the site is Bethsaida? At the very least, it proves that Byzantine Christians believed it was. “In fact, it’s a ‘smoking gun’. Now we can say with certainty that this is the church Willibald visited, and for him it is Bethsaida, so it is for us too, ”Aviam said. Likewise, in previous interviews, Notley had stated: “There are no other churches in the vicinity mentioned by Byzantine visitors to the Holy Land, and there is no reason to doubt that this is the Church of the Apostles.” While the nearby site of Et-Tell is also claimed to be the site of biblical Bethsaida, the team excavating at El-Araj believe that the discovery of the Byzantine basilica and associated artifacts pushes the balance of evidence firmly in their direction. .
The archaeological team and the translators of the inscription, Leah Di Segni and Yaakov Ashkenazi, will shortly publish a scientific article on the mosaic. Meanwhile, the mosaic will continue to be studied and conservation work will be carried out. Bethsaida is mentioned several times in the New Testament. According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus performed the miracle of healing a blind man. According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus performed the miracle of multiplying the loaves and fishes by five thousand men nearby. In another passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus reproaches Bethsaida for not being converted despite her having witnessed numerous miracles.