The town of Bethsaida appears in the New Testament as a fishing village on the Sea of Galilee and the hometown of the apostles Peter, Andrew, and Philip. In the first century C.E., it became a polis (Greek city) and was renamed Julias. Over the past two millennia, the exact location of this site was lost. However, archaeologists think they have found Bethsaida once more!
Sunset over the Jordan River Delta
Where the Jordan empties into the Sea of Galilee is a marshy delta area, watered by a number of streams. This area is called El-Araj. Al-Araj was long believed to be the true location of Bethsaida Julias. But until 2016 no evidence from Jesus’s times have been found there.
The excavations began in 2016 and have unearthed numerous finds which clearly demonstrate the site was occupied in the first-century AD. Significant finds included a coin minted by the Emperor Nero and portions of several knife-paired Herodian oil lamps.
Sea of Galilee and El-Araj
The next year, 2017, archaeologists announced the discovery of a Roman bathhouse at el-Araj, which suggests that the site was a polis in the Roman period.
El Araj Excavations team
In 2019, the excavators announced that they had unearthed a Byzantine structure, which they identified as the Church of the Apostles, written about by the Bavarian bishop, Willibald, in 725 AD. Well-preserved mosaic floors, a fragment of the marble chancel screen decorated with a wreath, and many gold-gilded glass tesserae, likely from a wall mosaic, all point to the structure being a Byzantine church, say the archaeologists.
Neron Coin and the excavations site
And finally, the most sound discovery was made in August 2022. The El-Araj Excavation Project has announced the discovery of a mosaic inscription referring to Peter in a Byzantine church at the site. The recently discovered mosaic inscription begins with the phrase, “Constantinos, the servant of the Messiah,” assumed to be the donor, and references the “Head and Leader of the Heavenly Messengers,” a phrase used by Byzantine Christians to refer to the Apostle Peter.
"Peter called the Head and the Leader of the Apostles"
This might be a proof that El-Araj is the site of biblical Bethsaida, the hometown of Peter, Andrew, and Philip (John 1:44) and the village that Jesus actively ministered in (Matt. 11:21).
But is El-Araj indeed Bethsaida? Most probably yes, but we still have to wait for further discoveries which will definitely come!