The Gospel of John identifies the fishing village of Bethsaida as the birthplace of Saint Peter, Saint Andrew, and Saint Philip, plus being the site of two miracles. A new discovery may help settle the question of Bethsaida’s location, and even mark the house where brothers Peter and Andrew were born.
Recent digging at the El-Araj site revealed a basilica thought to date to the Byzantine period with a Greek inscription referencing the “chief and commander of the heavenly apostles”. The phrase is associated with St Peter, who the gospels say was chosen by Jesus to be the first leader of his church.
A team led by Kinneret College’s Professor Mordechai Aviam and Professor Steven Notley of Nyack College consider this evidence that the site marked the birthplace of Peter, and therefore also his brother.
The leap from a reference dating to 500 years after Peter was born to establishing the location of his birth is a large one, but the finders say it fits into a pattern of other evidence. “This discovery is our strongest indicator that Peter had a special association with the basilica, and it was likely dedicated to him,” said Notley in a statement.
There are churches dedicated to Saint Peter across much of the world, but El-Araj is a leading candidate for ancient Bethsaida. Although John refers to Bethsaida as a city, by modern standards it would almost certainly have been a small village. The fact all three apostles from there are identified as Galilee fishermen narrows the possibilities down to the shores of the Sea of Galilee or the River Jordan. El-Araj, near the Sea’s northern edge, is one of three sites under consideration, each of which with fierce supporters among historians.
Looking for a single house from 2,000 years ago would be like the proverbial seeking of a needle in a haystack. However, there may be more to go on. In the year 724 CE, Bishop Willibald visited Galilee on pilgrimage and wrote; "And thence they went to Bethsaida, the residence of Peter and Andrew, where there is now a church on the site of their house."
This is the church Notley and Aviam think they have found, with the inscription bolstering the link to Peter. The team hopes that further digging will find a matching inscription associating it with Saint Andrew.
Even if the site being excavated is the one Willibald was referring to, however, that doesn’t mean the apostles’ home has been discovered. Medieval Europe was awash with relics supposedly connected to various saints or Jesus himself, very few of which would have likely survived rigorous examination. The fact that Willibald, over 600 years too late to ask Peter directly, assumed the church builders had the right spot doesn’t mean they did. The basilica itself is thought to date to around 500 CE, so its builders may have been guessing as much as we are.
However, the dig has at least established that the location was occupied in the 1st century as a surprisingly large village, even if there is no big “welcome to Bethsaida” sign in Aramaic or Latin to be seen.
Archaeological digs are a slow process, and the most recent discovery follows on from the finding of what appear to be the walls of the church last year. There was something odd, however: the church walls are still intact to the height of a meter, and yet have no space for a door or other entry point. Perhaps the builders had confused St. Peter with St. Nicholas and expected entry via the chimney.