During the excavation of a fifth-sixth century Byzantine basilica at the archaeological site of el Araj, located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in Israel, the team discovered a large Greek mosaic which seems to support the theory according to which the church was built on the house of Saints Peter and Andrew.
Steven Notley, the academic director of the excavations at what is called the “Church of the Apostles,” is a professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Nyack University (New York City). He told CNA that the mosaic in the basilica is “the most definitive archaeological link [we have] with [Saint] Peter.”
The mosaic bears an inscription asking for the intercession of St. Peter, designated as “the head and commander of the heavenly apostles.” Byzantine Christian authors commonly referred to the apostle Peter by this title.
The inscription also mentions a donor named Constantine, “a servant of Christ,” and is framed in a round medallion with two strands of black tesserae, or pieces of glass mosaic, which form part of a larger mosaic on the floor of the sacristy of the basilica.
The mosaic is over 1,500 years old and, according to Dr. Notley, is irrefutable proof that the site of el Araj is the lost city of Bethsaida, which he calls “the last lost city of the Gospels.” The mosaic sits above archaeological remains from the Roman period, in a church directly associated with the apostle.
“This strengthens our argument that it should be considered the leading candidate for first-century Bethsaida,” added Notley, who believes the site went largely undetected due to flooding at the end of the Roman period, in the 3rd century.
After “digging through history” and finding several remains from the Crusader and Byzantine periods, the team came across 20 inches of pure silt left over from the Jordan River flood in the late 3rd century. “Then we reached the Roman level,” Notley recalls, after the team found fine gold-gilded glass mosaic pieces that are only found in a church.
Notley cross-checked the location of the church with the account of the 8th-century Bavarian bishop, Willibald. In 725, the latter visited holy places on the Sea of Galilee and described a basilica where he spent the night, as being the house of St. Peter at Bethsaida, where the site of el-Araj is located. The location also matches the description of Bethsaida made by Josephus Flavius in A.D. 30.
The next excavations will take place in October. The team will finish cleaning the church and hope to uncover more inscriptions.