The "lost home of Jesus' apostles" has just been found, according to a recent Israeli newspaper report. Yet while the actual discovery is not nearly as sensational as many headlines suggest, the new results are adding very interesting fuel to an ongoing debate about the location of one of the most important cities in the New Testament. Here's what we know so far:
Has a house associated with Jesus' apostles really been discovered?
No, says a historical geographer with the excavation at el-Araj, a site on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee in the Jordan River delta.
"We did not write the headline," explains Steven Notley, distinguished professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Nyack College and academic director of the el-Araj excavations in an email to National Geographic.
Rather, researchers excavating at the site since 2016 believe they have zeroed in on the city described in the New Testament as the home of the apostles Peter, Andrew, and Philip: Bethsaida.
According to the Gospels, Bethsaida was the home of the earliest apostles, as well as the place where Jesus reportedly cured a blind man.
While the location of Capernaum, another Galilean fishing village frequently mentioned in the Gospels, was identified in the early 20th century, the location of Bethsaida has remained contested.
So what was actually discovered that's so important?
Archaeologists say they have discovered a Roman-era (first- to third-century A.D.) bathhouse at el-Araj, which may be evidence for a significant urban settlement at the site—most likely ancient Bethsaida.
The edges of a fine Roman-era mosaic appear to belong to an urban bathhouse.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ZACHARY WONG
Writing at the end of the first century, the Jewish historian Josephus described how the small fishing village of Bethsaida became a Greco-Roman city, or polis, during the reign of Philip the Tetrarch in A.D. 30. Philip, the son of Herod the Great, renamed the city Julias in honour of the mother of Roman emperor Tiberius and was buried there after his death.
But isn't there already a site called Bethsaida in the area?
Yes. Since 1839, the nearby site of e-Tell has been identified as a possible location for ancient Bethsaida/Julias. The Bethsaida Excavations Project has been excavating e-Tell since 1987 and uncovered major Iron-Age (ninth-century B.C.) fortifications there, as well as several Hellenistic (second-century B.C.) and Roman-period houses with fishing equipment—including iron anchors and fishing hooks—and the remains of what may be a Roman temple.
Related: First look inside Christ's burial place in centuries
However, many archaeologists have questioned the identification of e-Tell with the Bethsaida of the New Testament, arguing that the site is too far away (1.5 miles) from the shoreline to have been a fishing centre. In addition, some believe that the Roman remains found there during three decades of excavation are too insignificant to belong to a large, important city of the time.
"While the Iron Age remains at Bethsaida are monumental and impressive, the Roman period remains are very poor, and therefore the site does not look like an urban centre," says Jodi Magness, archaeologist and National Geographic grantee.
Meanwhile, Rami Arav, director of the Bethsaida Excavations Project at e-Tell, tells National Geographic that there is not enough evidence to identify el-Araj with the ancient city, noting in an email that there is no evidence yet at the site for an earlier Jewish fishing village.
The remains of a Roman-era clay vessel, foreground, found at el-Araj
PHOTOGRAPH BY ZACHARY WONG
So why are we seeing headlines about the "House of the Apostles"?
Along with the remains of a Roman-period bathhouse—including a mosaic floor, roof tiles, and vents—at el-Araj, archaeologists also uncovered later evidence for fifth-century walls and gilded-glass mosaics, which suggest the existence of a significant church there during the later Byzantine period. Such mosaics would only appear in "ornate, important churches," Notley observes.
He thinks this may be the church described in an eighth-century account of Willibald, the Bavarian bishop of Eichstätt, who travelled in the region around 725 and reported that a church at Bethsaida had been built over the house of the apostle Peter and his brother Andrew.
The excavators at el-Araj wonder if they have happened upon a situation similar to that at nearby Capernaum, where a Byzantine church was built over a site also traditionally associated with the apostle Peter. In 1968, archaeologists discovered evidence beneath the Byzantine church for a Roman-era home that had already evolved into a communal centre of veneration by the end of the first century.
By the end of the 2017 excavation season, the el-Araj team had hit early Roman levels at the site.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDY CHUNG
Notley cautions that only a very small area of el-Araj has been excavated so far, and future dig seasons will reveal more about the history of the site and its possible identification with ancient Bethsaida, biblical home of the apostles.
Still, the team has concluded this year's excavation season on an upbeat note.
"[What Willibard's account] tells us is that in the Byzantine period we have living memory of the site of Bethsaida and identifies it with the Gospel tradition," says Notley. "Only time will tell if (1) our site has the Byzantine church, and (2) it is correctly situated on the site of first-century Bethsaida."
"At present," he adds, "I think our prospects of an affirmative answer on these two points is very, very good."
Header Image: An aerial view of the excavations at el-Araj, possibly the ancient city of Bethsaida/Julias and home to three of Jesus' apostles. PHOTOGRAPH BY ZACHARY WONG