Press "Enter" to skip to content

Searching for the Bethsaida of the Bible

Ask Dr. Lyons about anything related to archeology, and you’ll see him eagerly tell you all he knows about that subject. The ORU Associate Professor for the College of Theology and Ministry will tell you about the lost city of Bethsaida where the apostles Peter, Andrew and Philip were rumored to have lived and how he has been there helping discover it with his own hands.

The Biblical Archaeology Review published a piece about the uncovering of Bethsaida in the archaeological site of El-Araj. Steven Notley, the author and co-director of the El-Araj Excavation Project, is an ORU graduate and is now a professor of Biblical Studies in Nyack, New York. 

The Biblical Archaeology Review

This city of Bethsaida-Julias is first mentioned in the New Testament with Capernaum, Chorazin and Nazareth’s sites.

Matthew 11:21 says, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” 

Mark 8:22 mentions, “They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him.” The article states that these towns were likely founded as part of an increased north settlement during the Hasmonean Dynasty (B.C.E. 142–76).

“The archaeological site of El-Araj is the best candidate for the biblical town of Bethsaida,” says the authors of The Biblical Archaeology Review about this uncovering. “Still today, a number of locations known from ancient sources elude our identification; Bethsaida-Julias is one of them.” 

The people of the archeological site are hoping to get confirmation that it was situated on a site on the edge of the Bethsaida Valley, 1.5 miles from the current lakeshore, Et-Tell.

“Historical witnesses to Bethsaida-Julias provide ample details regarding the general location of its settlement, a description of its nature, and the early history of its development,” stated the authors.

El-Araj excavators also found and identified the Byzantine church, adding to their evidence that shows their site is the ancient Bethsaida-Julias. Though the authors believe the church should not be considered evidence for being the location of Bethsaida, they still believe it takes on “increased importance.”

“It has a southern aisle with a colored mosaic floor, decorated with a geometric design and stretching to a length of 50 feet. In the final days of the season, we excavated the edge of a colorful mosaic frame from the floor of the central nave. The three-stranded braid design in the mosaic resembles those found in other Byzantine churches,” the report reads.

The archeological teams also recently found fragments of stone, which were considered and used as chalk and shards of oil lamps—both of these were used commonly in the Jewish community in the first century.

These recent discoveries of mosaic fragments, a Roman-style bathhouse found and a silver coin from about 65 C.E. with Roman emperor Nero on it are all evidence El-Araj is the ancient site of Bethsaida, according to Samuel DeWitt Pfister.

Next year, the archeological site hopes to excavate the church entirely. Though no one has declared the search for Bethsaida-Julias to be over, the amount of evidence has made El-Araj the leading candidate for Bethsaida-Julias, “the lost city of the apostles.” 

Dr. Lyons and ORU

In 2019, Dr. Lyons, his wife Trish and ORU students Chris Clemons, Ashley Mlacker and Abbie Crick—who all got field credit experience for their archeology class—packed their bags and took a three week trip to El-Araj in Israel, located east of the Sea of Galilee. The El-Araj Excavation Project was launched in 2016 and has seen significant progress since. 

Chris Clemmons, one of the ORU archaeology students on the dig, was the one who found the first mosaic tile of the Byzantine church.

“He was down on hands and knees multiple feet below the surface and when he scratched with his trowel and revealed the first mosaic tile,” Dr. Lyons bragged proudly about his former student. “And now Chris is currently at Hebrew University. What a resume builder!”

“It was certainly, for all the students, a life changing experience. It’s one thing to go to Israel and go around as a tourist but it’s another thing entirely to go get your hands in the soil; and to work and to sweat and then you go and take a shower and relax in the afternoon,” stated Dr. Lyons. “Then do something cool in the evening such as listening to world class scholars or go on little field trips. There was more than once when we would take the afternoon off and go out to different places around Israel and toured from the perspective of archeology and biblical history.” 

“The students loved it. It is hard work, it’s really hard work, you’re on the dig before the sun comes up and you work until the heat of the afternoon and then you stop when your totally covered with dirt and sweat,” said Dr. Lyons. “But you really feel like you’re in Israel because you are hearing Hebrew and Arabic and all these different languages.”

Continuing the Search for Bethsaida

Next year, the archeological site hopes to excavate the church entirely. Though no one has declared the search for Bethsaida-Julias to be over, the amount of evidence has made El-Araj the leading candidate for Bethsaida-Julias, “the lost city of the apostles.”