Dig Continues to Confirm Bible's Accuracy
The Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies (CHLS) provides a regular column to AG News that offers deep and sometimes surprising insight into the Word of God through close examination of the culture of the day, biblical sites, and archaeological records. In this article, Jeremy Stein, the CHLS Content Development coordinator, shares a follow-up report concerning the findings at an archaeological dig at El-Araj — what may be the new, and biblically accurate, location of Bethsaida.
Every year a large majority of the higher biblical scholarship comes together the weekend before Thanksgiving at the annual gatherings of the Society for Biblical Literature (SBL) and American Schools for Oriental Research (ASOR) to discuss the ever-evolving map that is “true biblical understanding” and present this year’s most fascinating finds.
One such presentation at ASOR was by Dr. R. Steven Notley in the field of biblical archaeology, a field in which the Assemblies of God has recently entered in the last couple of years through its part in the excavations of El-Araj. Notley’s presentation on that site could change our understanding of the four gospels.
El-Araj sits upon the remains of multiple strata of ancient antiquity on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Since 2014, teams of archaeologists and students have uncovered what may be evidence of the ancient city, Bethsaida-Julias, home to three of Jesus’ disciples: Peter, Andrew, and Philip (John 1:44; 12:21). It was also a location for Jesus’ ministry (Mark 8:22), near the land where Luke’s gospel reports the miracle of Jesus feeding 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish (Luke 9:10-17).
The Center for Holy Lands Studies, in partnership with Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology at Kinneret College (Israel) and Nyack College (New York), and the Center for the Study of Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins, have spent the past four years excavating the site under the direction of lead archaeologist, Dr. Mordechai Aviam, and Notley, who is a world-renown biblical geographer and historian (serving as the excavation’s academic director [Nyack College]).
This year the Assemblies of God’s own duo of Dr. Mark Jenkins (Evangel University) and Jeremy Stein (Center for Holy Lands Studies) joined the archaeological team for this historical dig in unearthing the realities of Jesus' life and ministry.
Because of its importance in Christian tradition, scholars have tried to identify the site. Historical sources suggest that it was located near the Jordan river, in the large valley between Galilee and the Golan Heights. For the last 30 years, popular opinion identified Bethsaida with the site of et-Tel where archaeologists found settlement in the late Hellenistic (2nd century BC) and Roman periods (1st-2nd century CE), including two private houses. However, traces of the Greco-Roman developments reported by historical reports are lacking. Now evidence has been discovered indicating that Bethsaida-Julias was located at another site, El-Araj, in the nature reserve of the Bethsaida Valley on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
For many years the site of the excavations were believed to have been under the water level of the 1st century lake making a 1st century village impossible in the area of El-Araj, and therefore not an ideal location to think of searching for Bethsaida. However, recent excavations at the undoubtable 1st century Magdala have uncovered the town’s port, which now gives an adequate water level to the lake in which Jesus and his followers would have known.
For the first few years of the excavations, it was argued by the lead archaeologist of the Et-Tel excavations, Rami Arav, the El-Araj excavation was underwater in the 1st century and therefore impossible to be in existence during the life of Jesus. However, during a presentation by Notley at the conference for ASOR in Denver (Nov. 14-17), Arav conceded this likely was not the case, but now he believes El-Araj was a Roman encampment from the 1st century.
Regardless of his belief, however, of this being an encampment, this would still place the “fishing village” of Et-Tel at over two kilometers away from the water, a trait that would be unique to it alone in comparison to all of the other 1st century fishing villages, which were located on the shoreline.
Similarly, to the first two seasons of excavations performed in 2016 and 2017, coinage of the 2nd century CE (and possibly the 1st century) were also found, disproving the speculation that there was no human presence at El-Araj in the Roman period.
Furthermore, excavations uncovered more of the previously identified portion of mosaic flooring with a white and black meander pattern still attached to its original plaster, which was similar to other mosaics known from first-century sites all around the lake.
Along with this, the discovery of clay ceramic vents, which are typical to Roman bathhouses which one can visibly see at multiple different 1st century sites throughout the land of Israel such as Masada, can be found littered around the sites excavations as well leading excavators to identify pure evidence of urbanization.
One of the most interesting finds of this season was a carved basalt block found almost by accident in secondary use in the debris of an Ottoman-era house belonging to a wealthy man named Abdul Rahman Pasha al-Yusuf. He owned the land during the 19th century before the fall of the Ottoman empire and the eventual transition of the land's ownership to Syrian and then later Israeli hands.
It is believed that this carved block may have been a piece of a glorious church that is once said to have been at the site during the 8th century, commemorating the homes of the Peter, Andrew, and Philip. However this claim has yet to be founded in evidence. Much hype was made about this stone directly following the digs (before official publications had been released) by the Israeli newspaper, Ha-Eretz. It published an article with the belief that this may have been a reliquary that held the bones of the apostles at the altar of the church — this claim has also yet to be proven, resting now as only a “possible suggestion.”
The excavations this year also made advances in the fields of social media. During the dig season, the archaeological team had the pleasure of hosting renowned YouTubers, “Sergio and Rhonda in Israel,” who filmed a full-length episode on location during the excavations for their thousands of subscribers and viewers to see exactly what history was being uncovered at the site this past summer (viewable here). This marks the first full-fledged media production of any type done in explaining the true significance, while giving first hand views and accounts of what is taking place at the site each and every archaeological season.
The excavations will continue June 14 to July 12 of 2019, with the expectation of uncovering more evidence for the Roman period settlement and the lost city of Jesus’ Apostles. We are also encouraging all those who are interested in participating in the upcoming 2019 dig season to contact us at the Center for Holy Lands Studies. Please note, that with this kind of discovery at our doorstep, it is expected the interest to participate will be great and the opportunities are limited.