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Why El Araj?​

An interview on site with the Academic Director of the @el..araj dig, Dr. R. Steven Notley. 

Sergio and Rhoda in Israel 

The True Location of Bethsaida

There are two proposed locations for Bethsaida, the city which Jesus cursed. In this episode, we join an exciting archaeological dig with Dr. Steven Notley, a professor of Biblical Studies, who believes this site of El-Araj to be the true location of Bethsaida Julias.


Season 2, Episode 4.


*Credits: Map footages are taken from Google Maps.

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From the Lanier Theological Library

Lecture by Steven Notley - April 13, 2019


"Has Bethsaida-Julias Finally Been Found?”

For the last 30 years, archaeologists working on the site of et-Tell, north of the Sea of Galilee, have identified it with New Testament Bethsaida. However, its remote distance (1.5 miles) from the lakeshore makes it an odd location for a fishing village. Since 2016, archaeologists including Notley have excavated el-Araj. In August 2017, headlines announced that Bethsaida, the home of Peter, Andrew and Philip (John 1:44) had finally been found at el-Araj. This lecture considers the method by which ancient sites are identified. Steven presents findings from the first three seasons of the El- Araj Excavation Project, which may have finally found evidence for Herod Philip's urbanization of this New Testament era fishing village, transforming it into a Jewish polis. 






The Byzantine Church of the Apostles 

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The Reliquary of Jesus's Apostles


The Lost Home of the Apostles 


JOURNAL FOR NEAR EASTERN ARCHAEOLOGY: R. Steven Notley, "Et Tell is not Bethsaida,"




The Church of the Apostles Discovered at Bethsaida

New discoveries strengthen the identification of first-century Bethsaida-Julias at el-Araj


Beit Habek, Israel, July 2019.During the fourth season of archaeological excavations at the site of Beit Habek (el-Araj), near the Jordan River estuary on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, a large church from the Byzantine period was unearthed. The excavators have identified it with the Church of the Apostles visited by a Bavarian bishop named Willibald in 725 C.E.  He described his journey in which he traveled around the Sea of Galilee visiting Tiberias, Magdala, Capernaum and Kursi. On his way, he passed through a place called Bethsaida where he saw a basilica built over the house of Peter and Andrew. These two brothers were numbered among the first disciples of Jesus. The New Testament records that they came from the village of Bethsaida, which in the first century was located on the lakeshore and today is in the Beteiha Valley Nature Reserve. 


Thus far, only the southern rooms of the church have been excavated.  The church belonged to a monastery complex. It had ornate mosaic floors, some of which are well preserved. A fragment of the marble chancel screen, decorated with a wreath, was found, as well as glass tesserae gilded in gold that belonged to a wall mosaic. These decorative elements testify to a large and magnificent church.


The excavation was conducted by the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archeology in the Kinneret College, headed by Prof. Mordechai Aviam in collaboration with Prof. R. Steven Notley with the Center for the Study of Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins and Nyack College in New York, and under the auspices of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Students from both institutions and volunteers participated in the excavation.


This discovery strengthens the possible identification of the village of Bethsaida at the site of el-Araj. In addition, this year the excavators demonstrated that the ancient Jewish village, which was re-founded by the Jewish tetrarch Herod Philip as a polis and re-named Julias, had spread over a very large area. The remains of a private house from the Roman period were excavated 100 meters from the main excavation area. Finds from the house dated from the first to the third centuries CE included pottery, coins, fishing net weights, and a cooking oven. A geophysical study was conducted in the vicinity, using electromagnetic sensors operated on the ground and from a drone by the Terralog Innovation Company.  The results indicate that there are many houses buried under the erosion of the delta of the Jordan River.


In addition to these important discoveries, a hoard of twenty Ottoman silver coins and five French gold coins was found under the concrete floor of the “Bek's House.” The house was built in the 19thcentury by Abdul Rahim Bek, a very wealthy landlord who owned the entire Beteiha Valley and part of the Golan. Apparently, the coins were a “foundation cache” placed under the floor for good luck. 


For more information, contact Dr. R. Steven Notley: (tel.) 845-300-5797, (email) notley@gmail.com.



The third season of excavations has been completed at Khirbet el-Araj (Beit ha-Bek) on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  New discoveries have come to light, which strengthen its identification with the ancient Jewish fishing village of Bethsaida.  The city is mentioned in the New Testament as the home of the Apostles: Peter, Andrew, and Philip (John 1:44).


The excavation is being conducted on behalf of the Institute for Galilean Archeology at Kinneret College and the Israel Antiquities Authority, under the direction of Dr. Mordechai Aviam, in collaboration with Dr. R. Steven Notley from Nyack College, New York, who serves as the excavation’s academic director.  This season hosted over 80 students and volunteers.  Among the participants were faculty, staff, and students from Nyack College, students from Kinneret College, and others from the United States, Hong Kong, and Brazil.


Last year unearthed mosaics from a Roman bathhouse, the first material evidence that the site was settled in the Roman period. The discovery challenged previous assumptions that the lake covered the entire area under two meters of water in the Roman period, and that el Araj was settled only later in the Byzantine period. Dr. Rami Arav had previously theorized that a lagoon extended inland to the vicinity of the Jordan Park, where he has excavated over the last 30 years attempting to identify Bethsaida with the site of et-Tel. However, the results of the current excavations have left no doubt that the lake did not extend inland to et-Tell, leaving el-Araj on the lakeshore and therefore the leading candidate for the site of Bethsaida-Julias.

This season the previously excavated Roman stratum at el Araj was expanded. The most important finds were from a newly excavated area about 50 meters east of the Roman bathhouse discovered last year.  At a depth of 3 meters below the surface and 211 meters below sea level, remains of buildings from the Roman period were unearthed.  These findings indicate that el Araj was, in fact, a large settlement and not merely a single bathhouse on the shore of the lake as some have claimed.

Among other discoveries, the new area has also yielded many fragments from oil lamps, including a knife-pared Herodian oil lamp. This type of lamp was produced in Jerusalem from the days of the Second Temple period. It appears primarily in Jewish settlements and points to an early Jewish presence at el Araj.  In addition, red fresco fragments were found, indicating luxurious buildings of private or public space.  Also, in several excavated areas, many lead weights for fishing nets were found. These are characteristic of the fishing communities surrounding the lake. The excavated area where the Roman bathhouse was discovered last year was widened, finding many fired bricks, both square and hollow (tubuli) typical to Roman baths, fragments of marble, and large chunks of mosaic reinforced with a thick layer of cement. A massive square built structure was also unearthed, which could be part of the bathhouse. The assemblage of pottery and coins clearly dates the settlement to the Roman period from the first century to the beginning of the fourth century CE.


After the abandonment of the settlement in the late Roman period the site was covered by floods from the Jordan River and water streams east of el Araj. In the Byzantine period a building complex was erected that may have included a church. This is affirmed by architectural elements typical of a church that have been discovered at the site. These finds correspond to the testimony of a Christian pilgrim by the name of Willibald who passed this area in 725 CE.  He states that he visited a church at Bethsaida that stood over the house of Peter and Andrew. One unusual and interesting artifact was discovered this season. It was not found in situ but was in secondary usage as part the Ottoman building that once stood on the site. It is a large block of basalt, weighing some 300 kgs. with three smoothly carved depressions. It might have been used as a reliquary in a church, perhaps the church described by Willibald. If so, it may have held the relics of the Apostles under the altar.

The findings from the excavation continue to indicate that the water level of the Sea of Galilee in the New Testament period was much lower than previously thought, perhaps comparable to the level of today, approximately 215 meters below sea level, which some geologists have already suggested. In the next season, the excavators will deepen the excavated area exposing more layers from the Roman settlement, and open additional areas to understand the extent of the settlement. In addition to the historical and archeological evidence for a church at Bethsaida in the Byzantine period, there is increasing evidence of a possible synagogue. Two capitals unearthed resemble those found in use in other early Roman synagogues.  Last winter a basalt lioness was discovered at el Araj. In almost all instances the decoration of lions in the

Only further excavations can determine this tantalizing possibility.


Plans are already in the works to expand the excavation in the summer of 2019!


Look out for more information and be sure to join us!


Submitted by  Dr. R. Steven Notley



The 2017 season of excavations has concluded at El Araj (Beit Habek). Under the direction of archaeologist, Dr. Mordechai Aviam from the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology and staff, American and Hong Kong participants have completed season two of archaeological investigations that have brought to light discoveries that will likely change the history of the lake of Galilee and shed new light on the location of Bethsaida-Julias (cf. Ant. 18:26-28). This season was made possible by generous donations from the Assembly of God’s Center for the Holy Lands Studies (CHLS), The Center for the Study of Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins (CSAJCO), Nyack College, and HaDavar Yeshiva (Hong Kong).


Week 2 started after the Sabbath on Sunday, July 9th and concluded on Thursday, July 13th. Work in the new square started during this season continued to uncover Crusader period (12th century CE) remains of a sugar factory and began to make way into the Byzantine period (4th – 7th century CE) layer with the discovery of pottery and a single coin. Work in Area B, which had remained untouched from season one, commenced once again.


The last five days of the dig focused more closely on several loci that had reached beneath the Byzantine layer and where 30 coins were discovered in the previous week. Beneath this layer, the discovery of coins ceased, and continued digging began to uncover Roman period pottery (1st-3rd century CE). The absence of any Byzantine related finds indicates that we were now clearly in the Roman period. In square 2 (the middle, eastern square) of these loci, a layer of collapsed stones was discovered under which the first Roman coin was uncovered along with continued layers of non-eroded, sharped-edged pottery dating between the Roman and Early Bronze (3rd millennium BCE) periods continued to surface. This layer of Roman pottery included the complete rim of a jug, handles, and chunks of white plaster. Significantly, within these layers—in both squares—were portions of Roman period bricks from a public structure.


This complemented what were perhaps the most impressive find. From the first (westernmost) square an intact Roman brick was uncovered. Evidence for Roman opulence was punctuated by over 20 tesserae still joined together by plaster (pictured above). The white mosaic seems to be part of a collapsed layer that landed on large ashlars. Shortly after the mosaic was removed another large portion of mosaic was discovered. After the cleaning of the mosaic by restoration specialist Yeshu Dray (see the synagogue at Um El Kanatir), it was clear that the mosaics have a black and white meander pattern. This style of mosaic is already attested in the first-century synagogue discovered at Magdala. The additional discovery of a broken clay tubules confirm that we have uncovered the area of a Roman period bathhouse. The tubules were used in a caladarium where a hypocaust system would send heat up the walls and under floor tiles creating a sauna-like affect when water was poured on the tiles. This is a sign in the Roman world of both wealth and luxury. It is rare to have such a discovery in a Galilean village that sits on the shores of the lake and is dated to the Roman period (See Franciscan Magdala). This discovery brings to an end the suggestion that pre-Byzantine archeological remains at El Araj washed down from the northern site of Et Tell. A Roman period bathhouse not only indicates the appearance of a structure but, more importantly, the investment of a considerable amount of wealth on the site.  This may well be the initial evidence of the remains of Bethsaida—Julias, the Greco-Roman polis that Herod Philipp founded at Bethsaida in 30/31 CE.


The discovery of Roman pottery that was not eroded by water at a level of more than 211 m (almost 700 ft) below sea level has challenged what scholars previously thought was the level of the lake in Roman period. Recent discoveries of mooring stones at Magdala had previously set the level at 208 m (645 ft.) below sea level. Our discovery of Roman period mosaics at -211 m (654 ft._ below sea level have completely reset our understanding of the level of the lake in the Roman period by a depth of more than 3 m (a little over 9 feet). Quite literally, our geographical understanding of the Sea of Galilee in the first century CE must now be rewritten in light of this season’s results.

Our mornings were followed by afternoon lectures. Dr. Danny Syon’s lecture on coins suggested the importance of coinage distribution as an ethnic marker in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Dr. Uzi Leibner’s excavations of a Byzantine synagogue, near modern day Migdal and Mt. Nitai consisted of elaborate fresco and mosaic decorations and led to some discussion whether a Roman synagogue is beneath it. Field trips to Sepphoris and the remains of the lower and upper city allowed the participants to view a first-century village in the western lower Galilee that was distinguished by both Jewish (e.g. ritual immersion baths) and Greek (e.g. theater) elements. Sepphoris was the capital of the Galilee during time of Jesus’ youth and was close enough to Nazareth that Joseph, an artisan (Matt 13:55), would could have found work there. Pottery washing and reading uncovered some unique finds including more Crusader period sugar vessels, a figurine of a horse with a snake as a mane, and several Roman period handles, bases, and rims. Furthermore, scientific cleaning of the coin after the dig will provide additional details and dates to the structures already discovered. 


Several things continue to distinguish El Araj’s excavations from others occurring in Israel. One, outside of Jerusalem, these are the only excavations that are directly connected with Jesus and his apostles. While the excavations at Magdala are important, and Jesus would have likely visited the fishing village (cf. Matt 4:23), Bethsaida is explicitly mentioned in the Gospels as part of Jesus’ ministry and is home to at least two of his disciples, Peter and Andrew (John 1:44). Second, our excavations are resetting the level of the lake in the Roman period and lowering it by more than 9 ft. This has implications for our understanding of the Sea of Galilee as a setting for Jesus’ life and ministry.  Finally, the discovery of a Roman bathhouse indicates that we are not simply within the confines of a first-century fishing village, but brings to the light the identification of Julias, given to the city of Bethsaida in honor of Livia, the mother of Augustus Tiberias, when it became a polis.


Plans are already in the works to expand the excavation in the summer of 2018!


Look out for more information and be sure to join us!


Submitted by Dr. Jeffrey P. García and Dr. R. Steven Notley




In May 2014 a team of professors and 85 students from North Central University, along with Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee, the Institute for Galilean Archaeology, and the Center for Holy Lands Studies, began an archaeological survey of el-Araj. During the initial shovel testing and land survey the students found pottery, architectural fragments from public buildings (possibly a synagogue) and pieces of mosaic tiles – all of which encourages additional research. At the conclusion of the five-day shovel survey, Dr. Mordechi Aviam, founder of the Institute for Galilean Archaeology and senior lecturer at Kinneret College, noted, "The results are very clear that we have pottery from the late Hellenistic period (the second century B.C.), Early Roman pottery from the first century, and even Byzantine pottery from the fifth and sixth centuries. We also found architectural fragments that were made of both limestone and basalt, which are typical of large public buildings like a synagogue." 


Marc Turnage says, "We now know that el-Araj was an ancient site that began at least during the late Hellenistic period with settlement in the Early Roman period (time of Jesus), and continued to the Byzantine period. El-Araj is indeed a possible site for New Testament Bethsaida, but we will only know with a full excavation." 


In July 2016 another consortium of colleges and international students set foot on el-Araj and began a formal excavation of the site. Nyack College was the sponsoring institution of the excavation and Dr. Steven Notley was the leader of a group of Nyack students, laypersons and international participants to Israel for two weeks of excavation work at el-Araj. Marc Turnage represented a team of students associated with the Center for Holy Land Studies. A review of the 2016 excavation results can be found in the The El-Araj Excavation Project link.