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Archaeological dig finds Byzantine link to birthplace of the apostles

19 August 2022

Achia Kohn-Tavor/Hebrew University, Jerusalem

The inscription in the mosaic floor

The inscription in the mosaic floor

ARCHAEOLOGISTS believe that they have discovered the lost Byzantine “Church of the Apostles”, said to mark the birthplace in Galilee of St Peter and St Andrew.

Working on the remains of a substantial fifth-century basilica, the archaeologists uncovered a mosaic inscription in Greek, containing an invocation of “the chief and commander of the heavenly apostles”: a title reserved solely for St Peter by Christians in the Byzantine period. The experts believe that the church could have been built over the house where the apostles were born, four centuries earlier.

The church is at el-Araj, on the north-eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, one of three sites in the Holy Land which are said to be Bethsaida, the birthplace of Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, and a third apostle, Philip. In St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus performed the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 near by.

The archaeologists from the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archeology, in Israel, and Nyack College, New York, have spent six years examining the site. The church was first unearthed in 2019, and they have previously found evidence of first-century Roman occupation. They say that that fits with the records of the settlement of Bethsaida, which was originally the Roman town Julias, named after the daughter of the Emperor Augustus.

In the eighth century, St Willibald, a German bishop, reported visiting a site known as “the Church of the Apostles” as he travelled from the fishing village of Capernaum near by. He did not give the exact location, but recorded that it was at “Bethsaida from which came Peter and Andrew. There is now a church where previously was their house.”

Excavations are due to resume in October, with the aim of clearing the entire church and finding more inscriptions, some possibly relating to St Andrew.

The dedication, framed in a round medallion of black tesserae, was part of the mosaic floor in the sacristy, which was decorated with floral and geometric patterns in the Byzantine style.

“This is clear evidence that the site we’re excavating is the church referred to by St Willibald as the church built over the house of St Peter and Andrew,” the academic director of the dig, Dr R. Steven Notley, from Nyack College, said. “This discovery is our strongest indicator that the basilica had a special association with St Peter, and it was likely dedicated to him. Since Byzantine Christian tradition routinely identified Peter and Andrew’s home in Bethsaida, it seems likely that the basilica commemorates their home.”

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