Archaeologists have unearthed what they believed to be the ancient Roman city of Julias, which was said to be the home of Jesus' apostles Peter, Andrew and Philip.
A multi-layered site on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, in the Bethsaida Valley Nature Reserve, is believed to be the site of the ancient city.
Dr. Mordechai Aviam of Kinneret College said that the key discovery was that of an advanced Roman-style bathhouse, which indicates that there had been a city there, not just a fishing village.
According to Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the Jewish monarch King Philip Herod, son of the great vassal King Herod, transformed Bethsaida, which was once a Jewish fishing village, into a proper Roman city. However, it is not clear whether it was built on Bethsaida or by it.
The city was renamed "Julias" after Livia Drusilla, who later became known as Julia Augusta after marriage.
"Josephus reported that the king had upgraded Bethsaida from a village into a polis, a proper city," Aviam told Haaretz.
"He didn't say it had been built on or beside or underneath it. And indeed, all this time, we have not known where it was. But the bathhouse attests to the existence of urban culture," he added.
The New Testament mentions Bethsaida as the home of at least three apostles — Peter, Andrew and Philip. Many scholars have engaged in efforts to identify its location due to its importance to the Christian world.
Archaeologists have also considered three sites as candidates for the city of Julias. The team believes that the site called el-Araj, at the delta of the River Jordan on the northern shore of the Sea of Gaililee, is the strongest candidate due to the discovery of the bathhouse and other Roman-era remains below the Byzantine ruins. The other candidates are two nearby sites by the lake.
Below the Byzantine level, the archaeologists found an older layer dating from the late Roman period, the first to third centuries A.D. Among the items found in the Roman layer were pottery sherds from the first to third centuries B.C., as well as the remains of the bathhouse. The team also found two coins — a bronze coin from the late second century and a silver denarius featuring Emperor Nero from the year 65–66 A.D.
The excavators also found walls with gilded glass tesserae for a mosaic, which may be an indication of a wealthy and important church. Willibald, the bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria, described his visit to a church in Bethsaida that was said to be built over the house of Peter and Andrew when he traveled to the Holy Land in 725 A.D. The archaeologists believe that the current excavations may have unearthed evidence for that church.
Aviam noted that another key evidence discovered in the excavation is that the Roman layer is located at a depth of about 212 meters below sea level.
"In the past, researchers claimed that the Kinneret was at that era about 209 meters below sea level, and therefore Bethsaida, located at the Jordan Park, would have been 3 meters below the water of the Kinneret," Aviam explained.
"The finds in the excavation indicate that the Kinneret was probably lower than previously claimed," he added.
After extensive study, geologists Prof. Noam Greenbaum from Haifa University and Dr. Nati Bergman from the Yigal Alon Kinneret Limnological Laboratory, concluded that the site was covered with mud and clay that were carried by the Jordan River in the late Roman period, which corresponds to a gap in material remains from about 250 A.D. to 350 A.D. According to the archaeologists, the site was later resettled during the Byzantine period.