Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. John 1:44
They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus. John 12:21
The story begins in the Hebrew Bible at the sea of Kinneret or Kinnerot, the freshwater lake in modern Israel that also was referred to in the Old and New Testaments and other biblical era writings as the Lake of Gennesaret, Sea of Ginosar, the Sea of Galilee and the Sea of Tiberias.
While the sea, whichever name you use, is easy to find today, Bethsaida Julius is not. Archeologists and historians have long thought that et-Tell, a site (Jordan Park) near where the Jordan River flows into the lake, is the location of the lost Bethsaida. However, Haaretz reports that Professor Mordechai Aviam of the Kinneret Academic College discovered a Roman-style bathhouse in August 2017 that is 2 km (1,25 miles) south of et-Tell in el-Araj that be believed at the time that this was the true location of ancient Bethsaida. Now he may have the proof.
Before finding the relic-holding stone, Aviam found the remains of “a richly endowed Byzantine-era church.” Even today, Byzantine churches contain elaborate reliquaries – containers built to hold the relics of saints or other holy people that are generally placed on the floor underneath the altar. Anaim believed the church was possibly the Church of the Apostles mentioned in Huneberc of Heidenheim: the Hodoeporicon of St. Willibald (or Willibrord), an eighth century Byzantine pilgrim St. Willibald, who wrote:
“Then they went to Bethsaida, the native place of Peter and Andrew. A church now occupies the site where their home once stood.”
What happened to Philip? St. Willibald doesn’t say, nor does Aviam. But the professor admits that the basalt reliquary with the three carved depressions was not found among the remains of the church but very close by.
“It was found in the debris of an Ottoman-era, two-story house built by a rich man from Damascus, who owned all the land locally in the late 19th century.”
It was close enough for Avaim to connect both the dots and the spots and declare that the reliquary with the three carved depressions was from the Church of the Apostles and makes it highly probable that el-Araj is the site of the biblical Bethsaida. To strengthen his theory, Aviam points to artifacts which indicate that el-Araj began in the first century BCE as a fishing village (the apostles were fishermen) and grew into a Roman urban center by the fourth century. At that point it was abandoned, possibly due to rising waters from the Sea of Galilee. Now, due to drought, the body of water is back to those ancient low levels and exposing the biblical sites once located around it.
Proof positive that the big basalt stone with three depressions was the reliquary of apostles Peter, Philip and Andrew? Not quite. Proof that el-Araj is the location of the biblical city of Bethsaida and the Church of the Apostles? Possibly.
An interesting set of discoveries that brings the tales of ancient religious books closer to reality? Definitely.