Thursday, August 11, 2022

A fifth-century inscription petitioning Peter

NEW EVIDENCE FOR BETHSAIDA: Archaeologists Find Entreaty to St. Peter in Early Church by Sea of Galilee. The mosaic more than 1,500 years old cites the church’s donor and a plea for intercession that shores up the case of el-Araj as Bethsaida and the basilica as the Church of the Apostles (Ruth Schuster, Haaretz).
For years, since discovering an ancient church at el-Araj, the archaeologists had dearly hoped to find a dedicatory inscription, as was typical of Byzantine churches. Now they have.

The inscription starts with “Constantine, the servant of Christ.” This refers to the donor to the church, in keeping with Byzantine tradition of dedicatory mosaics. It isn’t a reference to Constantine, the first Holy Roman emperor to embrace Christianity, the archaeologists explain.

Then comes the exciting bit: The inscription goes on to petition the “chief and commander of the heavenly apostles” for intercession, according to Prof. Leah Di Segni of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Prof. Jacob Ashkenazi of Kinneret College in the north.

This inscription provides important new evidence for the debate on the original site of the New Testament city of Bethsaida. The main contenders are this site, el-Araj, and another site called et-Tell/e-Tell. I have summarized the recent state of the question here. For a balanced account of the case for both sides, see the article, also by Ms. Schuster, linked to here. The article linked to here defends the identification with e-Tell.

This new inscription does not mention Peter by name, but apparently the title it uses was only used for him. That seems to clinch a connection between Peter and the church, offering considerable support for its identification as the Church of the Apostles.

That in turn strengthens the case that in the fifth century el-Araj was identified with Bethsaida.

Does that prove that it was Bethsaida? No. There are several centuries, apparently including a period of flooding and rebuilding, in which confusion about the location of the city could have arisen.

That said, the evidence for el-Araj being Bethsaida has been piling up. The site of e-Tell has not (so far) been producing counter evidence to outweigh it.

I have said before that the debate is likely to continue until we find a first-century inscription at one of the sites that says "Welcome to Bethsaida." This isn't it. But it appears to me (a non-archaeologist) that el-Araj is now the front-runner for identification with Bethsaida.

For background on the debate, which I have been following for years, start here and follow the links.

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