Once you get past the big three of Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem, there are hundreds of places mentioned in the Bible that may or may not still exist today. An interesting one is Julias, which was referred to as the birthplace of three apostles in the Bible and by historian Josephus Flavius. The correction of an error in calculations of the level of the Sea of Galilee during Roman times led archeologists recently to a spot in the upper Jordan Valley where they found a Roman-style bathhouse that indicated a city was around it. The discovery is both exciting and controversial.
As reported by the Israeli news source Haaretz, excavations led by archeologist Dr. Mordechai Aviam, head of the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archeology at Kinneret Academic College have been underway for some time in the Bethsaida Valley Nature Reserve. According to Flavius, Bethsaida was a fishing village that was turned into a modern Roman city by King Philip Herod, son of the King Herod of biblical infamy, and renamed Julias in honor of Julia Augusta (formerly Livia Drusilla), wife of Emperor Augustus, mother of Emperor Tiberius and great-grandmother of Caligula and great-great-grandmother of Nero.
The site is one of three that archeologists have argued about as the location of Julias. This one was already identified as a historical site from the later Byzantine empire, but archeologists found pottery and mosaic fragments and the telltale bathhouse just two meters below the Byzantine layer. Further digging uncovered a silver coin from the time of Nero (65-66 CE), but supporters of the other two sites want more proof.
The Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake of Gennesaret or Lake Tiberias, is the lowest freshwater lake on Earth, listed at levels between 215 meters (705 ft) and 209 meters (686 ft) below sea level. It was erroneously believed that the Lake was at 209 meters below sea level during the time of Julias but that would have put it underwater which it’s now apparent it was not. New calculations put it at 211 meters below sea level during the Roman period.
The site is of interest to both historians and biblical scholars. It is mentioned in the gospel of John as being the home of apostles Philip, Andrew and Peter. If it’s the real Julias/Bethsaida, it’s also the location of a famous church mentioned by Willibald, the bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria, who wrote that he visited a church built over the house of Peter and Andrew in 725 CE. More excavation might also explain the disappearance of the city, which was believed to have occurred during the late Roman period when flooding of the Jordan River may have buried it in mud and clay.
If you’re playing “Lost Cities Found” bingo at home, you can’t put a marker on Julias just yet. While’s he fairly confident, Dr. Aviam says his team will continue to excavate the area for more definitive proof.