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Sacred Heart Bethsaida archeological expedition lands in Holy Land

Five Sacred Heart School of Theology (SHST) seminarians have arrived in Israel to take part in an archeological expedition at Bethsaida with the aim of gaining new insights about the cultural context of Jesus' ministry. The trip will be an annual event.

Anyone interested can follow the action daily as the team posts updates, discoveries, reflections and photos to a Facebook page.

Bethsaida is a key site in Jesus’ ministry. It is the most frequently mentioned city in the Gospels after Jerusalem and Capernaum. Bethsaida was the hometown of the apostles Peter, Andrew, and Philip, in the Gospel according to John. In addition, a major city occupied the site during the 9th-8th centuries BCE and was re-founded in the Hellenistic period. So the excavation is improving understanding of the Old Testament.

The seminary’s vice president for academic affairs, Dr. Patrick Russell, is leading the expedition. He is joined by the rector, Msgr. Ross Shecterle.
Russell said, “The opportunity to be at this site and place our hands on the soil trod 2,000 years ago is as spiritually inspiring as it is academically satisfying. The dirt under our fingernails may be the very dirt that clung to Jesus’ sandals.”

While in Israel the team will also visit Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, Jericho, and other sites.

SHST alumni, seminarians from other seminaries, and other volunteers may apply to join the expedition team in 2014 or beyond. More information is available at by contacting SHST at Six graduate credits are available.

Seminarians currently participating are: Paul Bonk of the Diocese of Springfield, Ill.; Willy Fernandez of the Archdiocese of Louisville; Jose Mario Nieto of the Community of St. Paul in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee; David Orsak of the Diocese of Memphis; Joseph Vu, a seminarian for the Priests of the Sacred Heart; and Br. Nick Zimmerman of St. Benedict’s Abbey.

SHST is the only Roman Catholic seminary in the United States sponsoring an archeological dig in the Holy Land. SHST is a member of Bethsaida Excavations Project, a consortium of universities that have been studying the site since 1991. Membership in the project consortium means Sacred Heart’s Scripture professors are part of a community of scholars working to interpret the significance of the dig’s findings, as they both contribute their own insights and learn from the work of peers across the United States and internationally. The seminary’s Scripture faculty will have first access to data from the dig, prior to publication.

Russell participated in the excavation during the summer of 2012, alongside Dr. Rami Arav of the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), the consortium’s director of excavations and research.

For many years biblical scholars referred to the dig site as et-Tell. In 1987, largely through the work of noted archaeologist and author Rev. Bargil Pixner, OSB, scholars reached a consensus establishing the site as the Bethsaida mentioned in the Gospels. The site’s Old Testament significance is that it is connected to the story of King David. Its 8th century BCE gate complex is the largest in the region.

The Israeli base of operations for the team is Kibbutz Ginosar on the Sea of Galilee.

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