New Archeological Discovery: The Oldest Church in History?

I have been waiting to see whether any new facts came out about this discovery, but did not want the news to become stale. Archeologists have announced the discovery of what is perhaps the oldest church in the world, dating from the mid-second to early-third centuries The discovery is full of ironies. It was found by Israeli prisoners, but not in their own prison. They had been brought into a high-security prison to help clear the grounds for construction of a new prison ward. The high-security prison is home to terrorists from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The final irony is perhaps the site of the prison and the discovery: Megiddo, the biblical site of Armeggedon.

Leaving behind the irony of the find, what of its substance? The site is about the size of a tennis court with two mosaics taking up about half of that. To date, only about 10% of the church has been uncovered.

The first mosaic is well-preserved and black and white. It contains two images of a fish, an ancient Christian symbol. Here is a good picture. It contains an inscription which the Israeli Antiquities Authority has translated as stating, “Gaianos, also called Porphyrio, centurion, our brother, having sought honor, with his own money, has made this mosaic. Brouti has carried out the work.”

The second mosaic, a simple flower pattern, contains additional inscriptions. Here is a good picture. One inscription states, “The God-Loving Aketous has offered this table to the God Jesus Christ as a memorial.” Another inscription exhorts that four women be remembered: Frimilia, Kiriaka, Dorothea, and Karasta.

The mosaics are part of the reason that archeologists date the church to the mid-third to early-fourth centuries. Experts have dated the mosaics themselves to the third century. Additionally, the use of fish – an absence of a cross – is evidence of an early date. The fish was used by early Christians as a secretive symbol of their faith. The cross did not become a prominent Christian symbol until after Constantine’s conversion. The fact that the church is not in the shape of a basilica, the common form of churches in the fourth century, also points to an early date. Yotam Tepper, the lead archeology of the excavation, also stated that the pottery found in the church, the style of Greek writing in the inscriptions, and the style of the geometric patterns in the mosaic all point to a third century date. The use of a table instead of an altar, which became common in the Byzantine period, also points towards an early date.

There is some dissent, though by a few scholars who have not been to the site. Notably,the IAA and on-site archeologists were intially reluctant to describe the site as an early church, "but they said its inscribed dedications to community figures, mosaics of fish and specific mention of 'the God Jesus Christ' were proof it was a public building used in Christian worship -- the sort of structure archaeologists here had read about in historical texts but had never uncovered." A team of Italian researchers are scheduled to investigate the site and compare it to other Christian archeological discoveries.

Assuming the early date stands up, and the evidence presented so far is fairly persuasive, what is the significance of the discovery? Very high. Most of our evidence for early Christian beliefs and practices comes from literary evidence. This site could provide hard archeological insight into what it is early Christians believed and did, especially regarding their rituals and worship. As Dr. Tepper notes, “Normally we have from this period in our region historical evidence from literature, not archaeological evidence ... There is no structure you can compare it to. It is a unique find.”

Furthermore, the inscriptions themselves are highly significant. The reference to “God Jesus Christ” is yet more evidence of the high Christology of the early church. The fact that a Roman centurion was supportive of a Christian church suggests early and notable success among gentiles. The reference to five women as important figures in the early church is in line with evidence from Luke-Acts and Paul’s letters of the important role women played in early Christianity.

It also may reinforce the notion that though Christianity was officially outlawed, and oftentimes subject to harsh persecution, its condemnation was not universally applied. The church, if it dates as early as the IAA and archeologists believe, existed before the Edict of Milan (whereby Constantine legalized Christianity). However, given the size of the church and the blatant Christian symbols and inscriptions, it appears this group of Christians were permitted a rather public existence.

Finally, regarding the significance of the discovery, the reference to the “table” and its obvious place of prominence suggests the centrality of a common meal, likely the Lord’s Supper, to Christian meetings. That it is still described as a table suggests that it was a place where Christians partook of the Lord’s Supper as a common meal rather than being described as an altar wherefrom the Lord’s Supper would be served.

One issue that is still being worked out is just what to do with the site. It would be . . . somewhat awkward to erect a museum and what promises to be a significant tourist attraction within or even near a maximum security prison holding terrorists. On the other hand, moving the site would detract from its authenticity and be expensive.

It is a fascinating find that may prove to be one of the great archeological finds of the decade. I will keep my eyes open and provide updates as new information is provided.


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