BY DAVID V BARRETT
PRISONERS clearing rubble on the site of a new prison wing have discovered what may be the oldest Christian church in Israel – if not the world.
The Vatican has joined archaeologists and politicians in hailing the find. But one detail of the find may overturn previous beliefs about the early Church.
Israeli prisoner Ramil Razilo, who is serving two years for traffic violations, was clearing rubble at the Megiddo highsecurity prison seven months ago when his shovel uncovered the edge of a mosaic.
The prison, six miles west of the town of Afula, on the road north of Tel Aviv, was being prepared to take Palestinian prisoners. After the initial discovery nearly 60 prisoners then spent months carefully uncovering the rest of the mosaic.
“We continued to look and slowly we found this beautiful thing,” said Mr Razilo. Archaeologists believe that the mosaics predate the Byzantine period, and are probably late third century or possibly early fourth century.
“Adiscovery of this kind will make Israel more interesting to all Christians, for the Church all over the world,” said Arch bishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican envoy to Jerusalem. “If it’s true that the church and the beautiful mosaics are from the third century, it would be one of the most ancient churches in the Middle East.” There are two mosaics covering the floor of the ancient church, which measures 33ft by 18ft. One is covered with fish, the early symbol for Christianity, superseded by the cross from the fourth century.
There are three inscriptions in Greek in the mosaic. The eastern one commemorates four women – Primilia, Kiraka, Dorothea and Crista – and the northern one mentions a Roman army officer, Gaianus, who donated the money to build the mosaic floor of the church.
Historically the most significant inscription is on the west of the mosaic. It praises a “God-loving” woman called Akeftos, who “donated this table to the God Jesus Christ in commemoration”.
The remains of a table were found between the two mosaics. It had previously been believed that early Christians celebrated the Last Supper around an altar rather than at a table.
The structure uncovered at the prison in Megiddo – possibly the biblical Armageddon, the place where St John the Divine wrote the final battle would take place – is a simple rectangle, without the eastfacing apse of later Byzantine churches.
Before the year AD 313 Christian rituals were illegal in the Roman Empire, and Christians had to meet in secret in catacombs or private houses. If the church can be dated to before this, it would be most unusual. “This was a time of persecution and in this way it is quite surprising that there would be such a blatant expression of Christ in a mosaic, but it may be the very reason why the church was destroyed,” said Prof Stephen Pfann of the Holy Land University.
The oldest churches previously known in the Holy Land, dating from around AD 330, are the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and Alonei Mamre near Hebron. In each case, little remains of the original churches, built by Emperor Constantine.
The shape of the church and the use of a table instead of an altar point to it being preByzantine. It has been suggested that the church might actually be a room for worship in a larger private dwelling, but Dr Yotam Tefer, chief archaeologist of the excavation, disputes that.
“It doesn’t look like a private church, it looks like a public place of worship with the name of Jesus Christ in the floor,” he said. “But it doesn’t look like the churches we know of from the early Christian period. It doesn’t have the basilica structure that we know of from that time. This is a structure that’s older.” He continued: “What’s clear today is that it’s the oldest archaeological remains of a church in Israel, maybe even in the entire region. Whether in the entire world, it’s still too early to say.” Syria and Jordan, which both have third-century Christian sites, would contest that claim.
The Megiddo area is rich in archaeological finds, but “Christian religious buildings from that period are rare archeological finds in the land of Israel,” said Dr Tefer.
“Mosaics in general and mosaics with inscriptions from the third and fourth centuries AD in particular, are the rarest of all. Moreover, this unique structure is important for a basic understanding of Christianity.” Another academic, Professor Leah Di Segni of the Hebrew University, confirmed the late-third to early-fourthcentury dating, but said that more accurate dating of the church would depend on excavation beneath the floor.
“The problem is that in Israel we have no mosaic inscriptions from this period, and they will have to be compared with inscriptions from Antioch or Rome,” she said.