|Click on images to see more detail.|
[Update 11/10/05: See the “Weblog Entries of Note” section for a translation and analyses of one of the main inscriptions found.]
[Update 08/29/06: Also see: Armageddon Church — The ancient Church of Megiddo prison, a compendium of resources, links, interviews and articles featuring nothing but this phenomenal find. Compiled by Shahar C., a PhD. student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Check it out.]
Imagine it’s October 30 and you’re breaking your back, sweating under a hot, Middle-Eastern desert sun with 60 men just like you. Under the watchful eye of other men with powerful guns and squinty eyes, you’re digging holes through asphalt, rock, and dirt, and clearing out the rubble for a new extension on the prison you call home. Suddenly, your shovel clinks against something hard in the sand. You’ve been told to watch for potsherds, coins, and other ancient trinkets … so you lean down and see it’s a tile. You brush away some dirt, and find another tile. Then another. And another.
As Maimon Biton said, “It was like finding a bag full of money!” Of course. Biton is a prisoner—serving time for theft. He would have to say that. The one who found the tiles, though, Ramil Razilo, took a more aesthetic view: “We continued to look and slowly we found this whole beautiful thing.”
If you’ve been conscious at all in the last century or so, you would know that every couple years or so a rock is hurled or a hole dug somewhere in the Middle East and some priceless archaeological treasure is unearthed. It happened to Muhammad Ahmed el-Hamed, in 1947, when he threw a rock in a cave and discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls. Now it’s happening to prisoner Ramil Razilo, serving two years for traffic violations—and also enjoying 15 minutes of fame. (Two years for traffic violations? What’d he do, drive a tank over a synagogue?)
Reports confirm that Razilo was “shocked.” He is only slightly less shocked, I am sure, than the archaeological community now nervously wondering, “Why are 50–60 untrained prisoners are uncovering the site?” Here’s why: The prison is in Megiddo (see map), near the valley of Tel Megiddo—the New Testament’s “Battle of Armageddon.” The prison was established by the Israeli Army in 1982 and currently holds about 1,200 high-security Palestinian inmates. (It’s not a good place for academics and archaeologists to be hanging out.)
Over a year ago, the Israel Prison Services took over the compound and began to convert the makeshift Army encampments into a real prison. Due to the historic, archaeological richness of Megiddo, exploratory digs conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority routinely precede each phase of the construction. And due to the high-security nature of the camp prison, some 50–60 Israeli prisoners were drafted to assist.
Since February all the prisoners and archaeologists found were some coins and crockery. Until this—and the tiles were found only two days before construction was to begin.
The Newest Oldest Church
Archaeologists now say this is the oldest known Christian church in all of Israel—and perhaps the oldest in the world. The church is old, very old. Details such as the table used in place of an altar (which came later in church history) and the writing embedded in tile (such as “sacred names”—abbreviations of the name of Christ) date the church construction at around the third century—likely a few decades before Constantine and the Edict of Milan (313 AD).
One clue that this church was built and used during the period of harsh persecution before Constantine and the Byzantine period are the fish symbols inlaid in the mosaic. The fish symbol was reportedly a way that early underground Christians could secretly identify each other—and it predates the use of the cross as a symbolic design in Christian art. (The crucifix becomes a symbol for Christianity only after Constantine. Prior to that, early Christian art in the hidden catacombs and house churches feature the empty tomb, the shepherd’s staff, and the fish.)
Why a fish? Perhaps it recalls the fish that Christ used to feed the multitudes. Tertullian is said to have connected the idea of water baptism to fish (“We little fishes are born by our Fish, Jesus Christ, in water and can thrive only by continuing in the water.”) But, more handily, “fish” in Greek is spelled: Î™Î§Î˜Î¥Î£ (transliterated as ichthus, icthus, or ikhthus) and also serves as an acrostic for the five words: Î™Î·ÏƒÎ¿Ï…Ï‚ Î§ÏÎ¹ÏƒÏ„Î¿Ï‚ Î˜ÎµÎ¿Ï‚ Î¥Î¹Î¿Ï‚ Î£Ï‰Ï„Î·Ï (“Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior”).
Legend has it that the stylized fish symbol served as a primitive covert “handshake.” When meeting in public, a Christian could casually form one half of the fish symbol with his staff or his toe (a short arc in the sand), and the other Christian could complete it from the other side. Additionally, the fish symbol could be etched on walls using stones as a way to “war-chalk” secret house-church meetings. (More at WikiPedia.)
Other clues helping date the church include potsherds, the style of Greek writing in the inscriptions, and peculiar geometric patterns used in the the mosaics. (However, there are no mosaic patterns from this time period in Israel to compare them to, so they will be compared with similar patterns from Antioch and Rome.) At the very least Yotam Tepper (the excavation’s top archaeologist, also named as “Yotam Tefer”) says the lack of other signs indicate this church was no longer being used by the fourth century—such as an altar in place of a table (the altar is a later development) and the style of the building (it is not in the Basilica style, which usually features colonnades, a central nave, and a rounded apse, and is typical of later development).
The tiled mosaic includes not only fish and geometric symbols, but it commemorates Akeptus (or “Aketous”, or “Ekeptos”), a woman who donated money to build the church; Porphyrio, a Roman officer who donated the money for the mosaic floor (“Gaianos, also called Porphyrio, centurion, our brother, having sought honor, with his own money, has made this mosaic. Brouti has carried out the work.”); and four other women are also commemorated on the eastern side. Akeptus is also commemorated for donating the table (“Akeptus, the devout, dedicated the table to God, Jesus Christ, as a memorial”). The table was probably used to commemorate the Last Supper as a common-meal (communion) table.
There isn’t much left of the church. Stephen Pfann, professor at the Holy Land University, thinks the church may have been purposefully destroyed due to the blatant use of Christ’s name, Christian symbols, and iconography. During a time when most believers were meeting secretly to avoid persecution, this church’s boldness and relative grandness could have led to its destruction (though it could have been built in the latter part of the third century, when persecution was not as fierce).
Joe Zias, anthropologist and ex-curator with the Israel Antiquities Authority disagrees. He thinks the building may have been in use in the third century, but he denies that there is any evidence that it was used as a church at that time. “My gut feeling is that we are looking at a Roman building that may have been converted to a church at a later date.” Zias has not seen the site, but other antiquities scholars agree with him, citing the lack of any evidence for formal public church buildings before Constantine made public Christian worship legal. Zias says further evidence for a later dating is the inscripting naming the Roman officer: “If I were a Roman soldier in the third century, I certainly wouldn’t want my name on [the church].… This would not have been a good career move. In fact, it sounds like the kiss of death.”
Prior to this find, the oldest known Christian churches date from around 330–370 AD. They include: the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem; the Nativity Church in Bethlehem; the Byzantine church built over the Tomb of the Patriarchs at Alonei Mamre near Hebron; the Dura-Europus house church in Syria, and the church in Ramle (c.f. Wash. Post).
So far, only an estimated 10 percent of the site has been uncovered. Next, attention will turn to what’s under the mosaic-tile floor—not just to see what’s there, but to create a more accurate time-line. Currently, no one is sure about what to do with the site. Separating it from the prison and creating a museum around it is problematic, but cheaper than digging it up and moving it. Yet, Israel would like to capitalize on the value of the find as a tourist attraction, and the Megiddo prison isn’t very “welcoming” for tourists. Tourism Minister Avraham Hirchson has his eye on the bottom line: “If we nurture this properly, then certainly there will be a large stream of tourists who could come to Israel. There is great potential and together with the evangelical center in the north could bring great strides in tourism.”
Always thinking, that Avraham. Always thinking.
Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican envoy to Jerusalem, agrees, “A discovery of this kind will make Israel more interesting to all Christians, for the church all over the world.” However, Sambi doesn’t stop there, he takes a broader, more theological view: “Of course, all the Christians are convinced of the history of Jesus Christ. … But is it extremely important to have archaeological proof of a church dedicated to him? Certainly.”
Here’s what I find interesting about the site.
- Even at such an early date for church-building, we have an example of lavishness not found in the surrounding community. Perhaps this was the first “megachurch” for its day?
- Women were honored for their role in the church community. One woman, alone, funded the building of the church and the donation of the communion table, and four other women are honored at another section of the church (foran as yet unknown reason). Maybe they were, or were not, ministers. But they were honored visibly and lavishly.
- The church is built around community, and communion appears to have been taken at a table, like a meal. In later churches the table becomes an altar where communion is served from, but at this date, it’s still a table with seats.
That said, we’ll likely never know whether this church represents the norm, the minority, or the heretical.
The Mosaic Inscription: Brandon Wason, classics student at California State University provides a helpful transcript and translation of the mosaic at the right (click on image for details):
|Î¤Î—ÎÎ¤Î¡Î‘Î Î•||Ï„á½´Î½ Ï„Ïá½±Ï€Îµ-|
|Î–Î‘ÎÎ˜Î©·Î™Î¥·Î§Î©||Î¶Î±Î½ Î˜[Îµ]á¿· · á¼¸[Î·ÏƒÎ¿]á¿¦ · Î§[ÏÎ¹ÏƒÏ„]á¿·|
Translation: “Akeptus, the devout, dedicated the table to God, Jesus Christ, as a memorial.” — Read more.
Great posts on the inscriptions from Phil Harland (Assistant Professor, Concordia University, Montreal):
- Updates regarding the Christian mosaic inscriptions and possible church at Megiddo
- Christian mosaics discovered at Megiddo prison
Online Media Consulted:
- National Geographic: photo gallery
- Associated Press: Archaeologists Unveil Ancient Church Site
- Haaretz: Prison dig reveals church that may be the oldest in the world
- YNetNews: Ruins of ‘oldest church’ uncovered
- Christian Today: Early Christian Church Unearthed In Israeli Prison
- Washington Post: Site May Be 3rd-Century Place of Christian Worship
- Kathimerini: Greek inscription in “oldest church”
- New York Times: Israeli Prisoners Dig Their Way to Early Christianity (login required)
- CTV: Dig uncovers ancient church on Israeli jail site
[tags]BlogRodent, Pentecostal, Evangelical, Alonei-Mamre, ancient-church, antiquities, archaeology, Armageddon, Associated-Press, Avraham-Hirchson, Battle-of-Armageddon, Byzantine-Empire, Christian-Today, Christianity, church, Church-of-the-Holy-Sepulcher, Constantine, Dead-Sea-Scrolls, Dura-Europus, Haaretz, Holy-Land, ichthus, icthus, ikhthus, Israel, Jesus-Christ, Joe-Zias, Kathimerini, Last-Supper, Maimon-Biton, Megiddo, Middle-East, mosaic, Muhammad-Ahmed-el-Hamed, National-Geographic, Nativity-Church, New-York-Times, October-30, Phil-Harland, Pietro-Sambi, Porphyrio, prison, Ramil-Razilo, Ramle, Stephen-Pfann, Tel-Megiddo, Tertullian, Washington-Post, YNetNews, Yotam-Tepper[/tags]