This week I was privileged to join the ranks of the very few who have had the opportunity to actually see, first hand, the mosaic floor of what may well prove to be the 'oldest known Christian Church'. For this I have to thank the VIP I was guiding and his well-connected hosts!!!
Some months ago the high security prison at Megiddo began clearing the ground prior to building a new wing and, following the Israeli law, called in archaeologists to supervise the excavation for the foundations. A mere few hundred meters from the prison is the ancient tel of Megiddo - a tel which has been well-excavated and its finds well-documented - so the possibility of archaeological finds was not remote.
Although Megiddo is first mentioned in the book of Joshua as one of the Canaanite kingdoms conquered by the Israelites (12:21), we are later told that the tribe of Menashe (Manasseh) "could not drive out the inhabitants of the city; but the Canaanites would dwell in the land" (Josh 17:11 and Judges 1:27). In the Song of Deborah (Judges 5) Megiddo is mentioned as an aside, to enhance our geographical knowledge of where Deborah and Barak fought Jabin and Sisera.
World renowned archaeologist Yigal Yadin identified the gate he excavated at Megiddo as that built by King Solomon over a hundred years later. (I Kings 9:15). A seal found during the excavation at Megiddo is inscribed as "belonging to Shema servant of Jeroboam", presumed to have ben the governor of Megiddo at the time of Jeroboam II, king of the northern Kingdom of Israel between 792 and 752 BCE.
In 610 BCE, (dated from external sources) when "Necho king of Egypt came up to fight against Charchemish by Euphrates: and Josiah, King of Judah,", ignoring Necho's message to remain uninvolved. "would not turn his face from him, but disguised himself that he might fight with him, and hearkened not unto the words of Necho ... and came to fight in the valley of Megiddo. And the archers shot at king Josiah; and the king said to his servants: Have away with me for I am sore wounded. ... They brought him to Jerusalem, and he died, and was buried in one of the sepulchres of his fathers. And all Judah and Jerusalem mourned for king Josiah. And Jeremiah lamented for Josiah". (II Chron. 35:20-25)
In external sources there are references to Megiddo which pre-date the narrative of the Hebrew scriptures. The first recorded mention of Megiddo is a hieroglyphic inscription found in an Egyptian temple. It records the Battle of Megiddo (in 1468 BCE) when Pharaoh Thutmose III defeated the alliance led by the king of Kadesh. Another inscription recalls the campaign of his son, Amenophis II. .
Megiddo is mentioned in one of the Acadian cuneiform letters found at Taanach written by an unnamed Egyptian general. Among as well as in the cuneiform tablets found at Tel el-Amarna are many from the vassal kings of Canaan, including Biridiya, king of Megiddo, during the 14th century BCE. Written to the Egyptian court of Amenhotep IV these letters provide interesting information about the conditions prevailing in the land of Canaan at that time.
The excavations at Tel Megiddo have revealed more than twenty strata dating from the Chalcolithic period five thousand years ago to the poorly documented Persian period in the 5th century BCE. Thereafter the tel was unoccupied. But not forgotten. Many Christian pilgrims climb to the top of the tel to look down at the Jezreel valley spread before them.
According to the prophecy revealed in the book of Revelation, written c 95 CE, it is in this valley, a desolate swamp till Jewish pioneers of the early 20th century restored it to its former agricultural splendour, that the battle at the end of days will take place. The valley "which is called in Hebrew Armageddon", is a corruption of 'Ir Megiddo', the town of Megiddo, or 'Har Megiddo', the mount of Megiddo. (16:16)
Thus far there is no mention of this prophecy in the church which is now being excavated and which has been dated to early 4th century CE or even to late 3rd century. This dating is partly based on the letters and the style of the three Greek inscriptions found on the large mosaic floor which has been exposed. The first is dedicated to four women, none of whom are known from any other source, such as the diaries and letters of early Christian pilgrims. "You must remember Primilla and Kyriake and Dorothea and also Chreste".
The second mosaic inscription is dedicated to a Roman army officer who donated money to build the 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." Prior to the acceptance of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine c 323 CE, when the first churches were supposedly built throughout the empire and in the Holy Land, early Christians were persecuted by pagan Rome so at first glance it would appear strange that a centurion of the Roman army would donate money publicly to a church before 323.
However, the persecution of early Christians was not constant and unrelenting. Gallienus officially allowed freedom of worship to the Christians c 260 and during the next forty years Christianity spread and thrived until Diocletian rescinded the edict introduced by Gallienus and renewed the persecutions. There is therefore a possibility that this church at Megiddo was built during this respite.
The third mosaic inscription is perhaps the most thought provoking. According to Prof. Leah di Segni of the Hebrew University, this reads: "The God-loving Aketous / Ekoptos has offered this table to , as a memorial to the God Jesus Christ ". The table was probably made of wood and no longer exists but the surprise is the mention of a table at all as it was thought that early rituals were conducted around an altar.
Even more surprising are the words "the God Jesus Christ" which, to the best of our knowledge, appear nowhere else in Christian literature where the reference is always to "Jesus, son of God" and which is certainly one of the earliest references to Jesus on a mosaic.
The first letters of the Greek word for fish, ichthus, were also the first letters of the words Jesus Christ and so fish became a secret symbol for early Christians to identify one another. Also reminiscent of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves the use of the fish is not unusual in Byzantine churches in the Holy Land and a well preserved example can be seen in the church at Tabgha, on the shores of the sea of Galilee.
The excavated area is about the size of two tennis courts and while it is clear that this is not a private residence, the architecture of the building has yet to be revealed. At this point it does not seem to have a central naive, columns or the rounded apse typical of Byzantine churches.
According to Yotam Tepper, the archaeologist in charge of the dig, it is not yet clear how or why the church was destroyed but from the time it was destroyed till the present nothing was built on top of it although there appear to be signs of later buildings in the immediate vicinity. Pottery remains found on the floor include a wine jug and a cooking pot which may have also been dated to the end of the 3rd century CE.
Surprisingly there is no mention of this church in any of the many known early pilgrim records nor was it mentioned by early church historians according to Yiska Harani an expert on early Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land. By the time of the first church council in Nicaea in 325 one of the participants was a bishop from a town near Megiddo, the archaeological remains of which have yet to be found. Perhaps they will be as this excavation expands.
Publication of the find has overwhelmed the Prison Authorities which has been inundated with requests to see the excavation says spokeswoman Orit Stelser. This is no simple matter as the excavation is within the walls of a high security prison, home to hundreds of prisoners who have been convicted of killing innocent people in terrorist attacks throughout Israel, including two in the immediate proximity of the Megiddo junction.
I doubt if there is any country in the world which would allow unhindered access to any prison let alone a high security one. It seems therefore that the general public will be able to view the Megiddo church excavation only when, and if, the prison is moved to another site.
Personally I have found it strange that there are people, mainly Christians, who consider that the discovery of this church will bring a renewed Christian interest in the Holy Land. From the Christian pilgrims I have guided in Israel I have learnt that actually being able to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, whether in the Galilee or in Jerusalem, is what makes a pilgrimage a unique spiritual experience. I am not sure that visiting an early Christian church, even the earliest known Christian church, in a place where there is no record of Jesus ever visiting, according to the gospels, can have the same impact.
So, to my Christian readers I say: Don't delay your pilgrimage till the prison has been moved!!!!!!
|© 2005 The Orthodox Scientific Educational Society
"Russia in colours" in Jerusalem