Prisoners help Archaeologists to find 'oldest church'

Archaeologists have discovered what they believe to be the oldest Christian church in the Holy Land, dating back to the 3rd or 4th century. The find was at the most incongruous of sites — inside a high-security Israeli prison holding Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners near the biblical site of Armageddon, now Megiddo.

Israeli prisoners brought in from other jails to help out on a five-month exploratory dig found the first evidence of an important ancient place of worship three weeks ago, and finally uncovered the mosaic floor last week on a site earmarked by the prison for a new wing.

The ruins include a mosaic bearing the name of Jesus Christ in ancient Greek and images of fish, an ancient Christian symbol. The most significant is a well-preserved black and white mosaic for which the Israel Antiquities Authority has given the provisional translation: “The God-Loving Aketous has offered this table (altar) to the God Jesus Christ as a memorial.” The discovery will inevitably be subject to intense scrutiny.

But the team is excited by the discovery, which includes two other clear inscriptions. One refers to a Roman named Gaianos, believed to be a centurion, who “from his own money has made the mosaic”. “We knew that there were churches at this time but we didn’t know what they looked like,” said Yotam Tepper, the authority official heading the dig.

“In Israel for sure it is the earliest church we know.”

Mr Tepper’s team concedes that there is no inscription dating the site precisely, but dates a jug of wine and cooking pot to the late 3rd or early 4th century Roman period.

He believes the church dates from one of two periods between the middle of the 3rd century and start of the 4th when Christians were not persecuted by Romans.

His team insists that the 10m by 5m building is not a domestic dwelling, but does not belong to the later Byzantine period because there is no sign of a Cross and its shape is different from the basilica layout used then. Experts have also dated the mosaic to the 3rd century, they say.

However the Israel Antiquities Authority is likely to raise eyebrows by yesterday allowing journalists and camera crews to clamber over the site’s perimeter and outlying mosaics, even before outside experts have examined them.

Guard dogs barked furiously as the blue prison gates swung open to admit visitors to the 1,200-inmate jail, whose watchtowers lie beneath the ancient hill where the Book of Revelation prophesies the final battle between good and evil.

Sceptics question whether the construction is a church. These were banned until Constantine, the Roman Emperor, permitted the practice of Christianity early in the 4th century, reports Times Online. I.L.

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